by Richard Stirling
This interview appeared in Hello! magazine, issue #477, 27 September 1997
In an elegant apartment overlooking the London skyline is one of the last stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood, Luise Rainer. Few actresses have ever enjoyed a more meteoric rise to film stardom – and none made such a rapid and complete disappearance.
Luise Rainer spent just three-and-a-half-years at Metro Goldwyn Mayer in the Thirties but achieved astonishing success, winning back-to-back Best Actress Oscars for her roles in The Great Ziegfeld and The Good Earth. Yet not long after she reached the peak of fame, she quit Hollywood.
Quick fade-out. End titles – or so it seemed… Because this November Luise is making an amazing return to the screen after more than half a century, having been persuaded to join Michael Gambon and Jodhi May in the British film The Gambler, based on Dostoyevsky’s novel.
Meeting her, it is hard to believe she is now in her eighties. Her figure is that of a 30-year-old, but what one notices first are the eyes – huge, intense, enquiring, framed by the perfect heart-shaped face that was well-known to pre-war audiences.
Luise was born into a prosperous Dusseldorf family and grew up mainly in Switzerland. “I was still a schoolgirl of 15 when my father found out I had set my mind on becoming an actress,” she recalls. “It sent shockwaves through our family, because no one had ever been on stage before.”
She started her career in Dusseldorf,where her early work was spotted by legendary impresario Max Reinhardt and he invited her to join his theatre company. Very soon she was touring Europe playing major roles in the classic and contemporary repertoire, to great critical acclaim.
Then, in 1935, European theatre lost its most vital young star – to Hollywood. “It was quite crazy. An MGM scout came to the theatre one night. The next day, I made a film test in a makeshift studio. Amazingly, I was offered an optioned contract. I didn’t take it seriously, never having thought of myself as a movie star, but I must admit it intrigued me. I made only one condition – that I be permitted to take my Scotty dog Johnny with me. He was my best friend.”
MGM was the ultimate Hollywood film studio and Luise was joining stars like Joan Crawford – “She was extremely nice and pleasant to me” – and Greta Garbo. “Garbo was always quiet and reclusive,” recalls Luise, “but so was I. Nobody believes it, but an actress can be shy!”
Life at MGM was full of surface glamour, but ideas and debate were far down the agenda and Luise chose her close friends from outside the Hollywood establishment. “I met most of the leading actors of that time, but my real friends were not of my profession. One was George Gershwin, who used to come to my house to compose. He said, “You’re so European, it inspires me!” Another composer friend was Arnold Schoenberg, who lived in the same road, Rockingham Avenue. “Later, Mr OJ Simpson lived there. That was after my time, fortunately!”
Luise also got to know the writer Thomas Mann, architect Richard Neutra and Albert Einstein, whose warmth and humour she remembers fondly. However, she recalls his violin playing was “maybe not quite up to a par with his theory of relativity!”
As for work, initially scripts were far from forthcoming and Luisa [sic] spent her time walking Johnny along the beach. Then one day Anita Loos (author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) alerted her that Myrna Loy had dropped out of the film Escapade – and Luise got the role.
The male lead was William Powell, who was to prove of great help to her. “After the film was made, Bill went to Louis B Mayer and insisted I was given star billing,” says Luise. “He said, ‘You’ve got to star that girl or I’ll look like an idiot.’ And so, after my first film, I was a star.”
Star treatment followed. “Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer and I shared a luxurious house within the studio. Each of us had our own apartment – one room for making up, another for resting.”
Her next assignment was the mammoth extravaganza The Great Ziegfeld. Ironically, its best-known scene is not a big dance sequence but one that features Luise on the telephone congratulating her ex-husband on his new marriage. “To me, the film was like a big sugar cake,” says Luise, but that little telephone scene, which I had written myself, gave me my first Oscar.”
It is her dramatically different next role as the downtrodden Chinese wife O-lan in The Good Earth for which Luise is possibly best remembered.
“Mayer was furious when MGM’s top producer, Irving Thalberg, cast me as O-lan. He said, ‘I thought I had a great star, and you make her a little Chinese drudge.’ But O-lan was an extraordinary part. I hardly ever spoke, I just had to be and I was not sure if I could do it.”
In the event her reviews were ecstatic – and it was while she was filming The Good Earth that Luise met playwright Clifford Odets, a founder of New York’s famous Group Theatre. The attraction was instant and mutual. The writer from New York’s East Side and the gamine German actress made a strangely atypical Hollywood pair, but they married in 1937. From early on, however, there were outside pressures.
“The Group Theatre was terribly worried that Clifford’s attention would be divided. His main activity was with them in New York, while I was in Hollywood. It made for trouble.”
Every so often, Luise’s elegant European voice pronounces the film capital as “Hollyvood”. It serves to remind one that the Dream Factory never succeeded in assimilating her – though it tried its best to do so. After the triumph of The Good Earth and her second Oscar, the films followed thick and fast.
“Louis B Mayer insisted I had to do something glamorous. They put me in silks and satins for a detective story, The Emperor’s Candlesticks. The best thing about it was having William Powell as my partner again.”
