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Luise Rainer

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Luise Rainer in The Great Zeigfeld (1936).

THE MYTH THAT WINNING the Academy
Award is a jinx started with Luise Rainer. Having carried home
consecutive Oscars for best actress more than 60 years ago, she
abruptly walked away from Hollywood while the gilt was still fresh.
Since most film buffs consider leaving L.A. akin to exiting Eden,
revisionist wisdom painted Rainer as a fallen star. Her performances
in The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and The Good Earth (1937)
must have been overrated, historians rea­soned. After 1943, when
she appeared in Hostages for Paramount, she left America-apparently
forever­ as a mere intriguing footnote in Hollywood lore.

The thing about myths, though, is that they are rarely,
if ever, true. Enter Exhibit A, in 1999, in the person of ­88-year-old
Luise Rainer. Alive and well in her adopted London, Rainer has
outlived all of the legendary Hollywood divas of her era and has
recently made her first movie in 55 years. The Gambler,
which just opened in America, premiered in London and Europe last
year. In this adaptation of the Fyodor

Dostoyevsky story by the same name, Rainer plays
the matriarch of a debt-ridden aristocratic Russian family of the
1860s who becomes obsessed with gambling. The film is a story within
a story. Michael Gambon plays a drunken, destitute  Dostoyevsky,
who must write the story "The Gambler" in less than a
month or lose the rights to his story. Rainer’s role is a cameo
that comes halfway through the film, but if it’s a cameo, it is
true ivory, and nothing about the film even matters after her departure.
Age has not altered her style, and she has retained the passionate
lyricism, the florid theatricality that charmed movie­goers all
those decades past.

At The Mark recently to promote the film, all of
her charm was in full blossom. The tiny, 90-pound actress was dressed
in a cream-white silk pajama suit with beads and seed pearls and
crocheted cap. She expressed dismay that the movie depicted her
to be far older than her years. In person, she does look younger,
perhaps, because she is still coquettish, still fully in command
of her senses and scenes.

Truth is, she always has been. The European stage
star, who was signed by MGM when she was 23, walked away from the
first phase of her career on her own terms. After only three years
into her seven­year contract, she became disturbed by the apathy
of the movie colony at a time when Fascism was overtaking Europe
and Asia, and labor unrest and poverty were undermining America.
When she demanded better movies, the legendary Louis B. Mayer gave
her the "you’ll never work in this town again" routine
and she simply returned to New York with her then husband, playwright
Clifford Odets. Odets departed from her life by 1940, but by 1944
she had remarried a handsome, rich publisher named Robert Knittel.
With a daughter in tow, the couple lived mainly in Switzerland
and London, and for all practical purposes, Rainer left acting.

Born in Dusseldorf in 1912 to prosperous Jewish parents,
Rainer had become a popular stage star in Berlin and Vienna in
Max Reinhardt’s company in the early ’30s. (Her German-born father
was an American citizen, which helped him escape to America when
the war began.) Reinhardt, perhaps the most influential stage director
of the century, introduced electricity to stagecraft, which revolutionize
lighting. He rejected naturalism in favor of an impressionistic
acting style, in which the elfin Rainer shone.

An MGM talent scout spotted Rainer on a European
stage, signed her, and she was imported to Hollywood. William Powell,
whom she recalls as "a dear man" and "a very fine
person," was in many ways responsible for her rapid rise to
stardom. Anita Loos suggested Rainer replace a striking Myrna Loy
in Escapade (1935), a remake of the German film Masquerade (1934).
Powell taught Rainer, who had made a few indifferent films in Germany,
to turn around in a shot so she wouldn’t be upstaged. "He
went to Louis B. Mayer and said, `You’ve got to star this girl
or I’ll look like an idiot.’"

MGM cast the team of Powell and Loy with Rainer in The
Great Ziegfeld
. The emotional telephone scene in which the
rejected Anna Held tearfully wishes her ex-husband, Florenz Ziegfeld,
luck on his marriage to Billie Burke, is often thought of as
the reason why Rainer won her first Academy Award. In fact, the
common wisecrack about someone giving an Oscar-winning performance
on the telephone may have its origins in that scene. Her renditions
of the pre-World War I musical numbers, however, were uncanny
re-enactments of European music hall, and have long been overlooked.

