In 1965, when Lauren Bacall opened in what was to be her first Broadway hit, Cactus Flower, the critic Norman Nadel, writing in the New York World Telegram and Sun, joined his peers in raving about the star. "It must be difficult to be grim and endearing at the same time," he wrote. "But Miss Bacall manages to pull it off beautifully."
More than three decades later, Betty Joan Perske, as she was named when born to middle-class New York City parents in 1924, is still pulling it off. Something of a critics' darling, she's won two Tonys for her glamorous star turns in the musicals Applause and Woman of the Year and came this close to winning an Oscar for Barbra Streisand's The Mirror Has Two Faces.
Her latest stage challenge is the American premiere of Waiting in the Wings, an obscure Noël Coward drama about two former stage rivals who end up living together along with a group of retired actresses in a large home in the English countryside. Rosemary Harris costars as Bacall's nemesis in a high-powered ensemble that also includes Dana Ivey, Barnard Hughes, Elizabeth Wilson, and Bette Henritze, among others. Bacall plays a legendary theater diva who's fallen on hard times and has a problematic relationship with her son. The tragicomedy opened at the Walter Kerr Theatre on December 16 on the 100th anniversary of the British playwright's birth.
Bacall says that it was her affection for Coward, an old friend, that drew her back to the stage after an absence of 12 years, though she has never stopped hankering for the "exchange of emotions" between performer and audience, which she says is only possible in the theater. Working as an usher for the Shuberts in the early '40s, Bacall had one driving ambition: to see her name in lights on a Broadway marquee.
Not that she was exactly slumming when the world first got its taste of her lethal charm in the 1944 film To Have and Have Not. Only 19 at the time and paired with Humphrey Bogart, later her first husband, she went on to become a film legend in such classics as Key Largo and How to Marry a Millionaire, in which she played the heavy-lidded, wise-cracking, smoky-voiced Schatze Powell. But, says Bacall, it's the theater, not the sound stage, that's always been her first love.
On the cusp of her 75th birthday, Bacall spoke of that lifelong affair with the stage in the sitting room of her art-crammed Dakota apartment. Dressed in a chic beige summer suit, her distinctive gravelly voice occasionally breaking into laughter, she spoke volubly and often sardonically of an engagement with life that shows no signs of slowing down. She was, well, "grim and endearing at the same time."
At the time of Applause, you noted that you had a lot in common with Margo Channing. Any similarities between you and Lotta Bainbridge in Waiting in the Wings?
God, no! [laughs] Well, what we have in common is our profession. Aside from that, we haven't lived the same kind of life. At all. I don't have the same kind of relationship with my children as she had a nonrelationship with hers. Nor have I had a personal maid who's lived with me for twenty-five years. I wish I did! Nor am I about to enter a...I don't call it a home. It's just a house in which these women live and kind of take care of themselves. It's not like going into a home for aged. It's not that kind of atmosphere. But she and I have a life in the theater in common. My life has not been totally in the theater, but the theater has certainly been primary in my life.
What drew you to the role?
I'd say it was Noël Coward, who was a great friend of mine. That it's a celebration of him certainly affected my decision. I was crazy about him, as everyone who knew him was. And I always felt that about his work, and this is a new work, as far as I'm concerned. It's kind of an adventure. Seven women on a stage together! [laughs] The theater was and is my first love, what I always wanted to be part of when I was a kid. I never wanted to be in movies. Obviously, there are lots of people who think I shouldn't have been in movies! I fooled them. Theater's a wonderful profession when you have the opportunity to work in something of quality, and Noël Coward was certainly a man of quality. Waiting in the Wings is not Private Lives and it's not Design for Living, but it's worth doing. Michael Langham is a wonderful director whom I've never worked with before, nor have I with Rosemary [Harris], who's a wonderful woman and a marvelous actress. The play's nostalgic and funny and touching and it's sad. It's all of those things.