Then came The Big City, a film Luise recalls as “a worthless story – I hated myself in it”. Her co-star Spencer Tracy, however, was a warm and sympathetic colleague, taking her boating and allowing her some peace. “I was deeply distressed at the time, because my marriage was already going wrong. Spencer tried everything to make me laugh and forget my sorrow.”
In her next film, The Toy Wife, Luise was partnered by Melvyn Douglas, with whom she struck up a deep rapport. “We could talk of things other than ourselves and our profession, and that became a bit of a thorn in Clifford’s side. Dear Melvyn once sent me a big bunch of flowers with a note saying, ‘You are an oasis’. Clifford came from New York on one of his short visits. He saw those flowers, asked me who sent them, then threw them away.”
This may not have been an isolated incident. In the summer of 1937, Luise and Clifford visited Albert Einstein at his Long Island retreat. According to one of Einstein’s biographers, the couple arrived by yacht and were collected in a rowing boat by the great man. From the way Einstein playfully pulled Luise’s hair, it was evident to Odets that he found Luise attractive. She, flustered, capsized the boat and “almost drowned the great scientist”. When photographs of the episode were developed, Odets grabbed a pair of scissors and decapitated the image of Einstein. Fortunately, other photos escaped his anger.
Was Odets really so jealous? “I would not call it jealousy,” says Luise. “Clifford suffered under my total involvement in my work and my success… All this and the fact that we never lived together was not conducive to a successful marriage.”
Back at MGM, Luise scored a great hit in the biopic of Johann Strauss, The Great Waltz. This film is a personal favourite, thought the shooting had its problems. “I made it twice. Julien Duvivier, the director, was not so interested in Fernand Gravet, who played Strauss – he seemed to want to work with me, so it turned out that the film emphasised the story of Mrs Strauss. Poor Duvivier was fired and another director took over, making the whole film once more.”
Her eighth – and last – film at MGM was Dramatic School. The weakness of the piece added to the star’s increasing frustration. “I was exhausted and unhappy at the material that was thrown at me. I did not want to make films anymore. I said so – and Louis B Mayer heard of it.”
Luise remembers the ensuing meeting in Mayer’s office with the utmost clarity: “He said, ‘I understand you want to leave us.’ I said , ‘Well, Mr Mayer, my source is dried out.’ He replied, ‘What do you need a source for – don’t you have a director?’ I knew I could not talk to him. Then, after staring at me a while, he said, ‘We made you. We are going to kill you.’
“I was appalled. ‘God made me,’ I said. ‘Mr Mayer, you are in your sixties, I am still in my twenties. In 20 years time, you will be dead. That is when I intend to live.’ I walked out. That was the end.”
She took a long trip to Europe and returned a year later, keen to play the role of Marie Curie – but Mayer had blacklisted her. “I also wanted to play Maria in For Whom The Bell Tolls. Mayer prevented that, too. He did whatever he could to stop me.”
The hiatus in her career was compounded by her divorce from Odets. Luise reflects, “I loved him – he loved me, as much as he could… It did not work.”
By then, the Second World War had started and Luise moved to New York, immersing herself in the war effort. She sold bonds, frequently travelling with Mrs Roosevelt, and was later sent on a special service job to Africa and Italy. Before she left, she received a letter from German playwright Bertolt Brecht asking her to sign an affidavit for him to enter America. “I had never met him but I admired his poetry, so I helped him.”
Later, when they met, Luise suggested he write what was to become The Caucasian Chalk Circle. He created the role of Grusha for her – but she was never to play the part. “I didn’t want to do it, because it turned out that I disliked him immensely. He was a very strange man, very disagreeable.”
Then, in 1944, Luise fell in love with the handsome young Englishman Robert Knittel, who was working as a publisher in New York and later became a director of Collins Publishing. They wed in 1945, had a daughter, Francesca, and remained happily married until Robert’s death in 1989.
Luise didn’t stop working after she married – she went back to the stage. She almost returned to the big screen in 1959, when Federico Fellini begged her to appear in La Dolce Vita, stating: “Your face and presence will enhance the poetry of the character.” But Luise never made the film. Instead, Mrs Robert Knittel occupied herself with painting, writing, travelling, leading a rich and varied existence.
Are there regrets for what might have been? Luise’s eyes darken. When she speaks, her voice is quiet and low: “I did not ask for money – I asked for beautiful work. That is all that interested me. I could have given, throughout my life, so much…”
On a shelf above her, displayed nonchalantly, stand her twin Oscars. Many actresses would happily murder for such icons, but to Luise they mean something different. She years ago, she made the sobering remark: “For my second and third films, I won Academy Awards. Nothing worse could have happened to me.”
Now, finally, she is back. In The Gambler she plays Antonida, matriarch of a ruinous family, and she sets the screen alight from her first entrance. Michael Gambon, who heads the cast, pays personal tribute: “I was entranced by her… to see her beauty, her vitality. An extraordinary woman.”
The Gambler may lead to an Indian summer of work, and Luise Rainer would seem better suited to today’s film work than to the hothouse environment of Thirties Hollywood. She still retains her bloom. Is this due to diet? Exercise? Interest in the world around her? Luise Rainer throws her arms wide and laughs her silvery laugh: “I am healthy because I have a God- or nature-given health in my head. I am- I.”