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'By Myself and Then Some'

"By Myself and Then Some"
By Lauren Bacall

Has it really been twenty-seven years? I can't believe it. Time flies even when you're not having fun. Having come this far – having lasted this long – longer than I expected (I grudgingly have to thank my father's side for the longevity factor) – things of assorted sizes and shapes have happened. Perhaps not as filled with highs as the previous, say, fifty years, but there has been variety – some joy – some sadness inevitably – and lots of laughter. That's because in my cockeyed way I think life is a joke. I write the numbers down – twenty-five – fifty – but the truth is we're only here for a minute. But what a minute!

Upon reaching your seventieth year, life begins to shift. First comes the shock of it – my God, am I really seventy? I don't feel that different. But I sure as hell am. All my life I've just kept on going, never thinking of years, numbers. Going from one job to another. Suddenly – WHAM! The body still functions pretty well – a few bumps in the road along the way – but the body has gotten a bit larger – horrors! When you face that, can the gym be far away? Okay, I accept the fact of regular exercise entering my life. I still remember my twenty-four-inch waist lasting for my first fifty years. Don't torture yourself, I whisper – forget it – throw away the tape measure – maturing has taken over. I've never been a sedentary person anyway, always on the move, only now with supervision. It's trainer time. Although always active – in the theatre you have to be fit – now I have to set aside time, give up at least half a day for gym and physical therapy. Knee problems from Applause days – back acting up intermittently – torn rotator cuff in my shoulder (I'll never pitch again) – and on and on – you name it. My body needs attention. Boring, yes. Necessary, yes. I am always singing that song, 'My Body lies over the ocean, my Body lies over the sea. My Body lies over the ocean, oh bring back my Body to me.' Keep the humor going. The need to work remains – movies, theatre, TV – I don't care really. As long as it's good – interesting – new – I love new – it will take me out of myself and into someone else. Always a pleasure.

Work has continued to be paramount in my life. From time to time one of my sons – Steve or Sam – asks me why I don't take it easy, spend more time in Paris or London or anywhere in Italy, places that I love. There seems to be never enough time to do everything you want to do, go everywhere you want to go. My answer is simple. My goal in life has always been to work. I wouldn't know what to do with myself if I had nothing to do but wander. So I continue to search and hope for the next job – in a way I suppose it enables me to think and to look toward to the future. To think there is a future.
You know, the early part of one's life – family, hopes, dreams, first love, first job, first child, first everything, actually, and the realization of all that – seems the most interesting for the reader. Accomplishment of one's goals, how you got where you wanted to get, is always fascinating. But I realize now, having moved beyond that point, that there is something to be said about what happens after you've reached your goal – both professionally and personally – if indeed you ever do truly reach it.

My change of focus was taken over twenty-seven years ago by the all-consuming book tour – all over the world wherever By Myself was published. I was thrilled to go – I am still thrilled to go – particularly if the cities (countries!) are unexplored territory, meaning my first-time exposure. They were all different – requiring focus and concentration on my part – language adjustment – would you believe me speaking Japanese? – even Australia, Ireland, Scotland – the lilts were different, the rhythms not the same. I had to stop at the end of one country, take a step back and try to absorb the sights and sounds of the next, winding down from the heady experience of success and popularity all over – an experience, by the way, that I had never had before. Especially going solo, leaving myself wide open to questions of intense privacy – friendly and un-, some journalistic chips on shoulders, some embracing, some truly interesting – and some making me feel better than others.

After the final emptying of suitcases, shutting off the intense travel of a book tour – the travel for fun goes on, taking some time to be aimless – something wonderful happened. My friend, playwright Peter Stone, asked if I had ever thought of being in another musical, his idea being Woman of the Year. I had not. He wanted to rewrite the movie for me, so one night we went to his house, he set up the projector, fed the film into it – and away we went into the world of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn – and the world of politics and sports and the conflicts that followed. Peter told me he had mentioned the idea to John Kander and Fred Ebb to do the score – how did I feel about that? Robert Moore possibly to direct – how did I feel about that? Tony Sharmdi to choreograph – again, how did I feel? I felt fantastic about all of that but as we didn't really know one another, we felt a meeting was in order. I really wanted to meet them anyway, particularly Kander and Ebb whose work I had always admired – still do to this day and will forever more. I love those guys. I did, however, find it rather queer that having played the Bette Davis role of Margo Channing in Applause, I was now going to tackle the role my great friend Katharine Hepburn had played in Woman of the Year – my God! How could I dare take this on! Though Applause had been a gigantic success with rave reviews and my first Tony Award, I knew in my heart that the fact – the reality – was that audiences would never think of Margo Channing as anyone but Bette Davis, and the same would be true of Kate in Woman of the Year. Because no matter how good the shows were – and they were terrific – no matter how good I was – the film would always be there for future generations. The theatre is live. You see the show – you love it – you never forget it. But future generations will never see it.

