This interview was published in The Times newspaper (24 February 2005) as part of their Oscars Special edition.
At 95, she is the first star to win two Oscars in a row, but when the studios offered Luise Rainer poor films it was time to go, she tells Christopher Wood
In 1937, a shy and elegant 26-year-old, simply dressed in a stylish white jacket, stepped up to receive her statuette for the Best Actress performance of the previous year. There were no self-indulgent histrionics of the kind produced by Halle Berry or Gwyneth Paltrow, although this woman – as star of Best Picture, MGM’s blockbuster The Great Ziegfeld – was as famous as either.
In fact the acceptance speech didn’t go on long enough to cause the actress to generate tears appropriate to the enormity of her achievement. As was the norm, she said a clipped, dignified “Thank you very much” and it was over. Her podium moment was witnessed by the couple of hundred luminaries present, not a billion people, as the Oscars TV audience is now reckoned to be.
The Oscars then retained the atmosphere of an intimate industry get-together, a dinner with a few tables. “It was just a small group getting together for a pat on the back,” an earlier Best Actress winner said.
Today Luise Rainer, that 1936 Best Actress, at 95, is still elegant and neatly dressed in precisely pressed trousers and a beige turtleneck of simple good taste.
Perhaps such poise befits the living legend that she is, for Rainer also won Best Actress the following year for her role in The Good Earth, beating off the challenge of Greta Garbo, thus writing herself into the history books by becoming the first person to win Academy Awards in consecutive years.
With the years she has certainly shed the shyness of her Hollywood glory. Ordered to take my shoes off (she retains hers) we sit sipping tea, in her sumptuous Eaton Square flat in Belgravia, London, in a building once occupied by Vivien Leigh. She smiles – she is as sweet as the sugar lumps provided but declined by both of us – and then jabs her finger at me with coquettish irascibility as she denounces today’s lachrymose Oscar recipients.
“I can’t watch the Oscars,” she says. “I watch the English ones, but they are also becoming bad. Everybody thanking their mother, their father, their grandparents, their nurse – it’s crazy, horrible.”
This year they will most likely also be thanking those who made possible the hotly tipped film The Aviator, the biopic of Howard Hughes, set to scoop several prizes. But Rainer trotted out to her local cinema to see it an is far from impressed.
“I knew Howard Hughes,” she says. “It’s a totally wrong picture of him. He’s glamorised, made a Hollywood creature. But he was a strange suspicious, kind of man. The moment I met him I felt that there was something uncomfortable about him, sitting on all his millions as he was. Of course he was a poor human being. Already as a young man he was very deaf. He was terribly gifted as a builder of aircraft and all that, but he was like a beaten-up person.
“Later on, when he got old and had long hair and long nails and lived a horrible life and locked himself away, that was him inside already when he was young. So this whole picture was very strange. As a film, of course, it’s very successful. And Scorsese is an outstanding director. But Howard Hughes it is not, not how I saw him anyway.”
She may be 95 but no multi-million-dollar Hollywood production is going to pull the Merino wool over Rainer’s eyes. She looks perhaps ten or 15 years younger than she is, her friends marvel at it, and is used to having other people comment on it.
“That’s what they tell me,” Rainer says, “I don’t behave like my age. But I’ve always looked younger than I am. I don’t do anything for it. I’ve never taken care of myself. I did wonderful things such as mountain climbing, but because I loved it, not because I wanted to remain young.”
She still goes out to films, and not just to films. “I go to everything that’s good.” Last year she made the trip to Switzerland to attend the Verbier music festival, and for a long time attended the ballet with a dance critic from a national newspaper. “Then he was retired. I said, ‘You are not retired, I am retired!’ – because I couldn’t go any more.”
But although Rainer may have quit Hollywood early after a meteoric career, she does not seem the retiring type. Meet her and you must put out of your mind any notion of a woman living a protracted Sunset Boulevard-style mausoleum existence, helplessly trapped in the glories of the past. In fact Rainer is as sober an assessor of the past as one could hope to meet. With one curious exception: that she claims (to me, anyway) to remember nothing at all of the 1937 ceremony. She has, however, said, “I must have been the envy of millions of young girls all over America, and they didn’t know my real life. I had great sorrow. I married Clifford Odets [the celebrated left-wing playwright: they married in 1937]. The marriage was for both of us a failure. He wanted me to be his little wife and a great actress at the same time. Somehow I could not live up to all that.”
So the Oscars would seem to be linked in Rainer’s recollection to her first, unhappy marriage – and she is not going to be trapped by me or anyone else into talking about it. A second, much happier and long-lasting marriage to publisher Robert Knittel started a few years after her divorce from Odets.
What she will say, however, is that Hollywood was not the answer to all her dreams. “I came from Europe” – she was born in Düsseldorf in 1910, and trained as an actress – “where I was with a wonderful theatre group, and I worked. The only thing on my mind was to do good work. I didn’t know what an Academy Award was.”
