by Paul W. McMahon
Anyone with even the slightest interest in Hollywood during its Golden Age can fully understand the total sense of excitement this journalist felt upon receiving an invitation from the Boston University Special Collections to an event sponsored by the Friends of the Libraries at Boston University titled “An Evening with Luise Rainer.” Miss Rainer would speak about her life and work, and a few of us would be allowed to personally speak to this megastar from the past, the very first person to win back-to-back Academy Awards, both for Best Performance by an Actress. The first in 1936 for her performance as Anna Held in The Great Ziegfeld, the second for The Good Earth (1937).
The Special Collections at Boston University is headed by the collection’s founder and director, Howard B. Gotlieb. It has, during the last forty years, become a major repository for personal and professional papers, an extensive collection of material of writers, playwrights, musicians, journalists, directors, producers, and actors from stage and screen. The extensive list of people (far too long to fully cover here) includes the likes of Fred and Adele Astaire, Mary Astor, Samuel Beckett, Ralph Bellamy, Robert Benchley, Dirk Bogarde, Billie Burke, Madeleine Carroll, Ilka Chase, Ina Claire, Marc Connelly, Bette Davis, Stanley Donen, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Jose Ferrer, Joan Fontaine, Janet Gaynor, Tamara Geva, Cedric Hardwicke, Rex Harrison, Susan Hayward, Glenda Jackson, Gene Kelly, James Kirkwood, Angela Lansbury, Beatrice Lillie, Viveca Lindfors, Anita Loos, Myrna Loy, Roddy McDowall, Shirley MacLaine, Alicia Markova, James Mason, Robert Preston, Claude Rains, Basil Rathbone, Robert Redford, Edward G. Robinson, Herbert Ross, William Saroyam, George Bernard Shaw, Sam Shepard, Clifton Webb, Orson Welles, and countless others.
As its ongoing director, Dr. Gotlieb, is constantly striving to entice others to join these most prestigious ranks. He often hosts social gatherings in various cities, including London (every other year) and at such an occasion, this past June, Miss Rainer, a long-time friend, was invited and attended. She seemed especially enthusiastic about the Special Collections’ archives and when invited by Gotlieb to come to Boston to speak at one of their events, she immediately accepted.
This was at least Miss Rainer’s second visit to this area that this journalist is aware of, having appeared at the Loeb Drama Center at Harvard University in October of 1981 in a one-person performance of Lord Alfred Tennyson’s epic narrative poem Enoch Arden. I had a brief opportunity to speak with her then following the performance, at a small reception held in her honor. She was most gracious but seemed a bit timid, and not particularly interested in talking about her film career. She was most enthusiastic about her passion for mountain climbing, however, and spoke of the wondrous things one sees in the mountains. She was especially awed by the discovery of tiny, fragile-looking flowers pushing their way through the snow.
Timidity was never evident on her most recent visit to Boston, made unaccompanied, flying from London to Boston, after only recently returning from a safari in Africa! At the event, on Thursday September 26, 2002, she seemed much more at ease, uninhibited and totally charming. Dressed in a simple white jersey pant suit and a knitted skullcap from which bits of her dark hair shown, she spoke with wonderful and remarkable clarity, with a still slightly accented voice, and was ever so animated, often creating strikingly beautiful visual moments as she employed her hands and arms, all magnificently punctuated with her expressive eyes.
She began by speaking briefly about her career prior to coming to the United States. She began by studying with Max Reinhardt and performed in repertory with his company. “He was,” she said, “the very top in that field at that time. M.G.M. sent a talent scout to look over another actress in that company, not to consider me. Somehow, I was picked instead. Much to my surprise. I was not the type that Hollywood was looking for in those days… but they picked me,” she modestly added.
She reminisced on how exciting it was for her to travel across the ocean and across “this large and beautiful country, America,” going into rapturous descriptions of the beauty of the fields and mountains and the colors, still obviously very vivid in her memories. “I was so awed by the very vastness of this country,” she sighed.
“I never really expected that I would be staying there [Hollywood]. I never thought that I would be making motion pictures there,” she admitted. She had, incidentally, appeared in several Austro-German films prior to coming to Hollywood, but considered herself better suited to the stage, although, she added that she felt, “Acting was really very much the same. Actually, I never really felt that it was acting. I was really just feeling the role. I never thought of it as acting. I was living the role.”