Yes, it's more than just about survival. Even though you're not part of your profession anymore, actively, you still have vitality and energy and a point of view. And you're still feisty. Those are great characteristics. I feel very strongly about it. I don't think it's an old-fashioned play. And there's nothing old-fashioned about any of us who are in it.
In some ways, the play might almost be thought of as a sequel to the old film Stage Door.
I loved that movie. I saw it again about a year or so ago. It holds up. Wonderful actresses — Katie Hepburn and Ginger Rogers. Very entertaining and very touching. It was the kind of movie you can connect with emotionally, and I think you have to connect emotionally, otherwise there is nothing. You must be affected by it — for good or ill. You just can't go through life on the surface of things. You have to feel something, everything. Unfortunately, I feel too much a lot of the time. But it's better that than not enough.
In 1956, you costarred in a live television production of Coward's Blithe Spirit with him and Claudette Colbert. How was that?
A really nerve-wracking experience. God, that was frightening. Very exciting but frightening. And that, of course, gave me a sense of being in the theater. You have to learn the whole piece and, of course, hit your marks. And it was a great experience for me.
You did that with Petrified Forest earlier as well?
Yes, I did that before. And that was frightening. Live television was in a class by itself.
You finally got a taste of Broadway when you did Goodbye, Charlie.
Unfortunately, that play was killed by the critics. And wrecked by our poor friend, George Axelrod, who was a wonderful writer. I was never cast in a movie of that or Cactus Flower. I was furious.
Ingrid Bergman was in the movie of Cactus Flower. Who did the movie of Goodbye Charlie?
Debbie Reynolds. [rolls her eyes] That's the unkindest cut of all. That certainly made me realize that I should stay in the theater and never go into movies!
Even before that, you were an usher at the Royale Theatre?
I was an usher at many theaters. Saw Clifton Webb in Blithe Spirit. I can see him now. I ushered for the Shuberts, thank you. So much for their generosity of eleven dollars a week. You had to usher at different shows: Let's Face It for a couple of days, and then at Angel Street and Blithe Spirit. Just to be in the theater was fabulous. I was play-acting, even then. "This way, tickets please." "This way." I was playing all these parts. Ah, yes.
I believe that you saw Noël Coward do his famous nightclub act in Vegas with Bogie and the Rat Pack.
That was much later. I met him very early on. He had been a great friend of Bogie's. They'd been in the theater at the same time in New York. That's how I met him and got to know him, when we were in England. Then when he came to New York, and then to California, we saw him at various venues. In London, after Bogie had died, I lived in London for a year; Noël would escort Kay Kendall, Vivien Leigh and me. We went everywhere together. You know, there aren't people like that anymore. Nobody has that kind of stature and that sense of life, that wit. So much more wit then than there is now; genuine wit. Kay was the funniest, most adorable woman in the world. Noël was a great wit, and Vivien. And I, of course, was terribly amusing. I can't imagine a life without it. It's too bad that people today are just — heavy. I can't be around people with no humor. Instead, it's all about money and possessions. This is my couch and this is my chair. And this cost me $40 million, and that $150 million. And now it's all about how many jets and houses you own. "We have our own jets. We have our own everything."
You noted in your memoirs that you were struck by how nervous Coward was in performing.
Yes, I was. We were sitting at this long table at the Sands Hotel. And he came out stage right and put his hand on the microphone and he had the shakes. And I thought, after all these years! God almighty, after all these years! Of course, I understand it totally, because I'm exactly like that. Some people don't show their nerves at all. He performed brilliantly, but he still shook.
Writer-director Abe Burrows once observed that you gave "the illusion of overpowering strength."
[laughs] Yes, illusion. Believe me it's an illusion. Overpowering, no, but I'm not made of Jell-O, either. I do what I have to do to continue my life. When you live alone, you have to do stuff. You learn to rise above a lot of bad things that happen in your life. And you have to keep going. I'm in a profession that is all about rejection. It's not so much about quality, unfortunately, not about work well done. It's about money and winning, and actors have to learn to live with a lot of rejection. We're not encouraged tremendously.
