Romantic chemistry on the big screen. It’s hard to define. But you know it when you see it. And for me there are two movies which are the absolute definition of cinematic chemistry – all other films pale in comparison on that score. One is Tarana, the 1951 first pairing of Dilip Kumar and Madhubala. The screen absolutely sizzles when the two of them are in the frame together and at certain moments it feels as if you are looking at something very private, that you should look away. If you’ve never seen Tarana, I urge you to do so right now.
The other movie to define romantic chemistry for me is To Have And Have Not (1944). It was during its filming that 44-year old Humphrey Bogart and 19-year old Lauren Bacall first met, started an affair, fell in love, and married soon afterwards. When you watch Howard Hawks’ (very loose) adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s tale, the heat between the established superstar and the young model from New York making her film debut is palpable. There were very few actresses who could give as good as they got when paired with Bogie but Lauren Bacall did it with apparent ease, armed with her stunning looks, her low, husky voice (something which she had to work on, Hawks was initially reluctant to cast her because of her high-pitched New York nasal twang) and what came to be known as “the look”: body rigid, chin down, looking up at Bogie through her eyelashes. This last was a happy accident – the only way, Bacall later said, of being able to control her nerves and from shaking while delivering her lines. The combination of all these factors was electric as was her delivery of one of the all time great lines of dialogue – credited to Jules Furthman and William Faulkner – in Hollywood history: “ You do know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and … blow”. In fact, in her debut film, Bacall is the aggressor as she works on seducing Bogart. Hollywood’s famous tough guy had finally met a broad just as tough as him.
That single “whistle” line, “the look” and the marriage to Humphrey Bogart would probably have been enough to guarantee Lauren Bacall’s place in Hollywood history. But for the star, born Betty Joan Perske in the Bronx, New York to Romanian-Polish Jewish parents, many other popular movies would follow, including three film noirs with Bogie (The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, Key Largo) as well as How To Marry A Millionaire, Written On The Wind, The Shootist, and The Mirror Has Two Faces (for which she received an Oscar nomination). This was followed by a Life-time Achievement Oscar in 2008 – accepting the award, she memorably said while holding the statuette, “A man at last”. This was in addition to her two Tony awards for her work on Broadway and a National Book Award for her autobiography. Her personal life was just as storied. After Bogarts’s death in 1957, there was a romance and broken engagement with Frank Sinatra as well as a marriage and divorce with Jason Robards. She would famously go on to say about men, “A woman isn’t complete without a man. But where do you find a man – a real man – these days?” and “Find me a man who’s interesting enough to have dinner with and I’ll be happy.”
The Hollywood legend (not a word she took lightly – when she was asked how she felt about working with “screen legend Nicole Kidman,” Bacall tartly remarked, “She’s not a legend. She’s a beginner”) and one of the last stars from the old Hollywood studio system, passed away at the age of 89 on August 12, 2014.
Her legendary status remains secure.