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Standing in the Right Place:
Lauren Bacall Stages the Viennale Press Conference
By Charles Leary

Lauren Bacall in Vienna.
With Hans Hurch.
Lauren Bacall.
Bacall, Hurch.
Lauren Bacall in Vienna.
Photos: Alexander Tuma.

"Madam, after one martini, I feel bigger, smarter, and taller. After two martini's, it reaches the superlative," Lauren Bacall remembered William Faulkner explaining his reputation for drinking almost 60 years ago. Upon Bacall's entrance into Sunday's Vienna press conference, the room was immediately filled with a deep, commanding, and sensual voice - perhaps made even deeper by an airplane-born cold. Displaying her range, she recounted production of Howard Hawk's The Big Sleep with an impersonation of the screenwriter, slipping into a slow, southern drawl that charmed the audience as Faulkner's voice itself must have charmed her then.

The first Bacall film I ever saw was The Big Sleep, that is, the 1946 generally available version featuring the rapid exchange between Bacall and Humphrey Bogart of sexual innuendo on horse racing. This sequence was added to the film after a 1945 test screening audience asked for more scenes with the couple, and both versions are playing at the Viennale's retrospective in tribute to Bacall's work. At the press conference, she was about to declare the latter version the only real one, before she was cut off.

After seeking out other enrapturing performances of the 1940s such as To Have and Have Not and Key Largo, Douglas Sirk's Written in the Wind confused my image of Bacall, because in that film released just 10 years later, she seems not only deferential, but old. Yet now 50 years later, the question inevitably still comes up, as it did yesterday: what's it like to be an old actress?

Her answer, was, of course, "difficult," especially for women, but she expressed gratitude and fortune in acting in a number of recent films divergent from the Hollywood system that made her an icon, such as Lars Von Trier's Dogville and Jonathan Glazer's Birth (just premiered at the Venice Film Film Festival) . But she also mentioned she still waits for "the great big role" to play, and filmmakers would be crazy not to hire her, as seeing Bacall in person is to witness a performance. She still has that look that mesmerized me in The Big Sleep, a slight smirk with her eyes looking at someone always at a slight angle, as if to say, I'm standing in the right place, why aren't you?

Despite her dismissals of "living legend" labels, Bacall is a star and a celebrity, so it was refreshing to hear her insistence on film acting as not just the appearance of a star, but work. As she noted the struggle to consider the cinema as an "actor's medium" rather than a "director's medium," her dismissal of "labels" was not quite just a cliché of modesty, but an appeal to improve the working conditions of the actor subjected to type-casting. The star-system of her early career marked the peak of this machinery, which probably explains my missed expectations in Written on the Wind .

On the other hand, she fondly remembered the not widely-known "Petrified Forest," a television episode produced for the 1950s anthology series Producer's Showcase, produced at a time of the sudden intrusion of Hollywood stars into the medium of television, leaving rank-and-file New York actors, many from off-Broadway, with less opportunity for work. Nevertheless, although I haven't seen it, it was spoken of very highly by a few critics in the audience. Queried on the availability of "Petrified Forest," she lamented the poor preservation practice of studios and networks and she shared the co-moderator's interest in locating a copy. FYI: The Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. has a copy.

Charles Leary
© FIPRESCI, Viennale, 2004



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bullet. 5th Soviet Congress
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Talent Press

"Maria Full of Grace"
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Lauren Bacall
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"B (short)"