Directors UK Chair Charles Sturridge recalls his experience of working with the late Lauren Bacall:
Just over 20 yeas ago, I was standing in a car park in France, shooting a film for the BBC film called A Foreign Field. It was day two and, as I stood beside the camera, a tall woman was walking purposefully towards me. I remember exactly what she was wearing, partly because it was cold and partly because it wasn’t very much: a low V-neck brown cardigan with just a bra underneath, a pair of old blue jeans, and sandals. She was just under 70 years old at the time, but somehow age did not seem important. Lauren Bacall had come to say good morning to her director.
The film was a simple story of two veterans of the second world war returning to the beaches of Normandy, where they had fought. They were played by Alec Guinness and Leo McKern. On the way, they meet up with a Frenchwoman played by Jeanne Moreau, and a mysterious American played by Lauren Bacall. Bacall was on set for a makeup test and final costume fitting, but the designer had come to me in tears the night before to say he could not find a single article of clothing that Miss Bacall would agree to wear. I looked at the selection: the film had a tiny budget and all the clothes were from BBC stock. They hung drably on the rail. I said not to worry. I was feeling confident – the day before I had presented Moreau with a single green dress as my choice for her. “Come upstairs and let me try it on,” she said. She changed in her hotel bathroom and emerged struggling with the zip. “I love it,” she said, “and what’s so brilliant is that it doesn’t fit me at all!” She then produced a pair of bright red shoes and said: “What about these? I wore them in Jules et Jim. They would work, no?’”
Bacall leant in for her good morning kiss, which I recognised as a ritual. I said, “Good morning” and added, “You realise you’ve just chosen your costume.” We did not at that point know each other very well and she wasn’t sure if I was joking, as her intention was to go to Paris and shop for a costume. “No one would choose what you’re wearing,” I said. “Jeans, cardigan, no blouse, bra strap showing, bare neck. Lisa [her character] is depressed: she is someone who just doesn’t care, who has no interest in how she looks. It’s perfect.”
She hesitated infinitesimally, then grinned and said: “Got it.” This was no small decision because the events of the film covered a single day, so the cardigan and bra were worn nearly every day of the shoot – although after a week she was getting cold, so I wrote a quick little scene where Alec Guinness lends her a raincoat.
I had chosen a tiny guesthouse in a small Normandy village for the cast to stay in – we couldn’t afford a grand hotel, so I needed somewhere eccentric and charming. Bacall and Moreau arrived on the same night and had wandered through the reception areas picking out pieces of furniture and pictures they liked and having them sent up to their rooms by the open-mouthed and adoring French staff. Together, they built themselves nests and they were very happy. I sometimes wish I had filmed our dinners in the evening. Bacall and Moreau had been world famous since their teens and they were both very political: there wasn’t a president or major politician they did not know; nor a poet, nor a writer, nor an actor – and it was clear that most of the people they mentioned had been in love with them in one way or another.
It was talk, not gossip. Bacall was a Democrat (anti-Republican, as she described it) and politics rather than film was her passion. She had campaigned for Democratic hopefuls Adlai Stevenson and Robert Kennedy, she knew the Reagans, and she rolled her eyes at the mention of the current incumbent, George Bush. But it wasn’t just politicians. There were writers (Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene) and directors (Howard Hawks, John Huston, Sydney Lumet, Robert Altman and of course Bogart, who she referred as “Bogie” as if he was in the next room). It his hard to do justice to what a formidable presence she was, yet there was also a girlishness about her and an easy companionable intimacy.
Part of a director’s job is to find the right way to communicate with each actor; almost everyone has a different route and needs a different kind of language. Bacall appeared to have no map, no feel for direction, which seemed surprising. She would ask quite openly: “What should I do? What do you want?” As she said this, it was impossible not to see, flickering in front of her, the astonishing cinematic images and decisions she had made in her career – the whistle, the cigarette, the kiss – and yet sometimes she behaved as if it was her first day on a set. It was this openness, perhaps, that made her effect on camera so breathtaking.
One other costume was required, for a final a graveside scene. She produced her own simple black Armani dress on which we immediately agreed, job done. That night, I got a call from the designer. “She wants a Gucci handbag to go with he dress,” he said. “Give it to her,” I replied. “I can’t,” he said. “It costs £800!” So I went to the producer and said: “She’s wearing entirely her own clothes in this film. We haven’t even had to hire a pair of socks. Let her have the handbag.” He agreed.
Later, I said to Bacall: “You’ve got your handbag, but please leave it in the car when you arrive at the graveyard. Don’t carry it in the scene.” She raised her eyebrow as usual. “You’re going to cry,” I explained. “If you’re holding a bag, the scene will become about what you do with the bag.”
“Got it,” she replied with a grin.
So the BBC forked out £800 of license-payers’ money for a handbag that never appears in the film. It was worth every penny.
After publishing this piece we received the following anecdote from director James Cellan Jones:
I too, like Charles Sturridge, had the privilege of directing the sublime Lauren Bacall. Some eighteen years ago I was approached by Murray Smith and Frederick Forsyth to do a television film called A Little Piece of Sunshine which was to be shot in Florida and the Caribbean.
We cast Larry Lamb, Chris Cooper and Alan Howard, all very talented and very amusing. We were looking for a leading lady and I said, “What about Lauren Bacall?” without much hope.
We were in Miami on a recce at the time. “It's funny you should say that”, they replied. “She is in Paris at the moment and doesn't entirely rule it out; wants to talk to you for some reason. You can telephone her in two hours time”.
Nervously I dialled the number: she answered. I said, “Is that Miss Lauren Bacall?”. “Call me Betty, every one does”. After the usual formalities she said, “Let's get to the point. I haven't seen any of your work”. “I've seen all of yours”, I said. “I asked around about you. Lee Remick seems to think you are OK and she said you won a Directors' Guild award, if that means anything”. “Well, yes it does a bit, I think”. “Well I'm prepared to take a chance on you. Let me talk to the money men”. “This means a lot to me”, I said. “We'll have a coupla laughs. See ya”.
I was, of course, very excited.
The costume designer was worried. “She is known for hating designers”, she said, “and she wants all her clothes specially designed by Armani. I haven't got the time or the money”. “I think you'll find she's charming”, I said. Her reply was to embroider me a t-shirt bearing the legend 'No more Mr Nice Guy'.
In the event Betty arrived with a great deal of luggage. I went to see her in her room. She had unpacked and some of the cupboards were bulging. “I think, being the professional you are, you have a variety of clothes in there”, I said. She opened the doors. There were over fourteen outfits, at least four of them bearing the label Armani - enough to dress her with variations through the film. “You are a very generous person and a pro”, I said. “Better believe it”, she said.
For the next few weeks we had a ball. Larry and Chris and Alan all adored her. She was amazingly, heartbreakingly nervous on the first day of shooting and afterwards inspired the whole cast and crew. On the last day the actors and I took her out to dinner.
I don't think any of us will ever forget her.