The brief [March 1986] said: photographic session in the Presidential Suite, followed by lunch with Miss Bacall. The omens were not good: there was a delay while a barber got Miss Bacall’s hair right; bald, bearded Warren Mitchell, dashing in red T-shirt, denim shorts and sandshoes, inquired plaintively at large: ‘Do they serve dinner while we wait for the lifts?’ and Miss Bacall winced when we shook hands.
A Bacall interview is bound to be difficult: she naturally wants to give her play a bit of a shove, and Humphrey Bogart, after all, has been sadly dead these twenty-nine years, come Tuesday. On the other hand, her name is still, if perhaps wrongly, inextricably linked with his, and the humble seeker after truth and, one hopes, the readers, who after all only know her from the cinema, are interested in other things, too. Such as: the effect on Miss Bacall’s career, for good or ill, of being Mrs Humphrey DeForest Bogart; and how she sees that confusing phenomenon, the Bogart cult.
It’s nice to be able to report that her fabled bone structure has left her hardly less strikingly handsome at sixty-one than she was at eighteen. She wore a Turnbull and Asser shirt in pale green, nicely matching her pale blue-green eyes, white cotton slacks, white tights, white sandals, four rings, some bangles and a gold chain. One ibis-like leg lay athwart the other knee. In 1944, the Brothers Warner said she was 114 pounds and 5ft 6 1/2 ins; she says she is now about 5ft 7 1/2, and about 140 pounds.
Miss Bacall is a valuable property, and takes some care to protect it. She had veto rights on the pictures and told photographer Peter Solness she’d just as soon be shot from above. She was in jet lag, and a wiser interviewer would have handled her with great care, if not tongs: she seemed suspicious, prickly, intimidatory, a little muddleheaded, but resolute to control the interview. She had no doubt a similar impression of the interviewer.
There were a few laughs, but mostly Miss Bacall had me on the ropes, groggy; it will not surprise that the transcript turned out, in its way, to be an hilarious melange of cross purposes. But she did, in the end, accept the crucial questions…
‘What Im interested in…’ I began, but Miss Bacall whipped in: ‘I think we ought to talk about the play. Look, I feel I’ve talked enough about my life to last everyone. I really want to talk about Sweet Bird of Youth. That’s why I flew all this way…’
Well, then: Tennessee Wilhams, the author of the play, had his problems: his A Streetcar Named Desire was cleared, no doubt reluctantly, by Australian Customs officers in 1950; in 1983, while under the influence of a barbiturate, he choked to death on a plastic cap. His plays are sombre, saved by the jokes. Sweet Bird of Youth, which opens in Sydney on Saturday, 25 January and goes on to Adelaide, Brisbane and Melbourne, describes these amazing scenes: a youthful fancy man, momentarily engaged for stud services by aging film star Miss Alexandra Del Lago (Bacall), returns to his home town, whence he had fled after poxing the daughter of the local, and almost comically racist, political boss. Under threat of instant castration, he hopes to elope with the young lady, who has meanwhile been rendered infertile…
The play may thus seem a piece of overheated Southern toshery, in imminent danger of stumbling into parody. It was tempting to ask Miss Bacall, whose forte, at least at one time, was comedy, if they were playing it for laughs. Resisting this, I said: ‘Well, how are you playing Sweet Bird of Youth?’
‘HOW? The best that I can. I don’t know what you mean by how.’
‘Well, what do you think of it as a play?’
‘I think it’s a wonderful play. I think Tennessee Williams was a great writer. I’ve never been in a play that’s as well written as this. And I’m just thrilled to be playing the part. You don’t look convinced.’
‘You don’t find the play a little overblown?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘(Evasively) It may seem to some a product of a different time.’
‘No, I think it’s timeless. I think that there are people with problems always, and I find the characters interesting, larger than life some of them and I think there are always characters larger than life. And I find them fascinating and many-faceted. And I just think it’s a great play and wonderful, brilliant writing,’
‘I think it’s said of Williams that he manages to get some comedy into his plays.’
‘Absolutely. There’s a lot of comedy in this.’
That seemed a reasonable burst on the play. Now for the other. ‘Can I say this?’ I said. ‘On any analysis, you are more talented than your late husband. Have you ever allowed yourself to speculate…’ This plainly factual remark was met with a shriek. I swear the thought has never occurred to her, an attitude I figure won’t do her a lot of good with the sisters.
