The voice. If you heard it once, you never forgot. So distinctive was its smoky, sexual growl, you could pick it out of a lineup.
Its owner, Lauren Bacall, wrapped it around words, controlling them, making them slightly dangerous, making them do her bidding, along with the men, and it was usually men, who were hanging on to each one.
But Bacall, who died Tuesday at the grand old age of 89, was so much more than the voice. And more than an actress, she was a symbol of the kind of woman that postwar 1950s-era housewives would dream of becoming — and that the feminist movement would lionize. Intelligent, independent and, yes, a sexual being. But one in charge.
She was a spitfire from the start.
At 5 feet 8½ inches, she was taller than the other young women making names in the movie business in the 1940s and ’50s. She had an elegant, high-end style that made her a photographer’s favorite long before paparazzi became a bad word. But she wasn’t a classic beauty — those cheekbones, those come-hither eyes, the sense of entitlement that she radiated on screen made her seem dangerous, too hot to handle long before Hollywood tried, and failed, to handle her.
On screen, even after all these years, Bacall is still best known for her first film and her first husband. She was just 19 and Humphrey Bogart 44 when they began filming “To Have and Have Not.” Soon they were Bogie and Bacall, married not long after, and iconic almost immediately, whether they wanted to be or not. It was a great love, the kind that, well, they made movies about. His death at 57 of cancer did not end the romance or, at least, the public’s fascination with it.
For all the incredible poise and presence she brought in that first 1944 film, and the others she would do with Bogie before he died, Bacall registered immediately as a fierce woman in a time when that quality wasn’t highly valued in Hollywood. Alongside Bogart, she would protest the House Un-American Activities Committee’s targeting of actors. In the business, it marked her as difficult.
That she had a string of hits by the time she was 30, including “The Big Sleep” and “Key Largo,” should have ensured her marquee status. But it did not. In the years after Bogart’s death, there were a few notable films, including “North West Frontier,” but by the ’60s she was more often taking guest spots on TV series, such as “Dr. Kildare.”
For years, Broadway would claim her, as the Great White Way has a habit of embracing difficult women. There Bacall would prove her acting mettle, winning a Tony for “Applause” in 1970, which would turn into an Emmy-nominated TV movie a few years later with its “All About Eve” story line. In 1981, she again won a Tony, for “Woman of the Year,” a role Katharine Hepburn, another iconic actress, had put her stamp on.