Once she found out what an Academy Award was, or rather what two were, Rainer’s film career almost immediately went swiftly downhill. And for this she blames the studio she was under contract to, MGM, and its egregious boss Louis B. Mayer. “What they did with me upset me very much,” she says. “I was dreaming naturally like anyone to do something very good, but after I got the two Academy Awards the studio thought, it doesn’t matter what she gets. They threw all kinds of stuff on me, and I thought, no, I didn’t want to be an actress.”
Once such piece of stuff was Big City, in which Rainer co-starred with Spencer Tracy. Was that a bad film? “Bad film!” she pauses to sip more tea and quell her disgust. “Supposedly it wasn’t a bad film. But I thought it was a bad film!” Another was The Toy Wife (1938), curtly dismissed in one movie guide as an “inconsequential confection”. But for Rainer that wasn’t the worst. “That one I liked. It was a very good film. But I disliked very much The Emperor’s Candlesticks [co-starring with William Powell]. You know, it’s a detective story. I got very confused. To the end, I didn’t know who did it.” And she still doesn’t know.
After a few more turkeys, enough was enough. “I just had to get away,” she says. “I couldn’t bear this total concentration and interviews on oneself, oneself. I wanted to learn by seeing things and experiencing things, and Hollywood seemed very narrow.”
By 1938, it was all but over. One solitary Second World War drama, Hostages, appeared in 1943, and then Rainer took a long retirement from films until The Gambler in 1997, when she surprised everyone once again. First, simply by being alive, and second by turning in such a typically high-class performance.
After 54 years, Rainer was anything but rusty. “It was so easy,” she laughs. “If someone comes now and asks me to do something, I can do it. If it is inside, it never goes. It was fun to make it.”
Not that The Gambler was the only offer to come Rainer’s way during that filmless half-century.
“I very often said no. Fellini asked me. He wanted me to be in La Dolce Vita. I liked him, but I didn’t care for the film.” Instead, Rainer did some theatre work – but not too much. “I was living in America and was on the stage there – sporadically. I always lived more than I worked. Which doesn’t mean that I do not love my profession and every moment I was in it gave me great satisfaction and happiness.
“We are living!” Rainer throws her arms out dramatically; many of her utterances are so accompanied. “And the best thing we can do is is to give and give out the best in us. If that’s possible, then naturally it’s satisfying.”
Oscar success notwithstanding, the theatre crops up in Rainer’s biography at least as much as films, a love going back to her earliest days. She was spotted as a young actress in Austria by Max Reinhardt, the legendary theatre director.
“I was supposed to be very gifted, and he heard about me. He wanted me to be part of his theatre.” Rainer answered the call – as anyone in their right mind would have, given Reinhardt’s guru-like status in pre-war Europe – and spent fruitful years working with the director in Vienna. During this time she received a compliment from him which perhaps helps to explain why she does not get hysterically excited about winning Oscars.
“One day we were on a big tour,” she remembers, with far greater clarity than the misty day in 1937 when she won her first Oscar. “We did a play by Pirandello, and Reinhardt was in the theatre. I shall never forget, it was the greatest compliment I ever got, better than any Academy Award. He came to me, looked at me and said – we were never called by first names – ‘Rainer, how did you do this?’ It was so wonderful. ‘How did you create this?’ I was so startled and happy. That was my Academy Award.”
The theatre, rather than movie lore, informed what is usually cited as Rainer’s greatest screen moment. It is a scene from The Great Ziegfeld, in which Rainer’s character suppresses a broken heart to wish Ziegfeld tearful congratulations on his remarriage – all done on the telephone with the camera locked on Rainer. It could be mawkish, but the pathos is overwhelming and still convincing today, standing out from a film otherwise liable to creak with age.
And Rainer owed the scene to a play called La Voix Humaine (later made into an opera by Poulenc) by Jean Cocteau. “Cocteau’s play is just a telephone conversation about a woman who has lost her beloved to another woman,” she says. “That is the comparison. As it fitted into the Ziegfeld story, that’s how I wrote it. It’s a daily happening, not just in Cocteau…” The scene impressed Hollywood, and the Academy members, and continues to impress on DVD, but Rainer typically denies herself any plaudits.
“No, I was never proud of anything. I just did it like everything else. To do a film – let me explain to you – it’s like having a baby. You labour, you labour, 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? Proud? No, every cow can do that.”
What seems to matter to Rainer far more than reflecting on former triumphs is that she is still alive – and still clearly loves life. And in her life there is even a small place left for the Oscars. As a former winner, as well as something of an institution, Rainer was invited back for the 70th and 75th Oscar ceremonies in 1998 and 2003. And she had a brilliant time.
“That was great fun. Great fun! To see all the people again. I enjoyed myself immensely.” And if the Academy invited her for the 80th Awards in 2008, one can be sure she would be off like a shot to Los Angeles. “Of course, if they invite me, and pay for the trip. But I don’t know if I’ll be alive.”
I have a distinct feeling she will be.