June 08, 1981 12:00 PM

Lauren Bacall has been celebrated for her luck and her Look, her long legs and the lowest voice ever to invite a whistle, but only now—after 39 years in show business—for a lusty longevity that has gathered weight and depth but obviously no moss. At an age when many major actors are grateful for the occasional walk-on, Bacall, 56, has a Tony-nominated lead in the Broadway musical Woman of the Year, a gratifying romance with her co-star, Harry Guardino, 55, and a controversial movie hit, The Fan, that capitalizes on the legendary star power she still so commandingly radiates.

The biggest toad in her enchanted garden, however, is the hoopla over her new movie. ” The Fan is much more graphic and violent than when I read the script,” says Bacall of her role as an aging actress stalked by a murderously psychotic admirer. “The movie I wanted to make had more to do with what happens to the life of the woman—and less blood and gore.” Filming, based on author Bob Randall’s 1977 thriller, wrapped last summer, but the parallels to the December shooting of John Lennon have again enmeshed Bacall in that horror.

A resident of the Dakota apartment house where Lennon was shot, Bacall was particularly incensed that critic Rex Reed, who also lives in the building, publicly identified her as one of the many celebrity tenants. Now, she reports, “The ghouls are outside nonstop with their goddamn cameras. It’s hard to keep them away. It’s a heavy price to pay, I must say.” Even more appalling to her is the disclaimer tacked onto the previews for the film by Paramount Pictures that correctly—but suggestively—denies similarities between the film and Lennon’s death. “I think it’s disgusting, revolting and exploitive,” she says. “I hope they will stop using it. Obviously, whoever decided to do it thought it would help the movie. I think it will hurt it.”

If anything does help the uneven movie, it is Bacall’s electrifying performance. Among generally mixed reviews, the one that really counted was a valentine from the New York Times‘ Vincent Canby, who began, “The Fan…has several terrific things going for it, and they’re all named Lauren Bacall.” Betty, as she is known to friends, giggled like a schoolgirl. “I’ve never had such a good review for a film,” proclaims the gal who has completed 23 of them. “I’m thrilled. I think I’ll run away with Vincent Canby.”

These days, actually, her escape mate is more likely to be Guardino. They began working together last December in Woman of the Year, an updated version (her character, Tess, is a Barbara Walters-like TV interviewer rather than a newspaper columnist) of the 1942 movie that first paired another romantic couple, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. (An old friend, Hepburn wired opening-night flowers signed “Grandma Tess.”) As for Bacall and Guardino, midway through rehearsals they began holding hands for more than curtain calls. “I saw her light up as time went on,” says director Robert Moore. Adds playwright Peter Stone, “Betty and Harry laugh and kid a lot. Betty’s way of joking is to snipe. It scares a lot of people away, but it doesn’t scare Harry.” In fact, the ebullient Guardino, whose recent film credits include Any Which Way You Can, sounds downright smitten by his tart-tongued partner. “She’s the peak of what womanhood is,” hosannas Harry. “Of all the women I’ve been involved with, Betty is No. 1. I doubt if I’ll ever meet another like her.” (The New York-born Guardino has been married and divorced twice.)

In casting the play, Bacall admits she was lucky to meet Guardino. “We were looking for a man, for openers, which is already not easy to find,” she cracks. “In the musical field, either the guys are too young—or they’re not guys. When Harry auditioned, I thought, ‘God, he’s sensational.’ And he has that rough edge.” So, admittedly, does Bacall. “Like Tess, I’ve been a working woman all my life,” says Betty, who won her first Tony in 1970’s Applause. “But [unlike Tess] I’ve never thought of a man as a convenience because I’ve never known one who was a convenience, frankly. They’re mostly inconvenient.”

So, too, at this stage in her life, is remarriage. “I don’t see any point. I’m not about to have children,” she snaps. Besides, adds Bacall, “You get a little, you know, gun-shy.”

