There’s an image of Lauren Bacall, who died yesterday at the age of 89, in the National Portrait Gallery. She’s one of a select few icons included in the “American Cool” exhibit, a photographic attempt to define something that eludes a satisfying definition. Yet even though it’s hard to say exactly what it means to even be cool, it’s not hard at all to see why Bacall qualifies: that look, that style, that voice. Whatever it is, she had it. For more insight into Bacall’s career-long cool, I spoke with David Ward, senior historian at the NPG.
We should probably start with a working definition of “cool,” if such a thing exists. It is such an ephemeral concept. What were the guiding principles for this exhibit? How did the curators determine who qualified as cool?
I think the premise of the show, and you were exactly right when you said it’s such an ephemeral concept, you then try to bring it into being through artwork or photography. It’s easily the most abstract work we’ve ever done. The whole notion of “cool” is so diffuse or undefinable. If you start to define it, does that, in fact, ruin it? It’s the Louis Armstrong thing about what swing is: “If you have to ask, you don’t got it.” And there’s an element of rebelliousness in cool. You’re outside the mainstream: you’re walking that fine line between being a rebel, someone on the cutting edge. And then there’s someone who falls off the edge because they’re too out there: James Dean crashing his car, Jimi Hendrix and drugs.
The complicating factor here is that because America has such a huge entertainment industry, the whole concept of cool becomes marketable. The rebellious badass becomes a market staple. So you’re creating these anti-heroes who are cool. Can cool be manufactured? And the show, “American Cool,” gets at that kind of balancing act. It’s that rebellion against authority, against two and a half bedrooms, one and a half kids, two cars and a garage. And that becomes dangerous, but it’s also something that can be commodified. It’s turned into a money-making opportunity, merchandized by the entertainment industry. So there’s this weird push-pull between a cultural style that does exist, and one that becomes marketing.
Where does Lauren Bacall fit into that whole notion of cool?
Bacall combines the way that she looks and acts. She’s intrinsically attractive in ways that transcend beauty and sexuality. She’s got that it factor with a capital I. And then she plays those roles that confirm the image we have of her. She’s sexy and intelligent, and she makes her career on that. The smoky voice, the great seductive look, with her head down and her eyes up. And in To Have and Have Not, when she’s 19, there’s that sense of being her the equal to the man in a way that’s pretty rare in American film in that era. It was rare for the two protagonists to be equally powerful, charismatic forces. She plays this kind of — beauty doesn’t quite describe it — this incredibly charismatic woman who is also able to enter and trade wisecracks with Humphrey Bogart. She’s cool under pressure, she never sweats, she’s always got a wisecrack. Which is a very male thing. That notion of an actually empowered woman in film was a breakthrough for the ’40s. Because the problem with cool for women is that women are more heavily policed than men. A man can act “bad” in the sense of being bad and good; a woman can’t do that. It’s too destabilizing if a woman acts out or has sex or drinks or stays out late or drives fast cars. So there’s a gender element here that women find harder to break into, and Bacall does that.
The other thing you have to say is, you can look good and you can stylize and you can have the moves, but if you didn’t have the skill, you can’t be cool. You’re going to be a one-hit wonder. You’ll disappear. Whereas to really be cool, you either have to flame out in a kind of burst of talent, like Hendrix, or you have to have a pretty long, good career. You’ve got to have the chops, you have to be able to play, you have to be skillful at whatever it is that you do. You can’t fake cool. And with Bacall, that’s certainly true. She has this incredible career. She was on The Sopranos getting punched in the mouth as one of her last roles.
How was the photo of Bacall that’s featured in “American Cool” selected? There must be tons of photos of her from which to choose.
Her nickname was Slim, and she looks like she’s standing in a theater foyer. She looks like she’s 6 feet tall and weighs 110 pounds. She’s smoking a cigarette — that’s the other, thing, cigarettes are totally cool. It’s that lanky, totally relaxed, kind of Western cowboy look that men have. Women are supposed to be voluptuous and hot, but she looks natural, gorgeously dressed. She’s not looking at you. And she’s relaxed and self-contained, and she doesn’t need you. You could probably go up and talk to her and chat her up, but she doesn’t need you to show up.
What I think the curators liked about this picture is that it’s not just a headshot. With Bacall, because it’s a full-length, there’s just something about it. If it was a man, you’d say: this guy is a cowboy.
That idea of how cool is something you can’t fake, though, kind of runs up against the reality of Bacall’s life. So much of what gave her that iconic “cool” — the voice, the look, the attitude — was completely manufactured. Does that just not matter because it was so effective?
If it works, it doesn’t matter. If it doesn’t work, it’s totally fake and everybody sees right through it. But that’s exactly right: there’s an intersection here between a kind of natural “it” factor and this huge construction hype machine. In this one in particular, there’s immigrant experience, the way she develops her voice and her look. And the other thing, of course, is the willingness for the public, including us, to accept that. Somebody like Bacall, her career is like a straight arc. The studio system worked for her, she was incredibly ambitious. And so it even goes back to what you started off saying, cool is ephemeral, and the closer you look at it, the more it disappears.
What’s so interesting, too, about these signature moves of hers, is how she later described so many of them as stemming from very uncool aspects of her character: her insecurities, her fears, her nerves. She kept her chin to her chest because she couldn’t stop trembling on set, for instance. And yet that reveal doesn’t seem to puncture the mystique of her coolness at all.