She recalled that her first American film was Escapade (1935) in which she costarred with William Powell. “He was so wonderful,” she said of him. “He was a dear man – my favourite to work with. He was always so very helpful and always considerate. He showed me so much about film-making, about camera angles, just so very much.” As it would turn out, Powell played the title role in her next film, The Great Ziegfeld (1936), which garnered her her first Academy Award, playing Ziegfeld’s wife, Anna Held. Had Miss Rainer ever met Ziegfeld? “He was actually before my time. I know I’m in my nineties, but some people, believe it or not, are even before my time,” she jested, (Actually, Ziegfeld died in 1932, but Miss Rainer did not come to this country until 1934).
On the subject of her leading men, she admitted that Paul Muni was perhaps her, “least favorite. He was a very good actor but a very difficult man. He had his own way of doing things and got his own way. He knew what he wanted and needed to act.”
This led her into a discussion of acting: “Actually, I hate the word “act.” All human beings know how to act or to pretend, even in real life, but you really have to be honest, even to yourself. I always hated the word acting!”
When asked how she reacted to winning her first Oscar, she replied “I didn’t know what it was. It wasn’t called an Oscar in those days, it was only known as the Academy Award. Of course, I was pleased, but I really didn’t know what it was. They were not or did not mean what they are today. In Europe, I had never even heard of them, so, I did not even attend. The second time that I won [the next year for The Good Earth, co-starring Paul Muni], I really was not expecting it and I was in San Francisco and had not planned to go. The studio called me and told me to get back there [Hollywood], immediately. I rushed back, dressed quickly and made it just in time. It is very nice to win awards but it is very difficult to be put on a pedestal. I was put there, but, I didn’t go there. I never really considered myself part of the Hollywood scene. I never thought of myself as beautiful or glamorous and never really became part of its glamorous social world.”
This journalist then asked if she would speak about her first husband, playwright Clifford Odets, to whom she was married from 1937 to 1940. She answered, “He was a wonderful playwright and there is much to be said of him, but, it was a time when we both had very big careers. Living with another human being is sometimes something very difficult, especially in Hollywood, at least in those days. However, to sum him up, it was like there was a beautiful and exotic flower inside him which opened up,” she explained as she mimed, cupping her two hands like a lotus bud and slowly opening them into a full blossom, another of her most effective visual moments.
When asked how she prepared to play actual people in films, specifically Anna Held (The Great Ziegfeld) and then in The Great Waltz (1938) as Johann Strauss’ sweet and vulnerable wife, Poldi, she said that she relied on the emotions that she gathered about the characters from the script. Miss Rainer then quickly moved on to a related topic, explaining how she arrived at her interpretation of the character O-Lan in The Good Earth. “I knew nothing about Chinese women and so I began to really observe them,” she explained. She told the story of how she started to really find O-Lan when she was at a function prior to the filming and dropped something. As she bent down to pick it up, a Chinese woman standing next to her bent down to retrieve it for her. They bumped heads and began to laugh. From this woman’s mannerisms and her body language she realized, I had found O-Lan,.” She evidently had found the key because it has been reported that when Mme. Chaing Kai-shek saw The Good Earth, she thought that O-Lan was actually played by a Chinese actress.
As Miss Rainer was explaining this process of finding this character, she began to weave her hands and arms into a kind of hypnotic dance. She somehow managed to transform herself into that character. Before my eyes, she seemed to become O-Lan, again, more than 60 years after she made the film.
When asked if she ever got the urge to work again, she noted that she made a film as recently as 1997. This was a British-Dutch-French-Hungarian film about author Fyodor Dostoyevsky and his novel The Gambler (also the motion picture’s title), which was released in the United States in 1999. She added that she really does not have the need to work, even though she feels very healthy. “I don’t want to boast, but I feel very well and was blessed with very good genes. But,” she quickly adds, “I have a very great sense of curiosity… I love music. Actually, I have loved a great deal in my life, and I still love and, fortunately, I have never lost my sense of curiosity!”
With many thanks to Bob King of Classic Images magazine for permission to reproduce this article.
[¹] Luise joined this list in 2005 when she donated a huge amount of her personal correspondence, diaries, manuscripts and other writings to the collection.
[²] Thought to be Rosa Stradner (1913-1958)