Despite the instant fame from the Oscar, Rainer just
as quickly grew disenchanted with the void of ideas and intellectual
conversation in Hollywood. She found the movie colony to be an
unsophisticated world where clothes were a major preoccupation. "I’ll
tell you a wonderful story," she said. "Coming with all
of these ideas that I had, and still have, and still feel because
I never change and still believe in the same things. Soon after
I was there in Hollywood, for some reason I was at a lun­cheon
with Robert Taylor sitting next to me, and I asked him, ‘Now, what
are your ideas or what do you want to do,’ and his answer was that
he wanted to have 10 good suits to wear, elegant suits of all kinds,
that was his idea. I practically fell under the table." In
was no surprise, then, that she considered Melvyn Douglas, her
co-star in The Toy Wife (1938), to be her favorite leading
man. "He was intelligent, and he was interested also in other
things than acting."

Luise Rainer and DominicWest in The Gambler (1999).

Mayer behaved outrageously when she demanded substantial
material. "He would cry phony tears," she recalls. Irving
Thalberg supported her ambitions, overriding Mayer when he opposed
her casting in The Good Earth. "He wanted me to be glamorous." After
Thalberg died during the filming of The Good Earth, she
felt lost. Mayer "didn’t know what to do with me, and that
made me so unhappy. I was on the stage with great artists, and
everything was so won­derful. I was in a repertory theater, and
every night I played something else." She wanted to play Nora
in a film of A Doll’s House or Madame Curie, but
Mayer gave her the absurd The Toy Wife.

The Good Earth was a superior movie by Hollywood
standards, but it clearly owed its realism to Rainer’s intense
acting. She resisted wearing heavy makeup, taking her inspiration
from a Chinese woman who was an extra in the film. "I had
a wonderful director, Sidney Franklin …. I worked from inside
out. It’s not for me, putting on a face, or putting on makeup,
or making masquerade. It has to come from inside out. I knew what
I wanted to do and he let me do it.

"Hollywood was a very strange place. To me,
it was like a huge hotel with a huge door, one of those rotunda
doors. On one side people went in, heads high, and very soon they
came out on the other side, heads hanging."

She wasn’t the first stage star to walk out of an
MGM contract. Helen Hayes left soon after her Oscar win in 1932
to return to Broadway. Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt made one movie,
got Oscar nominations, and left, telling Irving Thalberg, "We
can be bought but we can’t be bored." Most of the great stage
stars of the era resisted movie offers. Claudette Colbert and Katharine
Hepburn were the exceptions.

Unlike the others, however, Rainer did not really
return to the stage. Throughout World War II, she worked for the
war effort, often making appearances at war bond drives with Eleanor
Roosevelt. For Army Special Service, she talked with soldiers throughout
North Africa and Italy, asking what they liked to read and what
they thought, and supplying them with books. On bleak Ascension
Island in 1944, Rainer experienced a moment of truth which she
rarely experienced in Hollywood. No women, except for a few nurses,
were available as dance partners for the soldiers.  "On Christmas
night, I danced with all kinds of fellows with pimples and all
kinds of sores. I suddenly felt, ‘What is this being shy? I have
to give myself, I just felt I didn’t want to be shy, I didn’t want
to draw away, but give myself, I mean, not physically, but be there.
It was a great lesson also for me, this tour through Africa and
Italy during the war."

All these years later, Rainer says she is apo­litical,
yet she readily admits to concern with the situation in Yugoslavia.
She has been an outspoken public critic of the bombing in Kosovo. "How
can you close your eyes and say this has nothing to do with me?
I’m not speaking about politics. Politics is a terrible thing.
Everyone wants power."

Having watched Hollywood from afar all these years,
Rainer is equally opinionated, especially about the "speed
and murder" in so many American films. "I was on an air­plane
and they showed a film, the worst film I’ve ever seen (about) the
end of the world, Armageddon …. You see the emphasis-what can
we do to frighten people more?"

As for the brief, but poignant rejuvenation of her
own movie career in The Gambler, Rainer said she would consider
other roles­ on her own terms, of course. Just like the first time
around, one gets the feeling Rainer doesn’t measure herself by
celluloid stan­dards.

"If I can do a story which makes sense, I would
do it," she said. "My life has been wonderful. I’ve seen
a lot, I’ve lived a lot, I’ve met a lot of good people. I had a
wonderful husband for 45 years. My child [Francesca Bowyer] is
a dear child …I was very fortunate in being in contact with a
lot of people who made sense."

Still, just for a moment, one could wonder what a
star she might have been. When I walked her to the entrance to
the hotel lobby, she distracted me from saying goodbye in the normal
fashion, departing instead as the consummate diva. Drawing her
hand delicately across my arm, she directed my glance downward.
When I looked up a moment later, she was already moving across
the floor, a ghostly figure in white which shimmered under the
chande­liers…a  leading lady to the end. MM

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