Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep: A Love Letter
Unlike many of my film-loving friends, when it comes to classic Hollywood, I’m a latecomer to appreciation of Lauren Bacall. When younger, I was a Katharine Hepburn fan and a Bette Davis admirer long before I found my way to Bacall.
Partly, I resisted the Bogey-and-Bacall bait. To younger me, she was young and he was old and craggy, and I hated that he called her “Baby.” (As a teen, I had an older boyfriend who did the same to me; as a budding feminist, I loved his attention but loathed when he used “Baby” in public instead of my name.)
And there was that stupid “Key Largo” song (1981) overplayed on the radio, making me feel even more pressure to agree that Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were the most amazing couple ever. Back then, I much preferred Fred and Ginger or Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant for classic Hollywood glamour.
But more recently, my love of hard-boiled fiction and film noir kicked in, and I saw The Big Sleep for the first time. I was instantly outraged at my younger self for having judged without seeing Bacall at work. So sharp. So endearing. And so stunning. Bacall had that killer combination of attributes that makes a celebrity, like many of noir’s best women (Stanwyck, Trevor, Hayworth).
What woos me about Bacall’s performance in The Big Sleep begins with the fact that her character in the original Raymond Chandler novel, Vivian Rutledge, is selfish and unsympathetic — she requires too much upkeep, Marlowe opines. And that’s what we see when we first meet her in the 1946 film. She is demanding and unconcerned with any needs but her own. And she stays this way awhile, giving a great femme fatale performance. But she melts, a little at a time, and melts Marlowe’s heart along the way.
The original novel ends with Marlowe alone and downhearted. It is Mona (Eddie Mars’ frighteningly devoted wife) that he kisses, not Vivian, when he is tied up. She is the one who releases him, though she stays loyal otherwise to Eddie. In the film, her devotion is dull compared to Vivian’s intensity and complex fear. And though this is partially about the writing, a great deal of it is Bacall.
Her deadpan delivery in that low, seductive voice is irresistible. Her Vivian never becomes weak as she yields to emotion, matching Marlowe in brains, wit, and passion. So, when she risks her life for Marlowe and declares her love for him, there is strength not weakness in her declaration. She lands hard-boiled Philip Marlowe and even gets him to bend the law for her sex-addicted, murderous sister without falling into bed with her. Few femmes fatale can boast such a record.
So here’s to you, Lauren Bacall. With this performance, you wooed and won me, too. ❤