It’s A Shame That Some Obituaries Focus On Lauren Bacall’s Beauty & Love Life Over Her Talent

Two Hollywood legends passed this week — Robin Williams, 63, on Monday morning, and Lauren Bacall, 89, on Tuesday night. They died in extremely different ways, but both were household names who’d been in numerous iconic films. These two deaths are being handled very differently — Bacall’s obituaries and remembrances are far more focused on her sex appeal than her career.

It’s understandable to mention an iconic actress’ beauty in an obituary, especially one who was discovered while working as a fashion model. I’m not suggesting that Lauren Bacall’s great beauty should be off-limits entirely. And to a certain extent, the emphasis on Bacall’s old Hollywood glamour is also understandable — her scandalous romance with Humphrey Bogart is far more interesting to most people, I’m sure, than Robin Williams’ three marriages. Yet the way some of her obits have been written make it seem as though Bacall was more famous for her looks and her husbands than for her over-half-a-century-long career in which she appeared in some of Hollywood’s biggest films, like “The Big Sleep,” “How To Marry A Millionaire,” and “Misery.” Writes blogger Tracy McVeigh in the UK’s Guardian, “It’s often the case with beautiful women that their achievements can be undone by people transfixed by their smouldering celluloid gaze.”

For example, here’s The New York Times on Lauren Bacall’s death:

Lauren Bacall, the actress whose provocative glamour elevated her to stardom in Hollywood’s golden age and whose lasting mystique put her on a plateau in American culture that few stars reach, died on Tuesday in New York. She was 89. … With an insinuating pose and a seductive, throaty voice — her simplest remark sounded like a jungle mating call, one critic said — Ms. Bacall shot to fame in 1944 with her first movie, Howard Hawks’s adaptation of the Ernest Hemingway novel “To Have and Have Not,” playing opposite Humphrey Bogart, who became her lover on the set and later her husband.

Here’s The New York Times on Robin Williams’ death:

Robin Williams, the comedian who evolved into the surprisingly nuanced, Academy Award-winning actor, imbuing his performances with wild inventiveness and a kind of manic energy, died on Monday at his home in Tiburon, Calif., north of San Francisco. He was 63.

You won’t find out until paragraph seven that Bacall received an Academy Award, too (an honorary one in 2009; she received a nomination in 1996) and even later in the piece do you learn she won the National Book Award for her autobiography, By Myself. Williams’ Academy Award and talent are mentioned in the first paragraph of his obituary, while Bacall is remembered for possessing “provocative glamour” in hers.

But the NY Times is just one newspaper. So here are the first four sentences of Bacall’s obit in The Los Angeles Times — which, just as she predicted in a 2011 Vanity Fair interview, was heavy on the Bogart connection:

At 19, Lauren Bacall was living every red-blooded American woman’s dream: Humphrey Bogart was standing inches from her, waiting for her to speak. They were shooting a crucial scene in director Howard Hawks’ 1944 wartime drama “To Have and Have Not,” but her head was shaking, as was her hand and the cigarette she was holding. And trembling was not in the script. So Bacall tipped her head down so that her chin almost touched her chest. It was the only way she could steady herself. From that stance she gazed upward at Bogart. In that moment “the look” was born — the one that would make the sultry-voiced actress a screen legend and redefine sexuality for generations to follow.

The LA Times focuses on Bacall’s sex appeal and her relationship with a famous man; meanwhile, Robin Williams’ obit in the same paper calls him a “genius” in its headline and details his career success:

When Robin Williams graduated from Redwood High School in Marin County, his classmates couldn’t help themselves: They voted him both “most humorous” and “least likely to succeed.” He topped them. Williams became one of the world’s most successful entertainers, an actor and comedian whose energy animated characters who, like himself, seemed to be spinning hilariously out of control — sometimes into dark places that only the “most humorous” can understand.

This obit seems like a more serious treatment of an actor’s career — and nary a mention of his sex appeal!

These are just two examples of obituaries that I’ve read this week. Fortunately, other publications, like The Hollywood Reporter and the UK’s Guardian, are memorializing Bacall with less emphasis on her appearance or sex appeal.  (A particularly good remembrance in the Guardian notes her smarts, her toughness and how she turned down “dumb roles.”) There will be countless obits and remembrances of both actors and, of course, it would be impossible to analyze every single one side-by-side. But it’s worth illustrating how a man and a woman in the same industry are treated differently on the occasion of their deaths. Even if the circumstances of Williams’ passing is more tragic and unexpected, it’s unfair that he gets remembered as a talent while she’s remembered for being “sultry.” Apparently what we value in women in Hollywood continues even after their deaths.

Thanks to Lilit Marcus for her help with this post!

[New York Times 1]
[New York Times 2]
[Los Angeles 1]
[Los Angeles 2]
[The Hollywood Reporter]
[Guardian UK 1]
[Guardian UK 2]
[Vanity Fair]

Email me at [email protected] Follow me on Twitter.