Molly Haskell on Lauren Bacall and “the Hawksian Woman”
The pioneering film critic and feminist explains why she still loves the heroines of director Howard Hawks
Lauren Bacall in a promotional still for TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT
In her landmark 1974 book From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies (which received a third-edition printing in 2016), Molly Haskell offered a survey of female representation on film that was as incisive as it was sweeping, and one whose justified anger was matched by a remarkable nuance and subtlety. Rather than a blanket condemnation of an industry (and an ideology) that was founded on the subjugation and exploitation of women, Haskell argued that some female performers were able to transcend their often demeaning onscreen circumstances through the sheer power of their presence — their projection of an image that was constructed both for and by them, as well as by the desires and imagination of the viewer.
“This is the contradiction that runs through the history of film, a kink in the machine of sociologists’ generalizations,” Haskell writes. “We see the June Bride played by Bette Davis surrender her independence at the altar[,] Katharine Hepburn’s Alice Adams achieve her highest ambition in the arms of Fred MacMurray[,] Joan Crawford as the head of a trucking firm in They All Kissed the Bride go weak in the knees at the sight of the labour leader played by Melvyn Douglas. And yet we remember Bette Davis not as the blushing bride but as the aggressive reporter and sometimes-bitch[;] Katharine Hepburn standing on the ‘secretarial stairway’ to independence[;] and Joan Crawford looking about as wobbly as the Statue of Liberty.”
While Haskell writes persuasively of the ways in which the actor’s image could thus undermine or counteract the ideological dictates of the plots in which they found themselves, she also accords due praise and enthusiasm to those rare films that depicted relationships of equality and respect between men and women. Haskell singles out two films in particular: the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn vehicle Adam’s Rib (1951) and Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not (1944), the first pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
These couples “bring to the screen the kind of morally and socially beneficial ‘pedagogic’ relationship that Lionel Trilling finds in Jane Austen’s characters, the ‘intelligent love’ in which the two partners instruct, inform, educate, and influence each other,” says Haskell. “In the confidence of mutuality, individuals grow, expand, exchange sexual characteristics…. it allows the man to expose the feminine side of his nature, and the woman to act on the masculine side of hers.”
That mix of masculine and feminine was one of the most remarked-upon traits of Hawks’ heroines, such that “the Hawksian Woman” became a cinematic archetype all its own. Bookended by Rosalind Russell’s dauntless reporter Hildy Johnson in the director’s 1940 screwball comedy His Girl Friday and Angie Dickinson’s gambler/bar girl Feathers in the John Wayne western Rio Bravo (1959), Bacall’s Slim in To Have and Have Not is the purest expression of this dream figure: equal parts seductive and sarcastic, unerringly sure and self-possessed, sexually experienced but (in defiance of the puritan morality of the time) unsullied, tough yet tender, able to hang with the boys while remaining very much a woman, unquestionably independent yet unhesitatingly ready to commit to the right man, if he comes along.
“Bacall’s Slim is one of film’s richly superior heroines and a rare example of a woman holding her own in a man’s world,” writes Haskell — which makes it all the more ironic, as the author acknowledges, that the then 19-year-old neophyte Bacall had her performance supervised so closely by her director, who had first seen her on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar and clearly sought to shape the untried youngster into his own fantasy image of a “strong woman.” (After Bogart and Bacall fell in love on the set and subsequently married, Hawks famously said — with perhaps a tinge of self-satisfaction — “Bogie fell in love with the character she played. So she had to keep playing it the rest of her life.”)
Discerning the complex dynamics at work in such a collaboration is a delicate business, and Haskell’s extraordinary ability to do so is what makes From Reverence to Rape such a vital work even half a century after its publication. On the occasion of TIFF Cinematheque’s Bogart and Bacall retrospective, we spoke with Ms. Haskell about the interplay of female agency and male fantasy in the Hawksian Woman, and whether she sees any continuity between these classic Hollywood heroines and the more nominally empowered (or sometimes superpowered) female characters in action films today.
TIFF: A simple question to start off with: what was it that drew you to the female characters in Hawks’ films in the first place? What set them apart?
MOLLY HASKELL: I think I responded specifically to Hawks’ vision of women as (sort of) equal to men: they're not defined by being wives or mothers. This appealed to me, because I grew up as a tomboy and I suppose, semi-unconsciously at the time, I wasn’t particularly drawn to motherhood, and I never did become a mother. A lot of feminists, and women [in general], were critical of Hawks’ films, because they thought the women were sort of pseudo-men; it was like Henry Higgins [in My Fair Lady], “Why can't a woman be more like a man?” [Laughs]
So their idea was that this was sort of limiting, or even anti-woman. But to me it was the opposite. It was a kind of liberation that [Hawks] would have women in these [traditionally male] worlds: that he would have women [performing] basically male actions in action films — which, in general, are far more interested in men — and have them holding their own. I think the whole dynamic of the [romantic] couples of Rio Bravo, His Girl Friday and To Have and Have Not is men and women teaching each other something. Hawks was the opposite of John Ford, who is all about community, tradition, honour. Hawks’ [view] is individualistic and anti-tradition, and that seemed to me so much in the spirit of the women's movement as it was [at the time] when I was emerging as a critic: the idea of choice, of not being bound, or restricted, by womanly roles.
