Oscar So White

When we look back through the history of the Academy Awards, 2016 will be remembered as the year of the backlash against racial inequality and stereotyping that has been growing for years, even decades. For the second year running there are no non-white actors nominated for an award in an industry where black players are omnipresent on screen but under-represented not only at awards shows but also in mainstream media coverage of the cinema. In this week’s UK Box Office chart three out of the top five films have a black leading actor – Ride Along 2, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Creed – hardly a minority.President Photos, Cheryl Boone Isaacs

The Academy President, Cheryl Boone Isaacs (right), has responded to criticism by announcing an overhaul of Academy membership to better represent the diversity of the business. The Academy members are majority white males over the age of 50 and it might seem like an obvious solution to mix this up a little (or a lot). There’s certainly a need for the voters to better reflect the industry and the population as a whole, but this decision seems like a knee-jerk reaction to some high profile outrage from Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett-Smith, amongst others, and from Isaacs’ own ‘heartbreak and frustration’. The idea that ‘more black people will vote for more black people’ seems wrong-footed at best and almost racist in itself, at worst. It worries me that the Academy’s approach will lead to issues of credibility for black nominees whose nominations will be viewed by some as a result of a rule change and box-ticking.

This week the actor (and Academy member) Stephen Furst spelled out his frustration with the new rules, labelling them both sexist and ageist by suggesting that ‘old white men’ wouldn’t use their vote without prejudice. I tend to agree with him and would much rather the Academy concentrated on getting their voting members to actually watch the films – it’s widely known that many don’t view the screening DVDs which are sent to them, and in some cases they even cast votes for films or actors they haven’t watched. This would seem to me to be the crux of the problem. By all means expand and diversify the membership, but those who don’t engage with the process shouldn’t be part of it in the first place, regardless of age, gender or race. Get rid of them and then you can really make an attempt to build a membership representative of the diversity of cinema.

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I fear that the Academy has taken on an unwinnable battle, and one which is not of their making. Whilst there have been a handful of high-profile films with non-white performers this year, I don’t believe there have been sufficient to merit nominations. For me, there were only two surprise omissions: Straight Outta Compton, one of the best films of 2015, unbelievably missed out on a Best Picture nomination which probably has more to do with the age of the voters rather than the race. It also suffers from a great ensemble cast which may have split the voting for one particular actor and it is an awkward, but coincidental, shame that only the (white) writers made it to the nominations sheet. I’d also expected to see Idris Elba receive a nod for Best Actor in Beasts of No Nation, but my opinion here is only based on what I’d read – I haven’t seen the film, and I don’t think many of the voting members had either, hence no nomination. Michael B. Jordan in Creed (he was much, much better in Fruitvale Station, which on the whole is a better film and should’ve been nominated last year) didn’t do enough to convince me it was an Oscar-worthy performance (and neither did Stallone, to be honest), and Samuel L. Jackson was never going to get an Oscar nod for playing Samuel L. Jackson again, no matter how many times he says the ‘n’ word.

The real problem is the lack of diversity in the roles offered to minority actors? Not just black actors but Hispanic, Asian, hell, even Inuit actors… it’s unacceptable that the ‘everyman’ roles still go to Will Smith (and to a lesser extent these days, Denzel Washington) and that award-worthy roles for black actors still tend to be those embedded in Hollywood’s skewed version of ‘black history’ and culture. It’s surprising that more black actors haven’t been nominated given the Academy’s penchant for the oppressed, the struggle and the battle over adversity considering the pigeon-holing that goes on in casting offices.

the-good-earth-paul-muni-luise-rainer-1937It was exactly 79 years ago today that The Good Earth premiered and led to Luise Rainer’s second Oscar win for Best Actress, playing a Chinese woman in yellow face (although she did refuse most of the make-up effects and insisted on the minimum, preferring to ‘act’ – now there’s an idea!) Three years later Hattie McDaniel became the first African American Oscar winner for her role as ‘Mammy’ in Gone With The Wind (1939), sitting at a segregated table during the ceremony. Both were worthy winners but times have changed, maybe not so much as we might think: yellowface performances were still being given Oscars as recently as 1983 when Linda Hunt won for her astonishing turn as Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) and Joseph Fiennes has been cast to play Michael Jackson… although any black actor hoping for that part would have to do it in whiteface make-up anyway.

