by Lawrence Christon
This article appeared in the Los Angeles Times (14 October 1983)
That Alfred Lord Tennyson’s 1850 poem “Enoch Arden,” with a Richard Strauss musical score, will be rendered in solo performance tonight and Saturday at Schoenberg Hall, UCLA, might interest lovers of theatrical esoterica.
Understandably, however, it shouldn’t provoke a box-office riot.
There is one catch. “Enoch Arden’s” interpreter will be Luise Rainer.
Luise Rainer? The name may not cause riots, but it has an almost mythic ring, emerging out of the same Hollywood pantheon from which names like Garbo and Dietrich come down like weather – if you buy the myth. And who in America beyond a certain age can totally resist it?
At the top, of course, is Garbo. Rainer, who came to Hollywood in the ’30s, is reserved in her estimate of the great of the day. but about Garbo’s “Camille” Rainer said: “She was so beautiful, so beautiful. Oh!” A mock swoon here, a transport of exquisite memory.
What Rainer would consider indiscreet to mention is that Garbo’s nominated performance as best actress was beaten out by Rainer in her unprecedented two-year sweep of the Academy Awards for “The Great Ziegfeld” and “The Good Earth” in 1936 and 1937.
That’s achievement enough. And like Garbo, what Rainer is even more noted for is her mystifying withdrawal from Hollywood when she was approaching the top of her form and was very nearly an idol for a country that didn’t have its tastes fragmented among “Dynasty,” MTV, fast-food stars and 15 hours of televised weekend football.
Rainer did make a forgettable film called “Hostages” in 1943, and she made a critically well-received stage appearance in Maxwell Anderson’s “Joan of Lorraine” at the Ivar Theatre in the ’50s. But the appearances were comparable to an exile’s cautious return for an extraordinary event before sailing off again.
“Ask me anything you want,” she said, gathering herself on a sofa at the Beverly Wiltshire Hotel on a recent afternoon. “Anything.” She was dressed in oatmeal-colored wool slacks and a hand-crocheted white sweater over a white blouse, the pale tones of an outfit set off by a silver-and-gold necklace of interlocking clips.
At 73, she’s trim to the point of sleekness, her long arms actively accentuate the grand manner, which in Rainer doesn’t;t seem only a broad theatrical affectation (she often strikes a whimsical note) but a way of expressing oneself on a large, exuberant scale as well. A Viennese accent never loses its charm; hers is in force, and like the voice of a true actress, hers is never far from an emotion, whatever her mood.
We will come to “Enoch Arden,” but the first question would have to address her walkout.
“It was too much strain, nine movies in three years,” she recalled. “While my professional life was going was going up” – she held a forearm at an upward incline – “my personal life was going down.” She held her other arm at a parallel incline, hand down. “I was married to a wonderful fellow named Clifford Odets, who was a monstrous husband. It was devastating, shattering. I didn’t know what to do. He was a dour man. Sometimes he wouldn’t speak for a week, then he’d want this, want that. Nothing pleased him. I was frightened, unhappy, I was too young to know what to do.
“It was a battle of wills. It seemed like he wanted to destroy me in some way. He pushed me to the limit, and I was destroyed. Not like Frances Farmer. But everyone has his limit before he cracks up. I had to go. And then I had such an aversion to making films, even to seeing myself on the screen. I had to leave all of Hollywood. I had never wanted to be a star. I had wanted always to be an actress.” Her emphasis on the last word drew an unmistakable distinction.
[On “Enoch Arden”]: I got up at 5 in the morning to learn a few lines at a time. It took me three months. When I did it for my husband, tears came to his eyes. When that happened, I thought, “Gee, I could do something with this.”
Rainer performed “Enoch Arden” at Harvard, at the Library of Congress and in New York last year. Pianist Gary Hammond is her accompanist for the three roles she plays (two of them male). “I am terrified,” she said, in anticipation of being onstage. “I am never not terrified. When you’re alone onstage, you want to give the food, the nourishment to everyone who sees you, even if he’s paid only a dollar.”
During the course of the afternoon, Rainer talked about her strict American father in Germany (“I am really German, not Austrian”) the surreptitious means by which she tried to get into the theater as a young girl (“I auditioned as ‘Lulu’ and I was so young I didn’t know the facts of life. I looked the same in the front as in the back. I laid on a sofa onstage and I was so scared all I could get out was, ‘Yes, yes, yes…’ “)
She talked of life and work in the European theater with Max Reinhardt (It was her role in “An American Tragedy” that brought her to the attention of Hollywood). She talked of acting style (“Duse was as pure and simple as nature; Bernhardt was a showman; Dietrich was show. Great acting style doesn’t change if you take your work from life. From life!” Rainer likes the de-emphasis of glamour in Hollywood today, but is skeptical about what she terms “the fantastic glitter” she sees in the Ladies Who Lunch in Beverly Hills. “I wonder, what do they care about what goes on in the world. We can’t afford not to care now; we’re so close together in the world today.”
“I would adore to live in California,” she said, but Switzerland will remain home (though she films an episode of “The Love Boat” next week). “My daughter lives here, and I am so happy to see her and grandchildren. I can tell her the troubles in my heart.
Implicit in her momentary Pierrot-like wistfulness seemed to be that the memory of Hollywood’s pleasure and pain is still alive, that just because you’ve moved from a place doesn’t mean you’ve left it behind.