Another thing that really appealed to me was that Hawks’ women are women. They have a certain androgyny to them, they can hold their own in this man's world, but at the same time they're extremely sexy and womanly. What they have is this kind of forthrightness [in the way they deal with men]. With Bacall and Bogie, and Angie Dickinson and John Wayne [in Rio Bravo], it's not so much what's being said as the tone, the gestures and body language, the sort of ambience surrounding them: no means yes, yes means no. That was at a time when such flirtation signals were not just tolerated, they were a desirable amount of ambiguity, instead of an occasion for calling 911. [Laughs] I think nowadays you just don't have that kind of tacit, mutual understanding; it's like men and women have to start all over and invent the courtship or encounter rituals from the ground up. But here you sort of have a sense of where they're coming from, and where they're going.
The whole thing about ambiguity is that it allows for a lot of possibilities. It's not pinned down until the end of the film, “what is this relationship going to be?” It's endlessly metamorphosing and evolving. The characters evolve, so the relationships evolve — that's what's so exciting and dynamic about it. I mean, it's sexy from the get-go, but will it be more than that? Will they trust each other to allow it to be more than that? To me, that's the most exciting thing that can happen between a man and a woman. [Hawks’] men are defensive, they don't trust women, and some people say “well, that’s an adolescent viewpoint.” And there is something adolescent about it — but unlike, say, Judd Apatow movies, where the men never emerge from adolescence, the men in Hawks’ films do undergo a kind of transformation. The men end up showing vulnerability, allowing women to see through their façade. To me, it's the excitement of love as a kind of mutual education, as well as attraction.
TIFF: In your book, you quote a moment where Hawks kind of “gave the game away”: he said in an interview that he likes having pretty young girls in his films, but he liked them to act as if they were older. So of course, one of the dynamics at play in these characters is that they are, to some extent, constructions of (a particular) male fantasy.
MOLLY HASKELL: Well, when you talk about male fantasy, it's not always a question of men seeing women as objects — they can see them as subjects, too. [So these characters are] a male fantasy of a smart woman, of a woman who can talk back, who is not passive. There is a sexual component in the way he has them look, but they’re not nymphets: they’re young women who are, perhaps, wiser and more knowing than a woman of their age would actually be. So they may be unrealistic in a sense, but Hawks does tend toward the mythic in his men, too. I think Robin Wood says that in his book [on Hawks]. Just like the women, the men are these probably impossible ideals: they're tough guys, they're funny, they combine all these characteristics.
TIFF: I’m interested to know your thoughts on the balance of power between Hawks and the actresses, in the way they mutually construct these characters. When you compare Rosalind Russell and Lauren Bacall, there's certainly a difference in the degree of power they could wield: Russell was in her early thirties when she played Hildy Johnson and was already an established star, whereas Bacall in To Have and Have Not was 19 years old and in her very first film. As you detail in your book, there are all these stories about how Hawks basically put her through boot camp, having her yell on top of a mountain in order to deepen her voice, for instance.
MOLLY HASKELL: With Bacall, yes, he took her out and made her yell and do all these things. But it's not like he’s some Pygmalion who has her under his thumb. Marlene Dietrich, for example, was far more under Josef von Sternberg’s control than I think Bacall ever was under Hawks’. And yet at the same time, you don’t think of either of them as just being these fantasies of male imagination and desire. Both Dietrich and Bacall have a terrific agency. They’re the authors of their own sex appeal; they're very aware of their own attractiveness and how to use it. That's the way I feel about it, anyway.
TIFF: In the introduction to your book, you speak about the “big lies” that women are forced to live under, one of which is the whole virgin/whore dichotomy. This is less the case with Russell in His Girl Friday, but there’s definitely an element of sexual availability to the Bacall and Dickinson characters — and what’s interesting is that, even so, the films never brand them as “whores.” They really kind of blur the line between virgin and whore.
MOLLY HASKELL: They do! And that’s bound up with this element of presence that they have. It’s what they project. That kind of sensuality is something that is very rare in movies. Bacall and Dickinson are frankly sexual: they want to get going, you know? [Laughs] And that's something that’s very rare to see: women's desire, to call it in sort of feminist theory terms. They're not the objects of the gaze, they're very much gazing themselves. They're looking those guys over!
TIFF: That principle of equality is one of the things that you seem to prize the most in Hawks’ films. It’s tied to one of the key questions that you ask at the beginning of the book: “Can men love women as their equals? Why, for instance, are admiration and respect so indispensable to a woman’s love for a man, while they play so little a part in, and seem even inimical to, his love for her?”
MOLLY HASKELL: Yes, that's a really important point. It’s something that doesn't enter into a lot of relationships, and yet it's one of the most important things there is. It may be more important than love, in a way, because it’s something that can sustain love. And that’s something that’s so special about the men and women in the Hawks films: that they sort of take their hats off to each other. They admire each other. And that's also a foundation for trust.
TIFF: When you wrote From Reverence to Rape back in the ’70s, one of your major theses was that there was a degree of freedom, power, and autonomy for women on screen in the preceding decades, whereas in the supposedly more liberated times of the ’60s and ’70s, female representation on screen was getting objectively worse. What do you think about that representation in the films of today? And do you see any continuity between the Hawksian Woman embodied by Bacall, Russell, and Dickinson, and the straight-up female action heroines that are far more prevalent today — Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde, Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, etc.?
MOLLY HASKELL: Yeah, I guess Sigourney Weaver in Alien would be a transitional figure from the Hawksian Woman to these superhero types … But, it's sort of one-dimensional to me. The thing is, you always think of the Hawksian Woman with the Hawksian Man. They go together; they just are. Whereas, these newer female characters aren't defined by their relationship with a man — and that's fine! I think it's great that you can have women in films, and that they can be complete and self-contained. But to me, what's exciting is men and women together. When I write about women's roles, I'm either implicitly or explicitly writing about men's roles too. So, I think that would be the difference: there was this sort of romantic ethos in these earlier films that is not necessarily there in later ones.