The people who call themselves stars today!” exclaims Lauren Bacall, taking a break on the North Carolina set of The Portrait. Amid the sweet scent of redbud trees along the Duke University quad, Bacall explains why modern movies stink. ”Now everyone is so grand and posh. It’s all about money, or bedroom activity — which I find a bore, frankly — or murder and mayhem. It drives me mad! They have no Bogies, Tracys, Cagneys, Coopers! Hank Fondas, Jimmy Stewarts? Forget it! Over!”
But Bacall, at 68, is not over yet, and neither is Gregory Peck, perhaps the last legendary leading man and her costar in The Portrait, directed by Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde). They play a couple whose bohemian painter daughter (played by Peck’s child Cecilia, 31) wants to get back together with her parents by getting them on canvas.
”It’s important to her, but we won’t sit still,” says Peck, who looks younger than his 76 years. ”We misbehave like wayward kids.” The Portrait, freely adapted from Tina Howe’s intellectual 1983 Off Broadway play, Painting Churches, is reminiscent of Jane and Henry Fonda’s 1981 blockbuster about a father-daughter reconciliation — which Jane and Henry actually underwent during filming. Is The Portrait simply On Golden Pond with a brain? Did Gregory and Cecilia have any emotions to work out?
Peck emits a small, polite chuckle followed by an awkward pause. TNT owner Ted Turner’s wife is Jane Fonda, who probably helped lure Peck (her Old Gringo costar) onto the cable-TV screen, and Peck abhors hurting colleagues’ feelings. Alfred Hitchcock reportedly dubbed him ”the most anecdoteless man in Hollywood.”
”I know you need friction,” Peck says in a voice as stately as a page out of the King James Bible, ”but why can’t it just be acting? With Miss Bacall (who played his wife in 1957’s Designing Woman) and my daughter, I think there may be an extra dimension of warmth in this picture. I couldn’t say that about everyone I’ve worked with.” Asked about a reported on-set fistfight long ago with a rival actor, he draws a blank. ”The last time I had fisticuffs was in New York in the ’30s. I left a party with a girl — Betty Beaumont. I can remember things 50 years ago sometimes better than what happened half an hour ago. Some wise guys on a corner made some raw remarks about her configuration, which was quite spectacular. I knocked out the three of them and then said something stupid to them like ‘Are you all right?”’
He and Bacall sound just fine — immortal, in fact. But young Cecilia Peck, who appeared in 1988’s My Best Friend Is a Vampire, has plenty riding on The Portrait. Though she claims to be having ”the time of my life,” off camera her face radiates fear. She jestingly grabs a fork to ward off an interviewer, as if it were a cross and he were Dracula.
If Ms. Bacall is correct, Ms. Peck should relax. ”Work with people with high standards and you’re okay,” she pronounces. ”Greg’s not gonna settle for any junk!”