This element, without being flippant about it, is that she managed to make her neuroses work for her. It goes back to this concept of American success, that hard work, that whole notion of ambition … The show “American Cool” is practically all entertainers, because that’s where you get this drive, maybe internally: “I’m gonna get out of Hoboken by working really hard at it and attracting the right kind of attention.”
Where does Bacall’s religion factor into all of this? She was Jewish, but she didn’t really come out as Jewish until later in her career. She seemed to keep it under wraps.
It’s the kind of dark side of the American dream: what is it you cover up? What can you reveal? What are we comfortable with? There’s a fairly sizeable Jewish community in Hollywood, but that element where she’s playing a blonde, playing this construction. That’s a really interesting question “American Cool” doesn’t address: there’s some things you can’t be transgressive at, and anti-Semitism in the 1940s was a rather large historical problem, as we know. And this may also go back to being a woman, this model of seduction. If Americans knew she was Jewish, would she be less appealing? “Don’t want to marry her,” that country club anti-Semitism that never really went away? It’s this presentation of self. I know for a fact, just because I’ve followed her career contemporaneously with my life, that Lauren Bacall was open about being Jewish and supported Israel later on. I imagine in the 1940s, she was discreet about it. But this goes back to my knife-edge view of cool: as long as you hide it, they don’t see you sweat, as long as you’re casual about it, you’re okay.
And the thing about ambition is that it seems to be the antithesis of cool, right? It’s not cool to try too hard. It’s cool to be effortless. That’s why people, say, love Jennifer Lawrence and don’t like Anne Hathaway, who has this very apparent hunger about her.
Well I think the studio system is totally different. Actors and actresses now, for good or for ill, are not as protected as they used to be. It all got hushed up [back then]. There was a huge machine that took care of them. And there are these rules that you can learn, the same way you can learn to sing or tap dance. You make it look effortless. It’s this cultural style where you display your ego by sublimating it. You’re the center of attention by not being the center of attention. So Barbra Streisand is never going to be seen as cool: she’s too needy, too demanding, just too naked in terms of her focus on herself. And somebody like Bacall just didn’t do that.
How much of Bacall’s coolness was facilitated by the kinds of movies Hollywood used to produce? She gets to say such sharp, sultry dialogue. And she has a sultry voice, but she also has the good fortune of this cool material.
That goes back to the larger question of where we are in terms of popular culture, particularly the role of men and women. At least in the 40s and 50s, there was the possibility that a strong woman could get on the screen and dominate it. Today, if they didn’t have CGI and movies had to rely on actual human interaction, it actually could be more humanly interesting. And that’s what you’ve got with Bogey and Bacall: because all he’s got is a desk and a telephone, in The Long Goodbye.
For people who aren’t familiar with the classics that made Bacall famous, can you talk a bit about that “You know how to whistle, don’t you?” scene from To Have and Have Not? The video clip is included in the “American Cool” exhibition. What is it about that scene that’s so enduring and compelling?
This is the dangerous territory of sex, now. Those scenes are all courtship scenes that are sublimations and courtship rituals for a sex scene that couldn’t be shown. You couldn’t show nudity. It’s the way in which banter becomes an element of foreplay, an element of courtship, of substitution. So there’s an erotic or electric charge to a lot of that, because you’re going, “hey these are two good-looking people who are attracted to each other, and they’re talking about one thing, but really talking about something else.” There’s a whole language of signs that’s really complicated. Those scenes are also very well-written, coming out of the Phillip Marlowe series by Raymond Chandler. That’s true of all those films; William Faulkner was a writer on The Big Sleep. If you watch The Maltese Falcon, it’s practically written by Dashiell Hammett.
So you have a very well-constructed narrative arc based around characters. You have this scene which provides a structure that we can be comfortable with and believe in. At the same time, the element of violence or sexuality, which is not manifested in those scenes, and gives it all the tension where you say, “wow, that’s really something.” And the people are just incredibly attractive.
It’s so hard to believe that Bacall is only 19 in that movie. She doesn’t seem teenage at all.
That’s part of it, too: the element of sophistication, knowing how to dress. And I think that dress is very important to cool: having a good tailor, the right stockings and hat for a woman, that element of presentation, when women wore stockings and girdles, had to wear a hat and gloves, and how you could take that etiquette and just by crossing your legs on Bogey’s desk, you could destroy that façade of propriety and that middle class morality. And that’s what those roles constantly push up against, and that provides the audience — particularly women — with this vicarious thrill: here’s a woman, she’s not just the maid or the secretary or the cab driver. This is somebody who is empowered.
So why should anybody care about cool at all? We’re in this strange cultural moment where it’s cool to be nerdy, cooler than it is, in a way, to BE cool, or to have ever been cool. It’s very uncool to say you were cool in high school anymore. What’s the value in cool?
If you think about cool as pushing the boundaries of what it means to be an American, you think about Walt Whitman or Frederick Douglass, pushing against language or exclusion, and you get to jazz and African American performers, giving you pure performance, living in a society that still rejected them and they were dedicated absolutely to the craft. That’s cool.
I always end my tour of “American Cool” with the great moody picture of Kurt Cobain. And the suicide, the relationship, the whole thing, it’s just horrible, it’s a terrible story. But the thing that I take away from Cobain, and it may be dumb, but he’s this guy who reinvented rock music. He didn’t care. Just when rock and roll needed to be reinvented, he reinvented it. And it didn’t work, the pressure of society was too much for him, and he didn’t survive. But for those five to seven years with Nirvana, he really did something important. And the cool was the creative resistance to a society that’s trying to get rid of you. What I like is that there’s always some guy or woman out in a garage somewhere reinventing American culture.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.