She felt she never really came into her own until she was transformed overnight into a Broadway star in the 1970 musical Applause – and she won even more unexpected applause as the author, without ghostwriter, of a best-selling, highly regarded memoir, Lauren Bacall: By Myself, which won a National Book Award in 1980.
But if she never reached the top tier of Hollywood legends, Bacall, who died at 89 in Manhattan on Tuesday, possessed a valuable if very particular set of talents and qualities that have never been combined before or since in one performer. These included:
a high-cheeked, somewhat sullen beauty, sensual and also somewhat formidable;
a breathtaking sense of style that was elegant but unpretentious, crisp, even wiry;
the famous low gaze that could signal both "Come hither" and, just as often, "You've gotta be kidding me";
the sultry, reedy voice that could, in the words of the old song, speak low when speaking love or, in less temperate moments, have the force of a brass battering ram;
and an unflinching, sardonic toughness that suggested she had taken the measure of every studio executive and contract player she had ever met and found them very likely not her equal. Probably correctly.
The fact is that Bacall was so distinctive that after more than half a century her work has scarcely dated, if at all.
Her lean, smooth, unmannered confidence feels absolutely contemporary. Just look at her in the movies in which she was paired with Bogart, such as 1944’s To Have and Have Not, which provided her with the line that defined her career (“You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and ... blow").
Or the classic 1956 Texas-oil melodrama Written on the Wind, in which her beauty and glamour feel so definitively, powerfully American – and so vivid in Technicolor – you wonder if she had something to do with our country prevailing in the Cold War.
She did not mellow into some grand dame, however. Playing herself in a cameo on The Sopranos in 2006, she let loose with a howling expletive that did not sound the least bit out of character.