second motherFor my part I’d like to have seen some representation in this year’s awards season for Regina Casé (actor) and Anna Muylaert (director) for The Second Mother (2015), for Benicio del Toro in Sicario (2015) and DooNa Bae in A Girl at My Door (2014). But what I know, and what Oscars boycotters appear not to, is that the Oscars don’t represent world cinema, they don’t even represent American cinema, they represent Hollywood cinema. If only they weren’t so damn influential we could just let them get on with it.

One day I genuinely hope that there’ll be a bunch of great actors and actresses in the Lead and Supporting categories that aren’t all the same colour, maybe they don’t even all speak the same language, but they all gave great, award-worthy performances. That’s why they will be there, not because their friends stuck a vote in for them, or they’re filling a quota but because they deserve to be.

The property of a lady

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It was announced yesterday that Julien’s of Beverly Hills will be holding an auction of property from Luise’s estate on 1st October with a vast array of items for sale from her London apartment. The sale is one in a long line of ‘celebrity’ auctions held by the house who have previously handled the estates of Greta Garbo, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson, amongst others.

The items included in Luise’s sale are mostly unconnected to her short film career. There are some pieces of memorabilia, awards and photographs but on the whole the estate is of interest for her antiques and art. She was a collector of both and amassed a varied collection of European furniture, jewellery and artworks. Of particular interest to me are her own pieces, often collage work but watercolours and sketches are also included. Luise studied art at the Camden Institute in London in the late 1950s and early 1960s but she rarely exhibited; this auction and the accompanying catalogue gives us a rare chance to see a range of her work. The sale also includes pieces by many other artists, notably sculpture by Geog Kolbe and Felix Weihs de Weldon, and paintings and sketches by Domenico Gnoli, Robin Hazlewood, Emma Sergeant, Johann Fischbach and Jan van Kessel as well as numerous unsigned and unattributed works, religious scenes and more. The portrait of Luise by Dimitri Berea, painted for the cover of France Illustration (below) is on offer with an estimate of a very reasonable $6000.FullSizeRender (18)

For film fans there is little of interest, although there are a selection of photos by George Hurrell and Clarence Bull, plus her George Eastman medal, awarded in 1982. Luise kept very little of her film memorabilia so it isn’t surprising not to see it here. In the late 1990s she gifted her archive of correspondence to the Howard Gottlieb Centre at Boston University which explains the lack of personal items although there are a few significant objects included, not least a collection of Clifford Odets’ plays signed and dedicated to Luise, and some personal photographs from their holiday with Einstein at his house on Long Island. There are also some personal items of clothing, which always make me feel a little queasy, including the cape she wore when she accepted her second Academy Award. Her Oscars, I should point out, are not included – the Academy famously brought in an agreement in 1950 that any Oscar sold should be offered back to them for a nominal sum of $1 in order to preserve the integrity of the award. Oscars have come up for auction however, and those won before 1950 are not covered by the agreement (although that hasn’t stopped the Academy fighting to have them removed), so Luise’s could be sold, theoretically, but I believe that Francesca (Luise’s daughter) is likely to want to hang onto them, and rightly so.

On the whole the property on offer shows Luise’s love for fine art and good taste. There is much to be gleaned from her collection and the items she and Robert purchased over the years. It is interesting (and not unexpected) to see that she kept almost nothing from her Hollywood years and the bulk of this property comes from her post-film career when she had returned to Europe. I hope that they find good homes for these belongings, especially the artworks and personal items which will always carry a quantum of Luise with them. Unfortunately almost everything is out of my range but I’ll be following the auction with great interest on the day, and maybe my itchy fingers will do some clicking…..

