I was once on a panel at the Tribeca Film Festival, and the topic was romantic comedy. I was seated in-between Nora Ephron and Lauren Bacall. I knew Nora a bit and she was, as always, wonderfully funny and down-to-earth; she had the gift of instantly including everyone in her conversation, and making both the panel and the audience feel welcomed, as if we were all having lunch together. I was warier of Ms. Bacall, because in the theater community, there were legendary tales of her misbehavior. From what I know, much of her reputation was well-earned, and she could be demanding and capricious and cranky. But she had the gift of surprise: that day, she couldn’t have been more delightful. I think she knew that people were expecting a tyrant, which made her ease and humor all the more entrancing. If I remember correctly, she’d had a cold, and we had an extended chat about our mutual devotion to Nyquil. And of course, the entire time, all I kept thinking was, I’m talking to LAUREN BACALL.
There’s something irreplaceable and daunting about stars like Bacall, from Hollywood’s Golden Age. They seem to exist in lustrous, shimmering black-and-white, as the embodiment of glamour. There will always be stars, but they’ll be referencing people like Bacall. Stars of later generations are termed the new Bacall, or the next Katherine Hepburn. I had the feeling that Ms. Bacall was well aware of this; she’d started her career as a model and a Vogue cover girl, and she wasn’t at all embarassed by or unsure of her grand-scale allure. Supposedly, in her earliest screen appearances, she’d been nervous and to keep her head from shaking, she’d kept her chin down and her eyes up, and in the process invented a new standard of mocking flirtation.
That day, on the panel, a moment of the cantakerous Bacall surfaced. During the question-and-answer period, some people would stand at the microphone and chatter away, without ever quite asking a question. One film scholar went on for a very long time, untill Bacall commented, “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”