Luise Rainer, for your consideration – Al Jazeera
As awards go, the Oscars are still the supreme insiders’ trophy, voted for by previous winners, which perhaps explains why the same people are favoured time and again. Not that this dampens the American Academy’s sense of its own importance. “Dear Meryl, Congratulations!” they wrote recently to Ms Streep, notifying her of her eighteenth nomination, “An Oscar nomination is a recognition reserved for individuals who have reached the highest level of artistic achievement in the film world.” Millions of dollars are spent presenting Academy voters with films “For Your Consideration,” trying to persuade them that they are indeed watching “the highest level of achievement in the film world.” Those voted for respond with appropriate humility: “I am absolutely blown away by this incredible nomination,” Jared Leto, another of the 2014 nominees, tweeted on receiving his Academy letter: Leo DiCaprio and Matthew McConaughey made similar noises, while Steve Coogan warned against saying anything that might offend the voters. But there are demurring voices, those more appalled than awed by the money lavished, the parochial understanding of what “the film world” comprises, and the mood of self-congratulation. In contrast to the craven fawning that pretty much defines a modern career, we should remember that actors have not always been so obedient. As the Oscars approach, the life, and sensibility, of Luise Rainer – who, at the age of 104, is probably the oldest survivor of “classical” Hollywood – is also worthy of our consideration.
Famed for her watering eyes (she was known as “the Viennese teardrop”), and cheek bones remarkable even by Hollywood’s standards where actresses once extracted their back molars to achieve the right look, she was an extraordinarily well-connected figure who brushed up against many of the great lives of the twentieth century. As a German Jew in Thirties Hollywood she took the long view, rejecting attempts to pigeon-hole her in the kind of parts her boss at MGM felt best suited his women stars. When she baulked at these, demanding strong roles, such as Madame Curie or Nora in The Doll’s House, Louis B. Mayer threatened to prevent her from acting in film ever again. She was not cowed by his bullying, though, coolly predicting she would outlast him: “You are now 60 and I am 20,” she told the astonished Mayer, “When I am 40, the age of a successful actress, you will be dead and I will live!”
These defiant words pretty much ended her career in Hollywood. Yet only a few years earlier she had become the first actor to win consecutive Oscars for two portraits of female nobility, which, nevertheless, demonstrated her versatility. The first, in 1936, was as a spurned common-law wife in The Great Ziefeld (it was a lachrymose scene on the telephone that earned her that teardrop nickname, taking her into America’s sentimental heart); in the second, a year later, she starred as a stoical Chinese peasant in Irving Thalberg’s last production, an adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. This performance is often dismissed now as “yellow-face” acting, but Rainer was admired in her day for being so affecting by critics as discerning as Graham Greene and James Agee. Despite such critical encouragement, Mayer refused to widen her repertoire and under his controlling eye the studio continued to marry her off in film: twice in 1938 – in The Toy Wife, and then in The Great Waltz, when she was cast as Mrs Johann Strauss. So at the peak of her career, despairing of this dramatic straitjacketing, Rainer decided to give it all up (there was a brief return for Hostages in 1943, but basically it was over).
Her renunciation still haunts the public imagination. In Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a Hollywood agent remarks, “When you walk out on a thing like that, you don’t walk back. Ask Luise Rainer. And Rainer was a star.” Rainer herself thought that Hollywood’s exaltation of her had been disastrous: “Nothing worse could have happened to me”. However, she was more in control of the script of her life than this implies. Like that of another Hollywood refusenik, Louise Brooks, her existence post-Hollywood was routinely discounted as mere afterlife or posthumous failure. But in 1950, the year she finally reached “the age of a successful actress”, Rainer appeared in precisely the kind of serious role she had envisaged for herself, playing Nina in a BBC production of The Seagull. The setting was perhaps less grand, but glamour had never interested her (one of her Oscars was used as a doorstop before she gave it away to a removal man).
Rainer had, after all, begun her career as a stage actress in Ibsen, Shakespeare and Pirandello; in Berlin she joined Max Reinhardt’s legendary theatre company. His expressionist style, and the support of an ensemble, suited Rainer and her career flourished. In February 1933, however, she witnessed the burning of the Reichstag; not long after, she left for Hollywood. So it is perhaps no surprise that once in America Rainer gravitated to the politically radical Group Theatre. Here she met and fell in love with the Clifford Odets, who was then basking in the success of his play, Waiting for Lefty. Their marriage, though, was too tempestuous to survive, Odets too divided: “He wanted me to be his little wife and a great actress at the same time.” After his affair with fellow Group actress, Frances Farmer, Rainer left him. Odets records in his diary that he was bereft, “sluggish among the alligators, lost in the Everglades.” As it transpired, he turned out to be a rather different kind of beast: not an alligator, but a stool-pigeon. Like Elia Kazan, Lee J. Cobb and several other Group Theatre associates, he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, “naming names” of fellow communists (he had been a Party member briefly in the mid-Thirties), and the shame of it left him a broken man.