“omg luise rainer”

I’ve been quiet. Since Luise’s death at the end of last year I’ve done very little in the way of updates and I’m sad to admit I questioned whether to continue with the site, the blog and the Twitter feed. I didn’t expect that, I thought I’d always be in thrall to Luise, but, understandably (?) I felt lost. Looking over the collection (the hifalutin part of me would prefer ‘archive’) and after talking to friends I realised that now, more than ever, it’s important to keep researching and continue letting the world know about Luise. So I will.

Something happened this week that hasn’t happened since Luise died too: my regular Twitter search for her name went crazy. Suddenly hundreds of people were Tweeting about her in the most unexpected context. On 28th July Justin Bieber posted this photo on his Shots timeline. I was mystified, but not as much as his fans who posted and retweeted the image with an almost universal question: “Who?”

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Bieber tagged the photo simply, “omg luise rainer” (un-capitalization, his own). It was taken at Luise’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6302 Hollywood Boulevard, placed there as one of the original intake of stars in February 1960. Quite what Justin means by this post is a mystery… is he a fan? Or is sarcasm intended here? Either way, even if only a few fans Google her name, find her films, read about her life, it’ll be worthwhile. All publicity is good publicity, right?

Funeral: Tuesday 13th January

Luise’s funeral was held in a South London crematorium on Tuesday 13th; as she had wished there was no fanfare and the service was private with ten members of her family present, including her daughter Francesca. The only media in attendance were the news agency Reuters who published the brief video below online on the day. It also includes archive footage from the UK premiere of The Gambler in 1997 (with Dominic West and Jodhi May).

http://www.reuters.com/assets/iframe/yovideo?videoId=361760067

Site updates for January 2015

I’ve been updating the site over the past few weeks, and intended to re-publish with a release of new material on Luise’s birthday. That day has come, but, with the news of her death on 30th December I’ve been busy responding to queries and have already submitted some updates rather than have the workload get on top of me. So, the monthly updates for January are as follows:

The galleries have been redesigned; you may be able to tell that the site isn’t higEscapade 19h-spec when it comes to slideshows and whatnot. That’s because I have no website knowledge other than what I’ve learnt whilst putting this site together. So, I like to keep it simple. With this in mind I’ve re-styled the galleries as simple webpages with photos tabled and noted. On each page you can open up each picture for a larger but manageable version. I hope the simplicity makes the galleries easier to navigate than before. A plus is that the collection now shows up in a Google image search, which it hadn’t done previously. I’ve also tried to separate the gallery into useful sub-sections, so you can find all of the images relating to Luise’s Oscar appearances together, a collection of Press images from random events together, and stills from each film neatly packaged on one page, for example. Some of the formatting looks a bit skew-whiff but I’ll work on that as I go along.

I am particularly excited about the new gallery for 1935’s Escapade. I was lucky enough to purchase a number of stills from the film recently and these have been put on-line for the first time; as a researcher I know I haven’t seen many of these Picturegoer Dec 1938before, and without the actual film available to view these are the next best thing. They include photos of Luise and her co-stars William Powell, Mady Christians, Virginia Bruce, Henry Travers, Frank Morgan and Mathilde Comont.

There are also new additions to the ‘Magazines’ section of the site (now renamed as ‘Archive’): the earliest article from a British film magazine in my collection is The Romance of Luise Rainer by Leonard Wallace (from Film Weekly, 1935). I’ve also recently added this review of The Great Ziegfeld from the same magazine in 1937, and this interesting character piece on Luise and Clifford Odets, “Living the Part” with Luise by Jack Chandler, taken from a 1938 edition of Picturegoer. The archive section has also been updated with links to a couple of obituaries and recent articles of interest that have appeared online.

I will continue to work through my personal collection of material and add updates to the site as and when I get the chance. I hope that there is enough interesting material to keep readers entertained and educated.

