RIP Lauren Bacall. How we saw her very best side.
Lauren Bacall has died.
Now I might seem like an unlikely person to offer an obituary of one so famous, beautiful and gifted, and this blog might seem like an inappropriate place, but I am going to do it anyway. That's because I was lucky enough to meet and photograph her in Hollywood in the late nineties when I was working on a documentary about the late Jack Cardiff, Britain's first Technicolor cinematographer. My job was to arrange interviews with people who were relevant to Jack's illustrious career. Since Jack had been the cinematographer on Bogart's African Queen, and Lauren Bacall had been on set during the filming of it, we desperately wanted to talk to her. It was another life away.
I'm not joking when I say I chased her for six months. I phoned her agent in New York almost every day for the entire time I was working on the project to find out whether she'd take part, when she might be available and where we could interview her. It wasn't easy. She was elusive, unpredictable, difficult to pin down. Finally, Craig McCall (the film's director) and I set off for New York as we heard she might be there for us. She wasn't. But, the agent told me (by now we were almost friends) she was heading to Hollywood. I had set up some other interviews there (Kirk Douglas and Charlton Heston if you must know - but those are another story) and had spent all our budget on it, so this was our last chance.
I made one last call to the agent on the day before we were due to leave. He was finally able to give me good news. Miss Bacall would meet us at the Bel Air Hotel in two hours. I had no crew or even a location to film in, so I had no choice but to scramble everyone I could, put on a borrowed suit and go off to the hotel to bullshit my way into one of their suites. Somehow it worked and I managed to get it all set up with minutes to spare. That was a life lesson in itself. Few things can faze me after that.
Craig, who had all but given up, was out shopping when the call came. When he returned I told him to get changed, get his shit together and get in the car in 5 minutes. We were off to interview Lauren Bacall. In one of the world's biggest ever understatements, he said "Oh. Cool." Always the chancer, Craig got on the phone to Kevin McCleary , the boom operator on the African Queen, when we were in the car on our way to the hotel - to see if he was available for an interview in the next hour. Seeing as we had a crew and a location all ready and waiting, right? I wasn't sure how I would bullshit my way out of that one. In for a penny and all that. We did it anyway. Craig doesn't make great films by being a shrinking violet, that's for sure.
We got the keys to the suite, set up our lights and cameras and were ready with seconds to spare. Then she arrived. I was terrified. This lady had such a reputation that I could barely look at her. She glowered at me for arranging a suite that had steps (her walking wasn't too good) and then she found the scribbled filming instructions from the agent that I had carelessly left on a side table.
"High angle, key light left side" she read, "What is this?"
"Oh it's nothing," I lied and took it from her.
I remembered that because it was a silly little thing. I felt embarrassed being found with instructions on how to shoot a Hollywood beauty. But actually, I needn't have worried. She was absolutely charming. She gave us all we wanted and talked warmly about Jack and her experience of him. She talked about The African Queen, Katharine Hepburn, Bogart and the whole process of making a Hollywood epic on safari in Africa. She made us fall in love with her all over again. Not as a screen siren, an actress, a famed beauty or a formidable personality. But, this time, as a person. A warm and funny human being.
The picture above is just one of a few I took that day and has never been seen before.
As you'll see it is as she would have wanted: High angle, key light left side.
It was, as we saw, her best side.
Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff is available on AMAZON.