Through all this Rainer was buoyed up by an extraordinary group of friends: Albert Einstein, George Gershwin, Anais Nin, Frank Lloyd Wright, Arthur Stieglitz, Erich Maria Remarque, all paid her court, as well as directors like Jean Renoir and William Wyler. Despite this sterling cast she was dissatisfied with her life; Hollywood seemed very narrow to her: “I couldn’t bear this total concentration on oneself, oneself, oneself. I wanted to go all over the world, to learn by seeing and experiencing things.” So she found her way to Salka Viertel’s salon in Santa Monica. Viertel, a scriptwriter and Greta Garbo’s lover, was no doubt amused by the gamine girl who the studio proposed as the great star’s replacement. They seemed to have little in common but perhaps Mayer saw something in Rainer’s fragile, up-tilted face, some of the same ability to reflect cinema’s ambition to immortality and transcendence. This, of course, was all just a matter of good lighting, a trick of the trade, as Marlene Dietrich understood so well, and acting was a craft like any other. Rainer, schooled by Reinhardt and The Group, was of the same materialist persuasion, wary of Hollywood’s vanity and pomp. Making a film, she thought, was like having a baby: “You labour, and then you have it. And then it grows up and it grows away from you. But to be proud of giving birth to a baby? No, every cow can do that.”
Nearly all of Germany’s intellectual elite, escaping from fascism, eventually washed up at Viertel’s beachfront bungalow: Feuchtwanger, Schoenberg, and the Mann brothers entertained American film stars here, while Gene Kelly’s young wife, the actress Betsy Blair, walked barefoot in the sand, earnestly explaining the meaning of socialism to Bertholt Brecht. Surely the most brilliant and incongruous talent to turn up on the back lot, Brecht felt he was prostituting himself at the Hollywood bazaar: “Every morning, to earn my bread/I go to the market, where lies are bought.” Rainer had helped to get him out of Germany and Brecht repaid her with a new draft of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, written especially for her. But the play wasn’t finished to her satisfaction, and other writers turned down requests to work on it: Isherwood was too busy, Auden felt it would have to be “completely remodelled.” And Rainer couldn’t bear to be near Brecht: “He reminded me of a spider, there was something crawling about him, he was immensely conceited,” she judged the great man, “Politically, I couldn’t even talk to him.”
She got along better with Eleanor Roosevelt for whom she undertook war work, travelling to entertain troops in Africa and Italy. On one trip her talent for encountering interesting people led her to bunk up with Ernest Hemingway’s girlfriend, the journalist Martha Gelhorn. During the war years she returned to the stage acting in Erwin Piscator’s production of Saint Joan, and debuting on Broadway in J.M. Barrie’s A Kiss for Cinderella. But afterwards she decamped to Europe, marrying a publisher, Robert Knittel, whom she lived with in Geneva and London. Knittel became Solzhentisyn’s publisher and when the Russian stayed with them at their flat in Eaton Square (where once Vivien Leigh had entertained), Rainer found him, like Brecht, an insufferable egotist.
Her appearances became more intermittent, but she still cropped up from time to time. J.B. Priestley cast her in his 1957 television play, named after Buster Keaton, The Stone Faces. In it, she played opposite Ralph Richardson as a film star hiding out in a Mexican hotel trying to avoid the press: “I’ve had the idea at the back of my mind for several years, but never wrote it before because of the difficulty of casting the central character,” Priestley told the Radio Times. “Then at a party I happened to run into Luise Rainer, a very fine actress who had been a great film star in her time – and the difficulty was solved.” Three years later it was Federico Fellini’s turn: he offered Rainer a role in La Dolce Vita. But, characteristically, she asked for rewrites to the script that Fellini was unable to accommodate. Instead, what followed were odd appearances in TV soaps like Combat! and Love Boat. Finally in 1997, there was a last, vindicating appearance in a film of Dostoevsky’s The Gambler, starring opposite Michael Gambon.
During a celebration of her centenary in 2010 Rainer held court at the National Theatre in London. Dressed in trousers, silver skull cap, and painted eyebrows arched to the heavens, she was effortlessly elegant, still resembling the young figure the audience saw in clips from her films. Watching her again in The Great Ziegfeld, as she sighed “I’m too tired to go anywhere, to do anything,” it was apparent that there is nothing in today’s cinema resembling the enervation that actresses of this period went in for, nor the gusts of gaiety which often followed. Even with the weight of the world on her shoulders (“The Vienna of my childhood was one of starvation, poverty and revolution”), she was determined to cast off gloom, “to be-be-be-be-be-be-be-be zholly!”, as she sings in Ziegfeld. This style, and stylishness, went out of fashion with the advent of Brando and naturalism (he was Oscar nominated four times in a row between 1951-4, such was his dominance), and to many critics now Rainer’s acting seems highly affected. But her manner, lofty one minute, impish the next – like, Brando’s or any of Hollywood’s greatest actors’ – was enlightening, because it gave the audience ideas about different ways of inhabiting the world.
Along the way Rainer was persuaded to sell her papers to Boston University, something she came to regret. Their loss deprived us, quite possibly – given the wit and intelligence she displays in several documentaries about Hollywood’s golden age – of a book to rank alongside Viertel’s The Kindness of Strangers (1969), Brooks’s Lulu in Hollywood (1982), or Blair’s The Memory of All That (2003). But there has been a lot more to Rainer’s life than acting: as she boasted, “I always lived more than I worked.” Perhaps it is this attitude that accounts for her longevity, and her avoidance of the madness that beset Frances Farmer, Vivien Leigh and countless others. In recent years, when actors in Hollywood increasingly conform to type and seek to ingratiate themselves – even if that means becoming creatures of botox and plastic surgery – her sense of taste and proportion seems not only a saving grace, but instructive: “I can’t watch the Oscars,” she once said, “Everybody thanking their mother, their father, their grandparents, their nurse – it’s crazy, horrible.”
A different version of this article appeared on the Al Jazeera article website: “As awards near, Oscar refusenik Luise Rainer stands out for her defiance“.