TCM remembers Luise Rainer

img_LuiseRainer2014Today, 12th January 2015, Luise Rainer would’ve turned 105 years of age. TCM, the classic film channel, had already planned to celebrate the birthday with seven of Luise’s MGM films in succession and the schedule is going ahead as planed, now as a bittersweet tribute to her.

TCM is the only channel (that I know of) marking the day, and it’s a real treat for film fans to see these movies, some of which are not often screened. The day starts with the 1936 Best Picture winner, and the role or which Luise received her first Oscar, The Great Ziegfeld at 6.00am (EST). There follows Big City, with Spencer Tracy at 9.00am, The Emperor’s Candlesticks (10.30am), her second Oscar winning turn in The Good Earth (12noon), her final picture at MGM, Dramatic School (2.30pm), The Great Waltz (4.00pm), The Toy Wife (5.45pm); the day rounds off with the wonderful 2011 film festival interview with Robert Osborne.

Only a few years ago most of these films were rare, but thanks to Warner Archive we now have most of Luise’s MGM output available to watch at our leisure on DVD. Of especial interest in today’s schedule, aside from the interview, is 1938’s Dramatic School, which still doesn’t have an official DVD release and is rarely shown. It’s a shame as it has much to offer, including a great supporting cast featuring Lana Turner, Paulette Goddard and Gale Sondergaard and a chance to see Luise playing Joan of Arc, which she played on stage hundreds of times. It’s well worth a look.

Notable absences are Escapade (1935), her first MGM film and still mired in rights issues, and her final Hollywood picture, Hostages, made for Paramount in 1943 and also proving elusive. But, despite these two omissions, this is a superb schedule to show off her work, of varying quality, and to remember an actress who made history and walked away.

On board the Ile-de-France…

2015 is a notable year for Luise, being the 80th anniversary both of her move to Hollywood and of her first American film, MGM’s Escapade. 1935 was the year which changed everything for her, in love and in life. Today, 9th January, marks 80 years to the day that Luise boarded the luxury passenger ship Ile-de-France at Le Havre in northern France to head for her new life in the USA. Already a star of the stage in Europe she couldn’t have possibly imagined how her decision to take up the offer of a contract at MGM would change the course of her life. Leaving behind her family, and a continent on the brink of war, she travelled alone, except for her Scottish terrier, Johnny.Ile_de_France_06

The journey took a week and whilst on board Luise celebrated her 25th birthday (12th January 1935). But, she was in good company; the Ile-de-France was a grand liner favoured by rich Americans and Europeans making the journey to New York. The ship had a distinguished career as a passenger ship before ferrying troops during the war and, in a bizarre coincidence, it ended it’s life ignominiously with an appearance in the MGM film, The Last Voyage (1960), where it was partly blown up. In 1999 Luise talked about the trip when she appeared on the BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs, recalling her dinner date with fellow passengers, Feodor Chaliapin and Mischa Elman. Word had got around the ship that she would be celebrating a birthday whilst on board and when she arrived for dinner she was met with flowers and a menu dedicated to her – “Birthday luncheon for Luise Rainer”. She could hardly believe it, “I am nothing!” she thought, as the great opera singer and violinist serenaded her with a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’.

