Last week it was announced that Lauren Bacall would be receiving an honorary Oscar. Whatever you think about the merits of such a gesture (more on that later), one thing is inarguable, the tacky and downright shameful decision to present this award not on the March 7th telecast, as would normally be the case, but at a Board of Governors dinner to be held on November 14th. There is already such a dearth of genuine excitement at Oscar ceremonies, and now the Academy is going out of its way to avoid a moment with the potential of being the broadcast’s highlight.
Whatever your opinion of Bacall, she is the living-breathing connection to Humphrey Bogart, one of the true icons of film history, thus making the award something of a tribute to their enduring magic as an essential team for classic-film lovers. Since Bacall is still in good shape, this would be a unique opportunity for the whole world to hear her thoughts on Bogie and some of the other legends who touched her life and career, including Marilyn Monroe, Howard Hawks, and Vincente Minnelli. But Bacall has been relegated to the Siberia of November, allowing more time in March for incoherent montages and songs that will never be sung again. Thank you, governors.
With her lifetime-achievement award given on the sly, Bacall can feel honored and slighted at the same time. The other special-award honorees (John Calley, Gordon Willis, and Roger Corman) also deserve the respect associated with an on-air presentation, but in their cases you can at least understand (from a TV producer’s slant) that, as behind-the-scenes people, they are mostly unknown to viewers. Of course, it would be wonderful to expose the home audience to the contributions of Calley, Willis, and Corman, but I guess that’s too much to ask at this point. However, Bacall is a freaking movie star! And people watch the Oscars to see stars, and not just those of the twentysomething variety.
That said, let me now question the selection of Bacall for an honor denied to such extraordinary talents as Ida Lupino, Joel McCrea, Robert Mitchum, James Mason, William Powell, Irene Dunne, and Jean Arthur. True, just because Oscar made so many mistakes in the past is no reason to continue doing so, but before you get to Bacall shouldn’t you be honoring Doris Day and Jean Simmons? Since honorary Oscars usually go to major talents, where in Bacall’s filmography are any great performances? Her status as Bogie’s Baby, as the gal who knew how to whistle, is secure, but what are her artistic accomplishments? Bacall has lasted in the industry by accepting character parts in movies for the last forty years or so, including Harper (1966), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), and her Oscar-nominated turn as Barbra Streisand’s mother in The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996). She was considered a sentimental shoo-in that year, so is Oscar making up for that shocking loss? She was good in the movie, but she stuck out even more for being the only touch of class amid pure wreckage.
Aside from Bacall’s four pictures with Bogie, featuring their classic exchanges, most notably in To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946), what can the Academy be honoring her for, aside from career longevity? John Huston’s Key Largo (1948), her final film with Bogie, is a good movie but Bacall is its weakest link. Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1956) is now considered a classic, but Bacall sleepwalks her way through most of it. And she wasn’t really up to filling out the depths inherent in her lesbian role opposite Kirk Douglas in Young Man with a Horn (1950).
Bacall’s main talent was as a light sophisticated comedienne, though she was hardly in the league of the great ladies of the screwball era. I’d say that her best performance is in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), in which she is witty, sharp, and altogether polished. Her intelligence shines through, and she has a star’s energy and presence. She continued in this vein in Woman’s World (1954) and Designing Woman (1957), but neither showcased her as effectively as Millionaire had.
Whatever my reservations, I still want to see Bacall get her Oscar before a standing ovation at the Kodak Theatre. Come on, Academy, it’s not too late to fix this situation and give an old-fashioned movie star an old-fashioned tribute. Think how pissed off Bogie would be to see his baby treated so shabbily.