Are you really that nervous, even after four previous Broadway appearances? I count, Charlie, Cactus Flower, Applause, Woman of the Year.
And Sweet Bird of Youth, which unfortunately never came to New York. It was badly cast and badly directed and badly...it just didn't work out. We closed out of town. I was very disappointed, but I loved playing it in London and Australia. I'm always nervous. But now I have a different kind of nervousness. I haven't been on the stage in a while. Actually twelve years, I guess. That's just the way I am. I get that thumping thing. And I get that sometimes when I have to walk into a very crowded room. I get very nervous. If I have to make a speech, it's a nightmare. I'm not good at that stuff. You're supposed to make everything look easy, but God knows, it isn't easy. And people have so many preconceptions, anyway, of all of us in this profession. Whatever you click in, whatever that character is, that's who people think you are. And so you have to fight through all of that.
Are you aware there is a perception that you are a rather prickly personality? Some people in the business are afraid of you, and the "B" word has come up from time to time.
Me? [laughs] I don't know. I feel very strongly about professionalism, and I hate it when people...I also think there is an idea among, shall we say some of the press, that they have a right to know everything. It's not their right to know. We have no privacy in this country. As actors, we've lost ours a long time ago. I never signed a contract saying that I relinquish my right to privacy. I think it's shocking that nobody fights for the right to privacy. It's nobody's business to snoop into my private life. Bogart said fifty years ago, "I owe my public nothing but a good performance". And that's absolutely the way I feel. I don't think I owe them a damn thing. They don't have a right to invade my life. I don't have to prove the kind of human being I am.
Is that what you meant when you described your public image as being "a thorn in your side"?
Yes, because people decide what you are. "This is the way you are: You're a woman in control." Really? Thank you. "A woman in control, nothing fazes you, you're not even human." Well...No. I just think it's too bad that people do not realize that you are a human being, you have human frailties and you might even be interesting.
And yet, people might look at you and think you've had something of a charmed life?
Well, no, my career has not been charmed at all. It's been by dint of hard work. Had I not been able to go on the stage, which a lot of movie people cannot do, I don't know what would have happened to me. Theater work saved me. And my sense of myself and what I was able to do. I felt worthwhile in the theater. Movies don't make you feel that way. Unless you're one of those $20 million...I never had a chance to feel that way. When I started I made the biggest hits in the world. But I was only in love with Bogart. I could only think of that. And the next thing I knew, the critics were killing me for the next movies. So after that, it was just hard work. And I did not get great offers. My marriage came first. Wouldn't have changed that for anything. My life has not been a charmed life, but I was very lucky to have married a wonderful man, short though it was. I learned a tremendous amount. After all, I was 19 years old when I met this man and I didn't know anything about anything. So I was terribly lucky with the friends that I had. People I met because of Bogie, people of his generation. All those wonderful talents. So the fact that I was exposed to that kind of era when I was a kid and didn't know anything — I was very fortunate. But after that, it was, "What was your last movie?" After he died, I was a nonentity, wasn't considered much professionally.
One of the high points of your film career came with your Oscar nomination for The Mirror Has Two Faces. Yet despite all prognostications to the contrary, you didn't win. Was that a bittersweet experience?
I was shocked [by the nomination] to begin with. They started talking to me, the producers, about Academy Awards, and I thought: What are they talking about? You don't want to hear that because I figure, it's not going to happen. And it didn't happen, by the way. But the movie business, they've never kind of taken me in. It was Barbra who did it, it was Barbra who chose me, from the beginning. And Barbra is not popular in the motion picture business. Which is pretty damn stupid of them I think, because with her talent she should be, goddamit. The fact that I was nominated was very exciting, and a first — and a last, I'm sure — but I never thought I'd win. I hate what happens in Hollywood at award time. I hate all of the strong-arming that goes on. An awful lot of phone calls and money spent on ads for competitive movies. That didn't happen with Mirror. There were not a lot of ads. It was not that popular of a movie and no studio was behind it to give it a great big shove like Miramax did with The English Patient. That was an assault, and down the line went The English Patient. Well, you know, you can't fight City Hall. I think the nomination was great. I'm very happy and flattered to have been nominated, and [that] there were some people who appreciated the work that I did. I played a part that was different from parts I'd played before and that's always satisfying and gratifying. Of course, my children were the most upset. When I didn't win, they were horrified.