A look at the passenger list (below) for that crossing confirms the presence of Luise and Chaliapin amongst bankers, diplomats and industrialists. Luise, whose destination is noted as Culver City, the home of MGM, has her passage paid for by the studio. Luise wasn’t the only notable person on board: playwright John Van Druten, car and speedboat racer Kaye Don, entertainer Eddie Cantor were amongst the passengers and there were also Federal Agents aboard, escorting three witnesses in the Lindbergh Baby trial to New York where they were to testify in the murder trial of Bruno Hauptmann. Security was high at departure and upon arrival, with agents guarding the witnesses on board.Luise_Passenger_Manifest_1 Luise_Passenger_Manifest_2This wasn’t the only drama to take place on the ship. In an episode that Luise rarely ever spoke about: before leaving Germany, and perhaps a deciding factor in her decision to go, Luise had lost her fiance, who was killed unexpectedly in a plane crash. Details of this affair are sketchy, but I believe he was a high-ranking official, a Dutchman who courted her with private flights in his two-seater aeroplane. It was he who flew her to London for her screen test for Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms in 1934 and with whom she fell in love for the very first time. In late 1934 he was killed when his plane came down in Africa; a devastated Luise began a short fling with his brother, confused and in mourning, “I had mixed them up in my mind but they were not at all alike,” she said, in an interview in 2000, one of the very few occasions where she discussed her life before Hollywood. Whilst on board she discovered that she was pregnant with her dead lover’s child and realised at once that she couldn’t have this new life and career and the child. “It was a romantic, idiotic thing! I thought that the child would be like him… it was a young foolishness.” She honestly believed that she wouldn’t be long in Hollywood, that they would realise they had made a terrible mistake in bringing her all that way; there is, perhaps, a sense that Luise would’ve kept the child had her expectations been borne out and she’d returned home to Germany. Luise always intimated that it was her decision not to have the child but it’s not difficult to imagine the reaction of her new bosses at MGM upon discovery that their bright new star was pregnant.

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Luise and Johnny pose for the press upon arrival in New York, January 1935.

She arrived in New York on 14th January 1935, met by a barrage of photographers and MGM officials. Luise Rainer had arrived in America, a star was about to be born and film history was about to be made….

Luise, Clifford and a Rocket to the Moon

Luise with Clifford Odets, wedding day 1937

Luise Rainer, Clifford Odets and Johnny, on their wedding day (1937)

It was exactly 78 years ago today (8th January) that Luise married the playwright Clifford Odets in a small affair at their home in Brentwood Hills, LA. In attendance, besides the bride and groom, were film director Lewis Milestone (who had recently completed the film of The General Died at Dawn, with Odets first screenplay) and his wife Lee, alongside Luise’s Scottish terrier, Johnny, her only companion on the trip from Germany to the US.

Luise had met the left-wing playwright just over a year earlier while dining in the Brown Derby restaurant on Vine Street, a popular hang-out for the Hollywood crowd. She was accompanied by songwriters E. Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen and although she didn’t speak to Odets, their eyes met (as they do in tales such as this). They were both intrigued and the chance to get to know one another better came only a few weeks later when they both attended a party at the home of writer Dorothy Parker. Here they were introduced, and became inseparable. As Luise put it,

“Except for Ginger Rogers, most guests were unknown to me. On the far side of the room, surrounded by people who seemed to lap up his words, stood Clifford Odets. Over the crowd I felt him looking at me. I left early; I had to be up at six o’clock in the morning to get to the studio by seven a.m… a few days later while on location I was called to the telephone. It was a man’s voice: Clifford Odets. “Can one ever see you alone?” he asked. Two evenings later he collected me and took me out for dinner. We went to a restaurant at the end of the long Santa Monica pier. Afterwards we went for a walk along the beach. To my horror it was littered with lifeless fish. Something in the water had poisoned them. I trembled, Clifford Odets took me back to my house. That night started for me the wildest, the most compelling and frenetic, the most tragic relationship. It changed the flight and rhythm of my life.”

The relationship was set to be a tempestuous one; speaking in 1999 Luise described the love between them as “fulfilling, terrible, tearing…. complete.” It’s difficult to see how the marriage could have ever worked; their workloads were hardly conducive to a relaxed social and home-life, especially considering Odets’ was required to be in New York with the Group Theatre whilst Luise was holed up filming in California. There’s no doubt that her disillusionment with Hollywood and her desperation to leave MGM were fuelled by the difficulties in her marriage (and vice versa), but, by all accounts they were both headstrong individuals, trying to sacrifice too much of themselves to make the other happy. Only two months after their wedding Luise won her first Luise with Clifford and Johnny (Jan 1937)Academy Award and Odets showed his displeasure in the concept of such trinkets. He did attend with her (unlike a year later when he refused to go) but the press were less than keen on his apparent lack of enthusiasm, and his choice of plain suit. Odets was further enraged to see his name printed as ‘Mr. Luise Rainer’ in the morning news. Less than two years later he would start an affair with the actress Frances Farmer, and the divorce with Luise was finalised in 1940, long after the marriage had truthfully ended.