As she detailed in her best-selling 1979 autobiography, Lauren Bacall by Myself, the men in her life have frequently occasioned monumental fireworks. Her first marriage, at 20, of course, was to Humphrey Bogart, 25 years her senior and co-star of her first film, Howard Hawks’ 1944 To Have and Have Not. For 12 happy years before his painful death from cancer in 1957, they were Hollywood’s magic couple, onscreen and off. “Bogie’s death was devastating,” she says, “but I had to focus on my two young children. So I had something kind of constructive to think of.” After a brief engagement to Frank Sinatra—who cruelly backed down—and a stormy eight-year second marriage, to actor Jason Robards, which ended in 1969, she’s not interested in another round. She and Robards, she reports, are now close and trusting friends. “It’s wonderful to have that kind of relationship with someone you’ve been married to. You say: ‘You know, I was right. It didn’t work out, but I was right to have married him. He was worth it.’ ”

A special bond is their son, Sam, 19, an actor who recently starred off-Broadway in Album and will soon work on director Paul (An Unmarried Woman) Mazursky’s new film, The Tempest. “I’d love to get in a Mazursky film. I don’t think I could, but obviously my kid can,” gripes Bacall good-naturedly. Does she support Sam’s choice of career? “I think it’s easier to do something else,” Bacall cautions. “But he knows the dedication and the disappointments involved.”

Her other offspring got the message. Leslie Bogart, 28, is a Boston nurse. Steve Bogart, 32, and the father of an 11-year-old son, works in cable TV production in Bristol, Conn. “I never want to have to depend upon my children for entertainment,” reflects Bacall. “I don’t want them ever to feel: ‘Oh, Christ, there she is sitting alone, moaning and groaning. What are we going to do with her?’ The best thing I can say about myself is that I don’t have enough time to see them, that they’ve got to try and find enough time in their lives to see me.”

When Bacall does spend time with her kids, the former Betty Joan Perske from the Bronx is the proverbial Jewish mother. When Leslie visited Woman of the Year rehearsals in Boston, Bacall demanded: “Where will you be tomorrow?” Blurted Leslie: “Living my life. Mother!” Bacall brought in a continuous feast of French pastries, Italian fruit juice and the best deli food available for her Woman co-workers. “She’ll grab a sandwich off your plate and say: ‘Don’t eat that. Eat this,’ ” chuckles director Moore.

The star herself refuses to be mothered. The ultimate tough cookie known to make softer ones crumble, Bacall is resolute, driven and highly disciplined. She vocalizes and does rigorous warm-up exercises before each show and lifts leg weights daily to strengthen a knee damaged during Applause. She prides herself on having never missed a stage performance. Plagued lately by a throat infection, she avoids smoke-filled restaurants and most socializing. “I’ve been to enough parties in my life, God knows,” says Bacall. “I much prefer six to eight people I can talk to. Or two. Or one.”

Weekends are spent quietly at her country house (which is embellished with her quilt collection) in the posh Hamptons. “I talk to my birds, my trees. I love my house. It’s my haven,” she exults. But the notion of retiring there—or anywhere—brings up Bacall’s bile. “What the hell would I do? Go to luncheons?” Work is her fulfillment, and she’s looking forward to the long-delayed release of director Robert Altman’s Health, in which she plays an 83-year-old virgin (“which you can see, of course, I am”). Once her one-year contract with Woman of the Year is up, Bacall may take the show to London and on the road. She’ll also continue to hawk baubles in local ads for a New York jewelry store—another tender subject. “Why shouldn’t I do it?” she demands. “Why shouldn’t actors do commercials? What is this?” Bacall admits to tossing around some of the estimated $1.4 million (10 percent of Woman’s gross) she will earn in 12 months on Broadway. “I don’t spend a lot of time buying myself sapphires and diamonds, you know,” she protests. “I don’t have that kind of money. But I’m a spendthrift. I say: ‘Well, goddamn it, I’ve earned it. What the hell! I want this tree in my garden in the country, so I’ll buy it.’ I keep reassuring myself that I have the right to spend my own money!”

It’s sometimes difficult to remember that behind Bacall’s brazen self-assurance still lurks the insecure young girl who once prowled the discount stores, ushered in Broadway movie theaters and was deeply attached to her adoring mother. “The loss of my mother [in 1969] was the worst thing that has ever happened to me,” says Bacall, moved that her autobiography drew more letters about her relationship with her mother than about Bogie. “It showed there were people who cared about me. I think I’m finally out of Bogie’s shadow. I feel I have been vindicated as a human being, a woman who can stand alone,” she says. “Listen, whenever there’s a time in your life that works right, that’s a plus. Most of life is a struggle. This is a good time. I feel better about myself than I ever have. I’m enjoying my work and my life, and, hey, listen, I’m way ahead. I can’t complain.”

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