Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Books: "Bogie & Bacall" By William J. Mann

Bogie & Bacall: The Surprising True Story of Hollywood's Greatest Love Affair

By William J. Mann

Harper; hardcover, 656 pages; $40; available today, Tuesday, July 11th 

William J. Mann is a celebrated Hollywood biographer, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Contender: The Story of Marlon Brando; Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn; and Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood, which was awarded the 2014 Edgar Allen Poe Award.

Bogie and Bacall. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

Two of the biggest stars of the Golden Era of Hollywood who were arguably its greatest love story. 

In Mann's new biography, Bogie & Bacall: The Surprising True Story of Hollywood's Greatest Love Affair, he reframes a classic American love story with all its complexity, challenges, and contradictions. It looks at timely issues such as fame, consent, women's agency, gender norms, and the role of celebrities in politics.

Part of the mystique surrounding this legendary couple was carefully curated by Bacall in the years after Bogart's tragic death in her three memoirs. It is now nearly a decade since Bacall passed, and Mann writes, "it's time to turn a fresh eye on their story, not to tear their legend down, as people always fear about reassessments of their favorites' lives but to understand how Bogie and Bacall happened, what their story meant, and in how many ways it's still relevant and reflective for today."

The Humphrey Bogart that the public knows is shaped by his classic cynical and hard-edged film roles, which people to this day can find rather easier, but Mann introduces the reader to a Bogart that is gentler, more romantic, more yearning than the legend admits. 

Mann illustrates the man, not the myth, which is hard to ignore. He explores the mystery of how this particular actor, who was not conventionally attractive with a persona that came to be during the Great Depression and war, was able to surpass every other movie idol, including Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Marlon Brando, and Montgomery Clift, to become the greatest movie star of all-time, according to many surveys. He did it, Mann contends, by embodying America in a way that few other actors managed, with a quieter, grounding sense of history in contrast to the loud, garish manor of John Wayne.

Bacall receives equal billing in Mann's tale, as she met the 45-year-old Bogart when she was just nineteen, and was thrust into the high-stakes world with little idea of what she was getting into. 

Brooklyn teenager Betty Bacal became Hollywood love goddess Lauren Bacall, and she taught Bogart how to whistle and marries him, and they live happily ever after. "Bogie" and his "Baby" make four successful, iconic films, including "The Big Sleep" and "To Have and Have Not," in their twelve years together before he dies from cancer, and the story slips into legend.

In this excerpt, Mann writes of why their legend endures today, and the role Bacall played in it: "Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart were arguably Hollywood's greatest love story, and maybe not even so arguably. Whose story was greater? Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton? Too chaotic and such an unhappy ending. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz? Too self-destructive. Clark Gable and Carole Lombard? Poignant and tragic but too brief. Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy? Too much window dressing.

It's notable that Bacall looked to Hepburn as her model for stardom. Hepburn brilliantly created a mythos about herself, and Bacall clearly took note. She watched as her pal 'Katie' orchestrated a veritable cottage industry of mythmaking throughout the 1980s and 1990s (books, articles, interviews, documentary films). Bacall didn't need to repackage her life with Bogart the way Hepburn had done with Tracy. The Bogart-Bacall relationship was real; it was wonderful; it was passionate; it was complicated. But there were still lessons to be learned from Hepburn that Bacall used in writing and promoting her second and third memoirs. Like Hepburn, she delivered her story with such imperious authority that no one dared question her version of events.

But in so carefully controlling the way her life was chronicled, Bacall narrowed Bogart's story as much as she did her own. One of the few reviews of (her memoir) By Myself and Then Some, in the Guardian, commented that Bacall's version of Bogie tended to 'blur the man himself.' That does a disservice to a figure that remains such a cultural touchstone, not just the greatest movie star but a prototype for the modern American man.

Humphrey Bogart has come down to us as the supremely confident, unflappable, unpretentious, reluctant movie star, filled with integrity, strength, and disdain for phonies. That's not untrue. He did have integrity and he did have strength, and he very much disdained phonies, but he was softer than such a description would imply. He was wounded, vulnerable, and filled with self-doubt. He lived most of his life trying to overcome the emotional deprivations of his childhood. He was no tough kid from the streets, as so many people thought based on the roles he played but rather the privileged son of a wealthy physician and an acclaimed illustrator. Yet for all his birthright, he never felt he measured up. Denied love by his parents, expelled from schools, fired by employers, he struggled with self-worth all his life. That helps explain the drinking and the rage it unleashed.

But this complex and unguarded Bogart does not appear in Betty's pages, and consequently he's largely absent from the public's memory of him as well. Instead, he is the cynical, hard-edged Sam Spade or Rick Blaine, and his legendary output of film noir classics continues to play in Bogart festivals all over the world. Yet although he brilliantly created Spade and Rick - and Duke Mantee and Philip Marlowe and Mad Dog Earle and Charlie Allnut - from parts of himself, the characters and the man were very much not one and the same.

The real Humphrey Bogart, whom I hope I am revealing here, was gentler, more romantic, more yearning than the legend admits. In his youth, he was a Broadway cavalier, a speakeasy dandy, who wanted very much to become a romantic matinee idol. He loved the theater, he loved his craft, and he cared about becoming a better actor, pushing himself to take chances. But the wounded child within him made regular and devastating appearances over the course of his career, and his alcoholism threatened everything he had achieved.

The legend holds that Bacall saved him, that with her Bogart finally found true love and contentment. There's truth in that, but as always, the truth is complicated. That Bogie and Bacall loved each other is undeniable. But in fact, Bogie had been in love with his first three wives as well, a fact deliberately obscured and sometimes denied in service to the Bogie and Bacall legend. Each time he wed, Bogie thought he'd found true love. Turns out, the cynical, hard-hearted Humphrey Bogart was a softie when it came to love. He was no philanderer. His friend John Huston, who most definitely was, often remarked that Bogie never chased his leading ladies or starlets on the lot. Instead, he fell for a woman, married her, then hoped to remain true to her. But for the legend to maintain that Bacall was his one and only, that romantic early Bogart had to be played down, and his earlier wives had to be minimized, especially Mayo Methot, whom Bacall replaced."

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