Signs were there early…. the newlyweds honeymooned in Mexico but Odets’ strict writing regime excluded such enjoyments as the ‘wedding night’. Odets had started work on a new play and set aside his usual time to work on the script in their room at the Rosarito Hotel. As this was the January off-peak season the hotel was near empty and Luise was banished to spend the evening alone. Walking along the beachfront she came upon members of a touring circus passing through the town for the night, and this is how she spent the evening, in the company of some midgets and acrobats. A wedding night to be remembered, if not perhaps for the traditional reasons. The work is most likely to have been The Silent Partner, or a new film project (see the comments section for details from Beth Phillips, very gratefully received).

Cliff’s version of the relationship is perhaps best seen in his 1938 play  Rocket to the Moon, which was staged by the Group Theatre in New York. It concerns Ben Stark, a successful dentist, struggling to deal with the breakdown of his empty, loveless marriage, his fidelity being tested by the arrival of the young, comely Cleo with whom he has fallen in love (or is he just smitten?). It’s interesting to see the development of the play alongside Odets’ faltering relationship with Luise, and the theme of fighting for love against all odds resonates throughout. Luise has said that she would read some of his manuscript and make edits and suggestions, whether they were requested or not. She was especially keen that the female characters spoke and acted more realistically and often added her own handwritten notes to her husband’s work. The play doesn’t have the rabble-rousing of his earlier more political works and is one of Odets’ most personal pieces. Although it is rarely staged, in 2011 Luise attended the opening night of a major new production of the play at the National Theatre in London, 73 years after missing the premiere in New York. For those in London, the BFI will be hosting a very rare screening of John Jacobs’ 1986 Luise with Clifford in the MGM studio restaurant 1937 [scan]television production starring John Malkovich and Judy Davis on 27th January 2015.

For a detailed insight into Luise and Clifford’s relationship you must read Margaret Brenman-Gibson’s authoritative biography Clifford Odets – American Playwright, which contains interviews with Luise and excerpts from their correspondence during the marriage. There is a particularly moving section detailing their attempts to have a child and Luise’s subsequent abortion when realising that the marriage was over, mistakenly believing Odets was uninterested in starting a family. It is both the best biography of Odets and also of Luise, at that time.

[Edited to add details submitted by Beth in the comments below]

Luise Rainer: A personal remembrance

Candid - 1970sI first met Luise Rainer in 1998, only a few weeks after I’d seen her on the Oscars telecast, one of a unique group of previous winners invited back and put on display like bits of memorabilia to celebrate Oscars 70th. “Are you Luise Rainer?” I asked, already knowing the answer; even at 88 she looked like someone. “Yes…..” she replied, warily, cowering a little, “…who are you?”, with her German drawl intact, a sparkle behind the eyes, and a faint glimpse of pride at being recognised. Luise was never one for fame but I always sensed she did, occasionally, succumb to its entrapments. “Oh, it’s so great to meet you,” I blethered. “I’m a fan, I love your films,” I lied. My first meeting with the lady who would change my life, and I lied to her. You see, until that Oscars ceremony I had never heard of Luise Rainer. When she appeared on my television screen, bracketed by archive footage of her two Oscar wins, I was presented with a real head-scratcher. A film fan for years, how could I not know who this was? I was immediately curious but unprepared for her to take over my life.

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At home, 1990s.