In spite of the self-imposed obstacles – the memory of Kate, for one, and my own lack of confidence – I jumped in hook, line and sinker! I started my old routine – singing lessons, dancing, stretching, learning lines – all months ahead of casting, much less rehearsing. I was thrilled to be working again, thrilled with the people involved and loving the casting process. Being in on it was always exciting – sitting in a darkened theatre, far enough away from the actors auditioning – so as not to be seen yet able to see. Peter, Kander and Ebb were there, Comden and Green – my close, close friends who were writing the book of the show – were there, Bob Moore, our director, was there. All heads together after each audition, deciding the possibles worthy of a callback, the others quickly dismissed. I always felt a pang when an actor was rejected, having had that painful experience too many times myself.
I've always had qualms about sitting in judgment on my fellow actors. I know only too well how difficult and painful auditions can be. No matter how much faith we have in our abilities, the nerves are ever present and the fear of rejection paramount – rejection being the defining feature in the life of an actor. And it never goes away; no matter how many years have been invested in performing, how much accomplished, an actor's life remains tentative. So why do we choose it? Because we have to do it, we were trained to do it and we love doing it. Yet we stay with it after endless disappointments and heart-breaks. Why? Because there is always the hope that the next time will be different. We will make it! Well, sometimes we do – if we have a lot of luck – and more times we don't. I've never been able to figure it out. Am I a masochist? No. I just have always wanted it badly enough to hang in there and I never stop hoping. Even now, after all these years, the fears, the testing, the failure never goes away. But when it works – WOW! There's nothing like it. All that other negative stuff falls away – it's more than worth it! And after all, it is that childhood dream and prayer come true.

Once the bug bites you, you are a goner. Even at the end of a long tour when you are counting the days, checking them off on your calendar as I did at the end of the Woman of the Year tour. Even then, after a short rest, upon buying a ticket for a new play, sitting in a darkened theatre facing the stage instead of being on it – even then I feel a twinge, a twinge of yearning to be up there again, in the play. Because the stage is the actor's – it belongs to him. Movies don't. Movies belong to the director. No matter how good you are – no matter how spectacular your performance might be – it is not up to you – the director decides and with his nippers might cut out your favorite scene. He decides. Of course, if he's a good director he wants a good performance from his actors but he is not out to glorify them, he is out to glorify the whole movie. Nothing personal, you understand. Still, it's fun making movies – if they're good, of course they always have to be good – in spite of the endless waiting. It is very much the 'hurry up and wait' syndrome. You hurry up to do your touch-up for the next scene, then you head for the set – ready, an assistant director by your side – and guess what? The camera is not quite ready for one reason or another; often the director is changing the blocking which means re-adjusting the lights. So the wait is on. But, no matter – with film, you use different parts of yourself and you learn to deal with the waits.

Something new has been added to the daily routine of each day's shoot and I must admit I find it somewhat humiliating. From the moment you arrive on the lot – the car door is usually opened by a waiting second or third assistant director who has a piece of plastic in his ear to which a plastic cord is attached (to be invisible, which it is not) that in turn connects to something he holds in his hand which looks like a telephone but is not – and it starts. 'She's here,' he murmurs into the no telephone – and from there on every step along the way is marked – 'we're on our way to her dressing room' – 'hair and make-up are there for her' – like the FBI–CIA reporting my every move. Then 'How long will it take you to get ready? He [the director] may want to rehearse. So start the hair and make-up and we'll let you know when he's ready on set.' It drives me wild. If there is one thing I am sure of it is that I am a professional. I'm there to work and I'm mostly on time. But I hate to feel spied upon. I don't know who dreamed this idea up but whoever it was, was not fond of actors. Mainly it has nothing to do with work – everything to do with schedules – money. It always boils down to money. Sadly.

The foregoing is excerpted from "By Myself and Then Some" by Lauren Bacall. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022

HarperCollins Publishers

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