by Roy Pickard
There aren’t many stars who have walked out of Hollywood just a few years after winning two best actress Oscars. But Luise Rainer (pronounced Ryner) did just that. 31 years ago she walked away from all the glitter and razzamatazz and traded it in for a quieter life.
Why did she do it? Why did she give up all the glamour and ballyhoo that surrounded the life of a top movie star in the Thirties and Forties? The main reason, and the one given by so many stars of the past, is that she didn’t want to become just another piece of studio merchandise.
She did miss the acting at first (“I missed the acting very much after I left. I acted again sporadically, of course, but it was never again the same”), but she was unrepentant about leaving behind the publicity and circus-like atmosphere that accompanied her Hollywood life-style.
“At the time people said to me, ‘How can you throw all this to the winds? At £25,000 a picture you must be mad.’ But I tell you I would rather have one dollar and keep my integrity and spiritual freedom than take thousands and have to bow to every Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones in the business.”
Since the Fifties Luise has lived in London and made only two professional appearances in this country, not on television – in By Candlelight and The Sea Gull. She has also done some stage acting in Austria where she began her career as a 16-year-old at the famous Max Reinhardt Theatre in Vienna¹. After appearing successfully in Vienna, Paris and London (in plays like An American Tragedy, Measure for Measure, Six Characters in Search of an Author) she was whisked off to Hollywood by MGM who saw her as a successor to Garbo.
In just her second film, The Great Ziegfeld (as Ziegfeld’s first wide Anna Held) she won Hollywood’s most prized accolade, the Oscar. Her tragic telephone scene towards the end of the film is still considered to be one of the greatest pieces of screen acting of the Thirties2.
A year later, 1937, a second Oscar was on her mantelpiece, this time for her marvellous performance as O-Lan in the screen version of Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth (going to be remade by David Lean3). After just three films she was a double Oscar winner, something no actress had then achieved even though the awards had then been in existence for nearly a decade.
But after the dizzy heights of the Oscar years Luise’s career quickly began to falter. Her films became few and far between and those that did appear were of poor quality. It is quite astonishing to find that, after The Good Earth, she made just six more films, five of them at MGM where she starred opposite Spencer Tracy (The Big City), Melvyn Douglas and Robert Young (The Toy Wife) and one, Hostages, at Paramount. In the latter film (her last) she appeared as the daughter of a wartime collaborationist.
During the late Thirties and early Forties everything went sour for Luise Rainer. After the glittering Hollywood debut came the run of poor films and the break-up of her marriage to famous American playwright Clifford Odets. On top of that her nervous system took a battering.
Later, when those traumatic days were over she looked back on them from a distance and in perspective.
“I was only 21 when I played in The Good Earth and 27 when I quit Hollywood for good4. Only I know what that meant in terms of suffering. Stardom is something you must be prepared for, groomed for, or crave for. I was unpardonably naive. I believed I could be a great actress without being touched. When you are a world star – not just the toast of a city or country – but internationally famous, people want to take you apart to find out what makes you tick.
“I felt I hadn’t been groomed to take it. I was unimportant as a person and I was bothered by having to be extraordinary. Suddenly it became much more important than my work.”
Today, Luise Rainer lives quietly with her second husband, publishing director Robert Knittel, in London’s Belgravia. “We go to the theatre and I love to give parties and cook for my friends,” she says.
In recent years she has also taken a deep interest in painting and every Friday can be seen heading in the direction of the borough of Camden where she attends a council art class.
“For three years now I have painted with an artist I greatly respect,” she says. “Though I hardly consider myself a painter yet.”
One of her fellow pupils at the Camden Institute describes her thus: “She rarely talks of Hollywood. But she still has a kind of Sunset Boulevard air about her. And she has still retained much of her beauty with her high cheekbones and slim figure. She is 61, but looks about 45.”
1 Besides Luise’s appearances on stage with Reinhardt’s company, the only other instance of her appearing on stage in Austria was in 1963 when she played in a production of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes at the Josefstadt Theatre’s 175th anniversary season.
2 This scene takes place near the middle of the film, not at the end.
3 I have found no evidence or any other source citing a remake of The Good Earth by David Lean.
4 Luise was 26 when she filmed The Good Earth and she was 29 when her final MGM film, Dramatic School, was released.