I’ve always been a curious soul. In 1998 there was little if nothing written about Luise online. There was a listing on IMDb of a handful of films I’d never seen, but no Wikipedia page and no detailed biography. I think without this lack of information I would’ve moved on, happy to have met her. But her story was so incredible I couldn’t let it lie. From the outset I’ve been interested in telling that story first and foremost, with a secondary interest in the films she made. It seems strange to become a follower of someone without ever seeing any of their work, but that’s the way it happened with Luise. The obsession (and I use that word carefully) grew, I started researching, buying items from eBay, 1930s film magazines, interviews, books on similar subjects, and, of course, I had to track down the films. I gradually got to know Luise via this material; the trivia, the soundbites, the stories of her rise and fall were pored over and I was hooked. I found myself completely enraptured, as if spending 16 years reading an unputdownable novel, with every turn of the page discovering something new, opening another door to another corridor leading to another room in the labyrinth of Luise’s life.

I’m not a spiritual person and neither do I believe in fate, however, that day and that sequence of events set in motion a peculiar course, unplanned but full of serendipity and opportunity. At that time I was working in the area of Sloane Square (from 1997 to 2001) and happened upon Luise numerous times in the months and years following our first meeting. I’d often see her from the top of the 137 bus and I’d have to restrain myself from shouting out, “Look! That’s a bona fide movie star right there, in amongst us!” It seemed random and crazy to just bump into her on the way home from work, but that’s the way it happened, time and time again. This randomness took a peculiar turn when I left that job and moved to the National Theatre on the South Bank in 2001. I remember seeing her running to catch a bus on Sloane Street (she would’ve been 91 years old by now) in the weeks before I moved jobs, and I do recall marking this as possibly the last time I’d see her. But how wrong I was; I’d only been in the new job a few weeks when she called, I answered the telephone and we met again. That’s just a coincidence, right?

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Celebrating her 100th year, at the TCM Film Festival in 2010.

Luise was a regular at the theatre and we met a few more times, always professionally. The last time she visited (and the last time I met her) was in the spring of 2011 when she attended the opening night of Clifford Odets’ play Rocket to the Moon. The play has great significance for her, written as it was during the early months of her marriage to Odets and, it’s said to be the play he was working at on their wedding night, when she was banished to spend the evening on a Mexican beach, alone but for a troupe of circus performers. I’d invited her and I was pleased she could make it, even at 101. The year before, to celebrate her 100th, she had charmed an audience of hundreds in the Olivier Theatre when she spent 90 minutes talking about her life and career. All of us who were in the theatre that night knew that we were in the presence of someone who had really lived. Her energy and her resilience leapt from that stage, remarkably lucid and as vivacious as ever. Only a month earlier she had written to the theatre to say that she would be “absolutely unable” to make an appearance due to “failing health” and apologised but must “definitely decline” the invitation. What caused her change of heart I don’t know, but I will forever be grateful that she did. She once said that she grew too old too soon; at MGM she felt that she had aged well beyond her years and then spent the next 80 years getting younger, at least in heart and mind. She followed up this coup de theatre with an even more astonishing appearance at the Turner Classic Movies Film Festivals, defying not only age but exploding Icelandic volcanoes to be there. It’s a perfect example of her refusal to be cowed; like Louis B. Mayer, she dealt with her age and Eyjafjallajökull with flamboyant disinterest.

Luise and I were never close friends. We were acquaintances at best, and sometime correspondents. She was aware of the collection I’d started and of the website in particular. I made it known that I wasn’t just a fan, more a keen amateur detective trying to set the record straight and let everyone know that Luise Rainer wasn’t just a two-time Oscar winner, but an actress of stage and screen, a writer, a painter and even a director. She was also a witness to almost all of the 20th century, one of the last and one of those for whom the phrase “we will never see their like again” is most fitting. She

Luise with one of the loves of her life: Johnny, her Scottish terrier (1936)

Luise with one of the loves of her life: Johnny, her Scottish terrier (1936)

understood, I hope, that I didn’t want a piece of her as a memento, I wanted to make sure she wasn’t forgotten or at least mis-remembered.