What advice do you have for young actors?
Learn your craft and do it in the theater. If you want to be a star, don't ask me what to do because I think that is an empty life. That is not a goal: to be a star. The goal is to be an actor, to do the work. Whatever happens, happens. It's the work that's important. Everybody and his brother is a star now on television. We have 90 million stars, and there are no stars. If you don't last, you're not a star. There are very few.
You mentioned in your memoirs that Margo Channing had an older woman's biggest fear, the "fear of a futureless future." Do you have that fear?
Yes, I think a lot of women do. Actresses who have to fight for their place in their profession sometimes feel that way. Very occasionally, I think: There's going to come a day when I'm not going to be offered anything. What am I going to do then? Well, I'm not going to think about it, that's what I'm going to do, because I have never waited for work. That is the one thing I give myself points on. I've always used myself, whether I wrote a book or did what they call a "lecture." I call it a "conversation." I do that. I've not just stopped and waited for the part. First of all, the part doesn't come, and second, I haven't got the patience. I'm not a sedentary person. I've got too much energy to be content doing nothing. I'm not a social butterfly. I don't like going to lunch, giving dinner parties; I don't enjoy going to them or giving them. I think work, really, is the most satisfying thing that I do. I love my friends and I guard them very closely, the few whom I'm very close to. And I love my children and my little grandchildren, whom I don't see enough of. Work is my priority. It keeps me going. I'm still here, Steve [Sondheim]. "I'm still here."
Any particular challenge you may want for the future?
I'd like to work at Steppenwolf or the Goodman, but they don't ask me. They'd better get to it while I can still walk and talk. "Spry" — don't you dare use that word! But it's just great to be actively part of what's going on. I really feel badly for actresses who live in the past, who've pulled back and are looking at scrapbooks, or only thinking of the way it used to be. There are times when I can't believe that I lived that way. I had everything then, seemingly, and then you don't have anything. You have to start getting it together again. Life is a joke, anyway. It's all ridiculous. It's all so short. We don't mean a goddamn thing. Five minutes after we're gone, they're on to something else. You know, when you read the obits — which you probably don't, but I look at the obit page — okay, there's a number next to your name, and blah-blah-blah and this is what you've done. And then the paper goes into the ashcan and is recycled. We're all recyclable.
You're not interested in leaving a legacy?
I just don't think that way. I don't even know what you might want to leave behind you. It's a public thing, isn't it? I think you live your life, you make your choices, you do the best you can and, hopefully, you live your life believing in what you believe in and passing that along to your friends and your children. I think about my mother all the time, Bogart, my Uncle Charlie. And other people, like Noël Coward, who influenced me deeply. I still get a lot of mail about my books. I don't think consciously, This is what I'm leaving. Bogie would say to me, "Long after I'm gone, you'll remember this." But he would never have believed that he's the number one movie star, persona, whatever. He's still number one. He lived his life like I've lived mine. You use yourself up. You do your work. If you live your life well and behave fairly well, most of the time, that's enough.
You once said, "Isn't hope an incredibly wonderful, demented thing?" Still believe that?
Oh yeah, it's demented all right! Definitely. But it's one of the things that keeps you going. I hope I get work. I hope this is good. I hope I'm okay. I hope my leg doesn't fall off. Everything is hope-related. But not consciously: "This is what I am." You just go along and just do it. I believe in action.