“Hey, you want a yogurt?... How about some juice?”
Lauren Bacall—sultry, sophisticated lady of the screen and stage—is rifling through the contents of the mini-refrigerator in her dressing room, looking for something to quench her thirst. She settles for a fruit juice and drops her lanky, casually clad self into a brown chaise that crowds the room.
It’s lunch time but Bacall – back on Broadway, starring in the musical version of Woman of the Year – isn’t interested in food.
“I don’t eat lunch,” she says off-handedly, throwing her head back for a deep swig out of her juice bottle. “In the theatre you don’t eat lunch. Ha!” she harrumphs, “in the theatre you’re lucky if you eat.”
Bacall is not complaining. Not by a long shot.
Ten years ago she put her career on the line for the theatre. That’s when she made a bid for admittance into the tight fraternity of professional stage actors. That’s when she threw caution to the wind and took center stage in her very first Broadway musical. It was called Applause; it was the musical version of the classic Bette Davis film drama, All About Eve, and there were folks who sat out in the audience, opening night, who really doubted that Bacall would have the stuff in her to make the musical soar.
They were wrong. Bacall’s career gamble paid off… in spades.
Through Applause, Lauren Bacall won the Best Actress Tony Award and a new career as a legit stage actress and Broadway asset.
“Listen, I know I’m a goddamn lucky lady,” she says of her second chance career as stage star. “I had all those years in Hollywood. And, although I wouldn’t say I had a stellar career, I had my times out there.”
Indeed, Bacall turned into an instant hit following her movie debut in 1944, opposite leading man (and soon-to-be husband) Humphrey Bogart. That first film was To Have and Have Not, and in it Bacall introduced the smolderingly sensual, temptingly sardonic lady that she would recreate in a string of other films including The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, and Key Largo.
“I was this big hit discovery at 19,” the native New Yorker recalls with amusement. “The critics loved me with Bogie in To Have and Have Not.” She hoots at the recollection: “Then they wanted me sent back to wherever I came from when they saw me in Confidential Agent. After The Big Sleep came out, I was their darling all over again. I mean, talk about being a ping pong ball.
“Film uses you as long as you can last. And that,” says Bacall, “depends on your will and your talent, your luck and your perseverance.”
After a while, all of the above began to wane for Bacall. “The movies sloughed me off,” she says, matter-of-factly. Most actresses would have taken dismissal as defeat and promptly shriveled into oblivion. But not Bacall. “To survive you’ve got to be strong. Besides, I don’t believe in becoming a victim of whim.” So she kept her hand in. Movie here and there. A stage triumph with Cactus Flower, and her critically acclaimed, best selling autobiography, Lauren Bacall By Myself.
Lauren Bacall was not ready for a fadeout. “First of all, I love to work. I wasn’t about to give that up. I’m an actress, and I think that’s pretty special,” says the still handsome 56-year-old woman who’s feeling very much at her peak.
“In the theatre I feel as if I’m home and as if I really belong. I never much liked the piecemeal work of movies. What a thrill it is each night to go the whole route with a character and a play. I love the contact with the audience. I love the excitement.”
The fact that big-name Broadway talents like John Kander, Fred Ebb, Peter Stone and Robert Moore have come together to tailor a flashy sassy musical specifically for Bacall, doesn’t hurt her enthusiasm any.
“Ha!” she laughs. “I guess you’d have to say I’m stage struck. I’ve been away from Broadway ever since Applause, and God, I missed it. I kept waiting for something right and good to come along. And there wasn’t anything … until this. [Producer] Larry Kasha called me and said, ‘What do you think about Woman of the Year?’ What I thought,” she booms, “is ‘Wonderful! Terrific!’ We got Kander and Ebb, Peter Stone, Bob Moore. I couldn’t be working with better people.”
Woman of the Year is the musical stage version of the classic 1942 movie that starred Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. In the stage version, Lauren Bacall is perfectly at home with the role of the dazzling Tess Harding, an extraordinarily successful TV newscaster (a la Barbara Walters), who locks romantic and professional horns with Sam Craig, a crusty-but-loveable newspaper cartoonist.
Even the pressure to succeed and make this big-money Broadway vehicle a smash hit doesn’t get Betty Bacall down. “Listen,” she says, levelly. “It’s never going to be perfect first time out. You take it out-of-town knowing it’s too long, knowing there are changes to be made.
“You make those changes after you start playing to an audience. Out-of-town is the great experiment. And, yeah, it’s tiring. And sure, I get tense and nervous. But I’m always nervous before I go on. I honestly don’t know how not to be. Still, I’m more in control now, mainly because I proved myself. I proved I could do Applause, I proved I belonged. My peers welcomed me after they realized I wasn’t an impostor or just a Hollywood lady dipping into an experience in the theatre. Not that any of that has turned my head.” Bacall insists. “I have never had a big ego. Only imbeciles have giant egos. But I am sure secure about my work, and about what I’m doing on the stage. Ah, but you should see me before the curtain goes up. My hands shake and my lips twitch and I have this stomach ache. I say ‘Why are we doing this?’ And then the music comes up… and the lights go down… and the curtain rise, and the people are out there and you know why. Theatre is magic. It’s what takes us all out of the kitchen of life we’re trapped in. It’s what makes us reach for something better.
“You know what? I love getting out there and giving 500 percent of myself each performance. It’s tough work but you develop such pride in what you do and in who you are. I’m disciplined about working. You bet! It’s part of being a professional actor. God, I think actors are terrific. They are brave, aren’t they. I mean, they get out there eight times a week and put their lives on the line. And people think we’re freaks. Sure, people invite us to their parties. Actors are terrific to decorate the room. But do we really want to take them seriously? Well… we take the work seriously. And I just stay home from those parties where I know I’m invited to decorate the walls. That’s one of the advantages of getting older,” says Bacall, “You can say no and you don’t have to please everyone, and you can save you energies for what’s important: the performance.”
As for all the attendant star stuff that comes with having your name in lights, above the title on the marquee, Lauren Bacall claims their lures are not for her.
“I feel I’ve earned the right to say I don’t like it, if something comes up in the show, and that’s a tremendous advantage. But no, I refuse to think about myself as The Star.” She says it with mock awe. “That’s boring and I’m not interested. I want to do good work with good actors. The point of this profession is to share the experience and the fun. I’m not of the school that says a show should be built all around a person. One-star vehicles are for the birds,” Bacall insists. “Besides, you look a damn sight better with good people around you than with bad.”
“Naw,” she says in that trademark throaty voice of hers, as she finally drains the juice bottle she’s been nursing. “You can keep the star stuff. I know I have to show up eight times a week. But hell,” Bacall laughs, “I’d do that if I were in the chorus line!”