Whenever I meet people Luise always comes into the conversation. I have bored many people witless with my tales of her life and times; I’m always enthusiastic but I do get carried away. She has been in my life for 16 years and it’s difficult to describe how I feel now she has gone. I thought about her often, almost daily, in what I hope was not an irrational way. I’ve learnt so much from her, indirectly, and she’s changed the way I think about my own life. Her passion and drive are exemplified by a life fulfilled. She may not have always been in the public eye but what does that matter? For her, living, really living, and loving, were the things to celebrate, not the ephemera.

I am so very grateful for that chance meeting. Now, I will continue to celebrate a life lived, not a life lost.

“…there were many things that I should have done. I feel it today, at nearly 100 years old: God, or whoever it is, gave so much into my cradle and I have not lived up to it.” – Luise Rainer, 2010 (and I must respectfully disagree with her)

Tributes and obituaries

Since Luise’s death was announced on Tuesday I’ve been inundated with messages and enquiries and I’m grateful to everyone who has been in touch, especially on social media, where the response has been genuinely heartfelt, and international too. Francesca, Luise’s daughter, posted a tribute on her Twitter page – as always, graceful.

“She was bigger than life and could charm the birds out of the trees. If you saw her, you’d never forget her.” – Francesca Bowyer, Luise’s daughter

In the UK overage was slight; all major newspapers covered the news online and the BBC ranked the story high on their website but, as far as I know, not on television. Most commentators and articles, as expected, concentrated on Luise’s short 4-year film career and her history-making Oscar successes – and, of course, her role as ‘one of the last of the Hollywood greats’, a term that gets bandied around whenever we lose someone old and famous, although in this case, it is deserved. Print media followed suit and there were obituaries in The Guardian, The Times and The Daily Telegraph, each with their own take on Luise’s long life – and with their own idiosyncracies and anomalies.

FullSizeRender (16)By far the best of these was The Guardian’s piece by Ronald Bergan, which was written with an understanding of the subject, not just in the sphere of Hollywood, but of her place in the 20th Century. It balances facts with opinion and quotes and is respectful and, for the most part, factually accurate. That’s not something I can say about the others; The Times obituary (left) is particularly shoddy, with a number of errors and a lazy style repeating oft-told stories and soundbites but with scant detail. Worst of all, the piece is illustrated with a photograph of someone else – I believe this is singer Lorraine Bridges (who had a small part in Luise’s first MGM film Escapade) – an unforgivable and lazy mistake. The Times obituaries are world-renowned and I’m astonished that this one is so light and uninspiring, for a life that’s is just the opposite. They do have form in this area and only three weeks ago I contacted them to ask if Luise could be added to their database for inclusion in their daily birthday announcement – she has been missed every year and I had hoped to have her included in 2015. [Edit: The Times printed a correction and apology in their next edition, 1st January 2015].

Some of the better and most heartfelt pieces that have been written over the last couple of days are for fans and cinephiles who appear to have appreciated Luise’s great life and work more than the casual observers and fact-finders from the press. I am particularly fond of Scott Feinberg, writing in The Hollywood Reporter, as he recounts his own personal memories of meeting Luise at her home in 2009 (“when she was only 99”), and Claudia Luther, writing in the Los Angeles, gives a thorough overview with many quotes from Luise herself, and some rare photos from the LA Times archives.

It doesn’t seem fitting to remember Luise only through her films, so dissatisfied was she with her time at MGM and her general antipathy towards much of this work, but, it’s the best we’ve got. On Monday 12th January (what would have been her 105th birthday) TCM will be screening seven of her films back-to-back starting with 1936’s Best Picture Oscar winner The Great Ziegfeld and finishing with The Toy Wife (1938). As always their site is a treasure-trove of info and insight, and to top it off they’ll be repeating Robert Osborne’s 2011 TCM Film Festival with Luise. A fitting tribute and one which, I hope, finds a new audience and appreciation for Luise and her work into 2015 and beyond.