Why no future Hollywood star could ever match Lauren Bacall's allure

Lauren Bacall and Dirk Bogart in Dark Passage

At the Oscar ceremony 10 years ago – the one where Peter Jackson's third Lord of the Rings film hauled away another sack of precious gold – it was still possible to say that Old Hollywood was being celebrated alongside modern Hollywood.

Dotted around the auditorium at the Kodak Theatre that night were several of the venerated faces of motion pictures' golden age. At one point, Tom Hanks stepped up to present a special tribute to the comedian Bob Hope, then aged 101, and later Julia Roberts made a similar presentation to a 96-year-old Katharine Hepburn.

The sombre "in memoriam" sequence in 2004 paid tribute to Donald O'Connor, star of Singing in the Rain, to Gregory Peck, to Elia Kazan and to Ann Miller, the aged dance star who had only recently reappeared on the silver screen to play a cameo role as a spooky remnant of Hollywood glamour in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive.

The death last week of Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart's co-star in To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep and Key Largo, caused many film fans to mourn the passing of one of the last truly great Hollywood talents. When shall we see her like again, several asked, and how can the tawdry, brash Los Angeles of today ever compete?

Among those tolling the bell is Sarah Churchwell, the cultural critic and American professor of literature at the University of East Anglia, for whom Bacall was the last in a line of strong, mature heroines. "The stronger stars of the great age did not start out in Hollywood. They made their names on Broadway," she said this weekend. "They had been in vaudeville. They had seen the world. They were professionals. Most came to Hollywood because it was a way to act and make some money. We shouldn't forget how new motion pictures were then. The whole notion of film stardom was just starting."

Churchwell argues that Hollywood's heyday, from 1930 to 1950, "is most striking with regard to its representation of women". On screen now, she says, women are largely "infantilised": "You only have to compare the voices of current stars to those of Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck or Bacall. Those women were altos – cultured, elegant, stylish women."

Off screen, they frequently enjoyed less power than do the top female stars of 2014. On screen though, they portrayed combative, fully formed characters. "They were not reduced to being insipid or kooky," said Churchwell. "However directors such as Howard Hawks, Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder or Frank Capra treated women in real life, in their films they created independent-thinking women and seemed to understand them."

Film noir classics such as Farewell, My Lovely or Double Indemnity were informed by a dark background of war in Europe and economic depression. There was, as Churchwell has it, "an ambient cultural darkness" that allowed older, hard-boiled male stars such as Spencer Tracy, Edward G Robinson, Clark Gable and Bogart to thrive.

Mike Kaplan, a film producer who appeared in Robert Altman's The Player, suspects a star's life has always been tough. Speaking from Idaho this weekend he said: "In the golden age of Lauren Bacall, and in the decade before and after, 'film star fame' was much more significant, glamorous and difficult to achieve because movies were the dominant entertainment outlet."

Kaplan sees the impact of cinema as forever diluted by television and the internet. "We now know many more personal details about the stars than we did when such information was doled out, kept secret or fabricated."

It is a distinction that is sharply drawn in David Cronenberg's new film Maps to the Stars. Out next month in Britain, it holds up an unsparing mirror to the cosmetic scars and ugly snarls of modern-day Tinseltown. John Cusack stars as Stanford Weiss, a self-help guide millionaire who has produced a child star of grotesque proportions. The boy star's sister, played by Mia Wasikowska, is a pyromaniac who works for a struggling film star played by Julianne Moore. Moore's character eventually dominates the film as she attempts to remake a hit that made her late mother famous and conducts an inappropriate affair with her chauffeur, played by Robert Pattinson. Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw described the film at Cannes as "populated by a macabre gallery of Hollywood addicts: high-functioning lost souls at various levels of the totem pole".

Cronenberg's twisted Hollywood nightmare takes its punning title both from new age astrology and from the tourist maps handed out in Beverly Hills from the early days, pinpointing the homes of the most adored actors. Bus tours would approach Pickfair, fabled mansion of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, or crawl past the house of Jimmy Stewart, hoping for a sign of stellar presence. Such tours still exist, but – notwithstanding that many film stars now live in Orange County or Malibu, not Beverly Hills – who would tourists hope to spot now? (With Bacall's death, as has been noted this weekend, the hallowed names listed by Madonna in her song Vogue have all departed.)

Chief among the tribe of surviving stars is Kirk Douglas, now 97 and, as the father of Michael, the founder of a near-dynasty. Cronenberg dissects such a family legacy in his film, not just in Moore's grim characterisation, but with a game appearance as herself from actress Carrie Fisher, who is the daughter of singing star Debbie Reynolds, 82, co-star with O'Connor and Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain. Among Hollywood's surviving leading ladies is Hitchcock's favourite Tippi Hedren, an 84-year-old mother to Melanie Griffiths; Olivia De Havilland, 98 (who, since last year, survives her younger sister, Joan Fontaine); and Doris Day, 90 in April. Dublin-born Maureen O'Hara, the redheaded star of How Green was My Valley, The Quiet Man and Rio Grande among many others, is 94 today.

Talking to O'Hara recently, Kaplan was able to judge whether actors of her era were more engaging than their modern counterparts. "My nerves were on edge," he said this weekend, "because I had had a teenage crush on her. She had a spirited quality that was unique and that consistently elevated a multitude of characters in dramas, comedies, romances and swashbucklers. We talked about John Wayne, John Ford and John Garfield and she created their presence in the room. Last April she made a rare appearance at a film festival in Los Angeles and the line waiting for her was the longest for any event."

Churchwell concedes it was easier for the stars of yesteryear to maintain untarnished public images since their careers were strictly managed by the studios. "They were protected, but the system also chewed them up and spat them out if they didn't make it. There was safety for those at the top, so a gay man like Rock Hudson could live a normal life in private, but there were vast numbers of young women it was very tough on – like Veronica Lake or Frances Farmer."

When a 19-year old Bacall, Betty Perske from New York, was invited to Hollywood by Hawks to star in To Have and Have Not, she was so nervous she recalled watching the cigarette shake in her hand on set. Soon Hawks was to discover her affair with her married co-star Bogart and the director swiftly threatened Bacall with career ruin. "You're throwing away a chance anyone would give their right arm for. I'm not going to put up with it," she claimed he told her. A scandal would see her relegated to trashy film-making at low-grade Monogram studios, he warned.

Plenty of scandals did ruin careers and lives. Silent star Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was tried three times in 1921 and 1922 for the rape and manslaughter of a young woman before he was eventually acquitted, his reputation in tatters.

The best films about Hollywood, such as Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, have always reflected the seamy and delusional side of the town. Yet the shine really has been rubbed off stardom by the recent succession of revelations about the bleak or addicted lives of late stars such as Philip Seymour Hoffman, River Phoenix, Heath Ledger, Robin Williams and Brittany Murphy.

Churchwell points out that in America film stars function, or rather dysfunction, like a version of Britain's royal family. Regardless of their level of talent, they are watched and admired relentlessly.

Perhaps then, the job of being a star, both now and then, was best summed up by Bacall with typical self-deprecation. "Stardom," she said, "isn't a career. It is an accident."

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Vanessa Thorpe, arts and media correspondent, for The Observer on Saturday 16th August 2014 21.00 Europe/London

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