When interviewed for her 100th birthday in 2010 Luise Rainer was asked if there were any roles she had wished to play but didn’t get the chance. In reply she said there were three: Dr. Han Suyin in Love is a Many Splendoured Thing, Maria in For Whom the Bell Tolls and the title role in the biopic of Marie Curie.
When Curie died in 1934, aged 66, she had established a remarkable legacy in the fields of physics and chemistry, with two Nobel Prizes (1903 and 1911) and a slew of pioneering discoveries which have shaped the world we live in. Her legacy as one of the greatest scientific minds has not diminished. Curie has been the subject of numerous biographies but the first was Madame Curie by Ève Curie, her daughter, published in 1938. Her life story is one perfectly suited for the MGM treatment and they were the first to bring it to the big screen, in 1943.
Universal were the first to secure the rights but sold them to MGM who announced that they had purchased the rights for Luise Rainer, to bring Curie’s life to the screen. In March of 1938 Luise had won her second Academy Award and the Curie project would be a role of suitable gravitas for her. But this was a tumultuous year in Luise’s life; she already had two films in the can which were released that year – The Toy Wife and The Great Waltz – and she was set to film a third, Dramatic School, which was to be her last for the studio. In the summer her marriage to Clifford Odets was disintegrating and she had an abortion, shortly followed by filing for divorce. Physically and emotionally drained, when filming finished on Dramatic School in October she announced that she was ‘dried out’. Called to the studio she begged Louis B. Mayer for a break in her contract to no avail.
What happened to Luise’s chances of playing Madame Curie isn’t clear. MGM’s announcement that they had bought the rights for Luise was perhaps a carrot that Mayer dangled to attempt to entice Luise to stay. It was exactly the type of weighty role she had been craving. Or, perhaps, Mayer used it as a punishment for Luise’s disloyalty. After their heated argument in October 1938, with Mayer refusing to allow a break for Luise to recuperate, she quit, and thus gave up any hope of playing a role she had so sought after.
The roles of Marie and Pierre Curie were instead assigned to two of MGM’s greatest stars: Greta Garbo and Spencer Tracy. Ève Curie, however, had casting approval written into her contract and believed Garbo was too glamorous for the part thus stalling the process. It was five years later when the film finally made it to the screen, with Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, their third film together and the third to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar (after Blossoms in the Dust (1941) and Mrs. Miniver (1942). The film was a box office success and was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Picture.
There have been three further versions of Curie’s story brought to the screen: Les Palmes des M. Schutz (1997), with Isabelle Huppert; Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge (2016), with Karolina Gruszka; and Radioactive (2019), with Rosamund Pike (below).