‘I am WHAT?’ she shouted. ‘I don’t understand what you just said.
What did you just say?’
‘That you are more talented than your late husband.’
In what way,’ Miss Bacall gritted, ‘would you say - would you think that?’
‘Um, well, you appeared in two films billed as masterpieces; you’ve been judged, I think, best actress twice on Broadway.’
‘And you’ve written a book that was not only at the top of the bestseller list for six months, but also was in itself, I think, an attempt to tell things the way they were and not slide out of things.’
‘Right. I don’t slide. And I don’t slide in interviews either… I don’t consider myself more talented than Bogie at all; not by any stretch of the imagination. Different talents; he didn’t live very long, so…’
‘Well, you have a wider range of talents, say?’
‘I certainly haven’t left the mark on film, that he left; very few people have.’
‘Well, you can argue about that if you want to. The end of the question was: Have you ever allowed yourself to speculate on what your career would have been if you had stuck to Hawks?’
‘Oh yes, I used to think of that. That wasn’t my choice; that was Hawks’ choice. Obviously, my career would have had much more care and I think I would have done much better…’
‘When you made a choice between your late husband and Hawks, Hawks deliberately left you to the tender mercies of Jack L. Warner?
‘That he did.’
‘And the equally tender mercies of Herman Shumlin?’ (Shumlin, in his second, and last, film directed Miss Bacall in the absurd 1945 film of Graham Greene’s The Confidential Agent, which all but ended her career there and then.)
‘Oh, that was Warner that did that. Well, that was bad luck…’
We now sidle up to the vexed question of The Cult. There are two questions: Does the cult depend on Bogart, or the parts he played? And did Bogart think he was the part? On Thomson’s analysis, the cult would seem to depend on a few films Bogart made in the 1940s, notably The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, and the two Hawks films. In these, the characteristics of the Bogart-figure purport to be detachment, a sardonic pessimism, and unfailing honour; at once romantic and ‘cool’, he knows the odds, looks chaos in the eye, and is the only reliable companion in the night.
By the 1960s, a generation was coming of age at a time of cold war, assassination, pollution, corruption, the bomb, Vietnam and perceived international conspiracies such as, for instance, that between elements in the US and the Soviet Union to keep the arms race on the boil. Thus, when these few films were replayed, many young people found they could identify with the Bogart figure.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘the two pictures were Hawks’ pictures. You can’t blame your late husband for the cult.’
Another explosion, of atomic proportions.
‘It wasn’t his fault.’
What, the cult?’
Why would anyone want to blame him, anyway?’
‘That’s right. But in a sense that cult sandbagged you for the second time.
‘No. Well, I think it’s great. I think it’s marvellous that every generation identifies with him. I think you cannot have a greater tribute than that. Not in my view. I think that college kids still look up to him, admire him.’
‘Admire the part,’ I suggested.
‘I don’t know what it is, but its his personality and its also his quality as a man, because he was a man of integrity. And the characters he played had integrity. And he was his own man; he could not be bought. And that’s also very clear to audiences now. And that’s what they admire: that he was his own man; he was true to himself. And that’s a quality that escapes most people.’
‘To what extent, if any - and this is a crucial and critical question - did he identify with, say, the character of Marlowe in The Big Sleep?’
Oh, I don’t think Bogie did. I think Bogie was a theatre-trained actor, a totally professional actor and a wonderful actor.’
‘He didn’t identify with the role of Spade in The Maltese Falcon?’
‘No, no. I don’t think he did. But I think that happens less on the screen…,’
‘Well, that’s good. Thanks very much.’
‘Is that it? You tried to kill me, but you didn’t succeed.’
‘Tried to kill you? No, no. You musn’t be defensive, Miss Bacall…’
All the same, perhaps not surprisingly, lunch appeared to have disappeared off the menu. What remains is to see if Miss Bacall can suspend our disbelief in Williams’ stuff. As I hope to have made clear, she is talented enough to manage it, although, and saving her presence, I take leave to doubt that Bogart could have saved the role of the male lead.
From Amazing Scenes: Adventures of a Reptile of the Press (Fairfax Press, 1987)