Thursday, 12 July 2018

Reflections on ... Lauren Bacall in Young Man with a Horn (1950)

Recently watched: Young Man with a Horn (1950).  Directed by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, Mildred Pierce), it covers the rise and fall of an idealistic, uncompromising young jazz trumpeter Rick Martin (Kirk Douglas) in the hard-bitten, dog-eat-dog neon jungle of New York’s nightlife. Doris Day co-stars as Jo, the wholesome and sympathetic big band singer who’s in love with Rick. If he only he could see she’s perfect for him! The dramatic black and white film noir photography is spectacular and it gets wildly, pleasurably overwrought as it progresses, encompassing alcoholism, nervous breakdowns and pneumonia. Note: your enjoyment of Young Man with a Horn will depend on how much you can tolerate watching Douglas mime playing trumpet in the frequent musical sequences.

BUT mid-way through the film Lauren Bacall – that smoky-eyed Siamese cat-in-human form – rocks-up as Amy North, Douglas’ frosty, frigid rich bitch socialite wife and blows everything apart. Perennially wreathed in cigarette smoke and meant to represent the polar opposite of Doris Day, Bacall’s sleek and soignée appearance belies a roiling, wildly dysfunctional (possibly mentally ill) interior.  Amy is cultured and worldly, sexually ambivalent, independent, speaks Latin and is studying to be a psychiatrist: in the context of the film, her intellect is depicted as off-putting and unappealing. Worst of all – she admits she doesn’t actually like jazz! There are hints of repressed lesbianism: Rick and Amy are seen to sleep in separate single beds, and she’s subtly coded as queer recognizable to contemporary 1950 audiences in the way that characters played by, say, Peter Lorre or Sydney Greenstreet would also have been understood as gay. As Ian Scott Todd writes in his blog Primal Scenes:

“Amy is neurotic, withholding, passive-aggressive, and anal-retentive, to name only four of her "symptoms."  All of the other familiar lesbian signifiers are here, too, in her elegant but mannish suits, her stand-offish demeanor, and the sophisticated décor of her apartment.  Bacall’s Amy North is what Halberstam might classify as a predatory dyke: calculating, urbane, aloof.  She matches her interior space, with its hard, sleek, coldly elegant surfaces, off-set by touches of the bizarre, such as a pet cockatoo to which she refers—ominously—as her “best friend” … Amy is an example of the predatory dyke as femme fatale, trapped within the gilded cage of her own sexual “perversity,” someone to run away from, preferably into the arms of a “real” woman.  And yet, like all femme fatales, Amy’s dangerous sexuality makes her infinitely more attractive than the blandly chipper Jo, whose normality is, indeed, terrible.” 

Towards the end, Amy casually tells Rick, “I’ve met a girl – an artist. We might go to Paris together.” Here Bacall suddenly anticipates Cate Blanchet in Carol (2015). “You’re a sick girl, Amy!” Rick finally shouts as their marriage unravels. “I’m sick of you trying to touch me!” she screams.

The ostensibly unsympathetic but compelling and complex Amy represents the late Bacall’s strangest, most intense performance and she steals the film from Douglas and Day. I don’t recall her ever being asked about Young Man with a Horn in any interviews. I’d love to know how Curtiz and Bacall conceived and discussed the part. Did Bacall even know her character was meant to be gay? In any case, her portrayal should be included as at least a footnote in any discussion about LGBTQ representation in Golden Age Hollywood cinema.  

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