To mark the death of Lauren Bacall this month, Woman’s Hour reran a thrilling 2005 conversation between the actress and Jenni Murray (13 August, 10am). Bacall spoke about how her first husband, Humphrey Bogart, who was 25 years her senior when she met him on the set of To Have and Have Not in 1944, “protected me. He taught me about the town. About Hollywood. What it was like and what the gossip columnists were like; and precisely how to behave; and to never mix business with pleasure . . .”
For a moment, I felt completely overwhelmed with nostalgia for the mid-20th century, when stars still roamed the earth – distant, entirely distinct, visually and aurally memorable, almost entirely fictional-seeming (even Bacall here referred to her husband as “Bogie”). They were always in black and white, restrained by decorum and studio executives, their every marriage and move mediated. Each photograph released had been meticulously retouched.
More than anything, Bogart understood the air of intense wonder among his fans. It was this that he was teaching Bacall; how to keep up the (glittering) front. What became increasingly clear while listening to her speak – with that politesse and sharpness, a voice that sounded like no other human being’s – was that no moviegoer among us can pretend to anything approaching that innocent wonder about stars any more, anything near the intensity of the romance that was felt in those early days of movies.
The magic of cinema – and I specifically mean that stretch in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, when American stars were invented and their images so masterfully controlled – blew the mind of the species. It’s not so much that Twitter and Instagram have ruined it for us. It’s more that the sheer unnaturalness of the early experience of moving pictures can never be recreated: the strange, new idea of getting to know someone you don’t actually know and will never know, up there, walking around, gigantic, rendered by art.
Bacall was the last in a line that marked that epochal, no less than species-level, change. She knew it and so did everyone tuning in as, egged on by Murray, Bacall slyly put her lips together and whistled.