Who needs colour?: Betty Bacall was always stunning in black & white
One of the last Hollywood Great’s career took her from her glamorous teens to an always classy mature screen presence whatever the movie
LAUREN BACALL DEADPANNING THROUGH A NEW YORK CHRISTMAS
It’s a so cute it hurts cinematic episode that doubtless meant most to a very young Thora (American Beauty, Ghost World) Birch and her proud mother. With the sad passing of Lauren Bacall at the suitably grand old age of 89 last week. her and Thora’s duet for Baby, It’s Cold Outside in 1991’s All I Want For Christmas (U) is brought into sharp relief.
It would be easy to dismiss. The coupling of the deep voice of a celebrated classy New York broad with a little girl’s is not a patch on the more well-known sublime rendition by Zooey Deschanel and Will Ferrell in Elf (2003). But it is hard to ignore simply because of Bacall’s contribution. Her presence adds cinematic grandeur to Robert Lieberman’s otherwise rather cringeworthy 1991 Christmas tale. The film was released in the US making $15m at the box office, and young Ethan Embry and Birch received Young Artists Awards nominations for their contributions. But there is a made-for-telly air about All I Want For Christmas, and in the UK,it is the sort of naff straight-to-dvd fare that can be found on sale in supermarkets in the weeks running uo to Christnas. (Though on that score I’d rather recommend A Dog Named Christmas (2009) any day of the week.)
In the absence of a vid of Bacall & Birch singing ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’, what better excuse to show Deschanel & Ferrell at it?
New York dame state of mind
The tale is told from the two young siblngs’ Hailie and Ethan’s viewpoint. Their Big Scheme is to reunite their divorced parents by Christmas; an even trickier number given their mother (Harley Jane Kozak) is on the brink of remarriage. Leslie Nielsen is the unusually Old World-attired Macy’s department store Santa Claus who might just grant Hallie her wish though it’s a huge step up from the usual toy requests. And Lauren Bacall deadpans it as their New York dame of a grandmother.
It is a role that appears to see the star biding her time between Misery (1990) and Robert Altman’s Ready To Wear (1994). Nevertheless, as with her contribution to another throwaway movie, Appointment With Death (1988), Bacall retains her dignity. Her apparent aloofness, ageless beauty and obvious intelligence which somehow never appeared intimidating to the cinemagoer, rise above any cack she ever happens to feature in. That’s star quality if ever if could be defined!
All I want for Christmas is for this to stop
The trouble with All I Want for Christmas is that it is a trying-too-hard mess of a family feelgood movie. There is over-acting and low budget effects galore, an unconvincing mismatched teen romance, and late Eighties’ fashions to make one wince. As with his turn in 1995’s cult teen flick, Empire Records, Embry’s desperation to be noticed coupled with his director’s strange reluctance to rein him in prove an excruciating mix.
Thora Birch on the other hand is Ethan’s too smart by half little sister. We first see Haillie standing in a tutu in the snow waiting for her brother. As they walk back home together, she wishes a passing gentleman ‘Merry Christmas! Happy Hannukah!’ She explains to Ethan: ‘Teacher says that you should always say both things in New York, because people are really sensitive. Isn’t that a good idea?’ It’s a world and all but half-century away from George Bailey’s daughter, Zuzu announcing ‘Teacher says ‘Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings!’ in the avowedly culturally Christian It’s A Wonderful Life (1946). (Never mind that a multi-faith recognising Christmas film is a mind-janglng concept if you think about it for too long.)
Honorary award for a glittering career
The truth is that Bacall’s casting in All I Want for Christmas is a mere blip in her screen canon, and at its most value, I suspect, as an answer in a final of UK television gameshow, Pointless. Nevertheless, it does act as a late step in a film career that triumphed with her debut at 19 in To Have and Have Not (1944) – where she first met love of her life, Humphrey Bogart – and continued into her final decade. She was notable especially in The Walker (2007) opposite Woody Harrelson. Scenes where she played cards with him and her friends across a table had a defiance to them, especially when compared to the sad decline exemplified all those years earlier at a similar game when sadsack Buster Keaton sat across from Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950). Bacall was never likely to turn up in a non-speaking cameo!
Lauren Bacall’s one Academy Award was an Honorary Award in 2010 in recognition of her central place in the Golden Age of motion pictures. (She received a nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role in 1997 for The Mirror Has Two Faces (!996).) In her later years, in an interview with a magazine journalist, Bacall lamented from her city apartment on the rudeness of New Yorkers. She told of being frequently pushed about, doors slammed in her face or simply blanked as elderly ladies tend to be as she made her way through the city streets unrecognisably wrapped up against the cold.
I imagine most of those same people would have been mortified had they known whom they had just snubbed. Lauren Bacalll, after all, was a woman who remained a screen legend, star quality shimmering around her very name to the end.