This article, by Ida Zeitlin, first appeared in the July 1937 issue of Modern Screen magazine. Only two years into her MGM contract at the time, Luise already expresses her disillusionment with her career in Hollywood and the emptiness of the life as an MGM ‘starlet’. At this point she had already won her first Academy Award (for The Great Ziegfeld) and she had finished filming on The Good Earth (for which she would win her second). She talks, somewhat disingenuously, of politics, or rather her apolitical stance, although her marriage to Clifford Odets, her appearances at events protesting against the Sino-Japanese war, and her later work with Ernest Hemingway, Eleanor Roosevelt and the ‘war effort’ suggest that the onset of the Second World War, especially the incarceration of her father in a Czech prison camp, altered her view of a woman’s role in politics. It’s a fascinating article, not least due to Luise’s candid assessment of her life as a movie star, published in a popular screen magazine. One can readily see just what the bosses at MGM must’ve thought of their wayward star.
I SAT waiting in a publicity office something less than two years ago when a small dynamo in slacks and short-sleeved blouse blew in, dropped into a chair and began talking. I had never seen her before. I didn’t know whether she was an actress, visitor or scribbler. I did know – anyone would know the moment she entered a room – that here was an arresting personality.
The dynamic effect was produced not by sound and fury, but a quicksilver vitality. Expression played over her vivid face like light and shadow over a stream – as changefully, as unconsciously, as agreeable to watch. Dark eyes under the windblown bob flashed and softened by turns. Her warmly tinted skin had a translucent quality. And though she was obviously a foreigner, her speech flowed vigorous and free. Never waiting to fumble for language that was always graphic, if not always grammatical. Through sheer color and glow she took and held your attention.
“That’s Luise Rainer, a European actress,” I was told when she left.
“What? No mystery? No glamor? No airs and graces?”
I’d heard that often enough to be skeptical. Yet I’d seen for myself that her appearance and manner were different. You couldn’t type her. You wouldn’t classify her. You couldn’t say she was a second this-one or that-one or any other Hollywood star. She was like no one you’d ever seen but herself. And for any self-consciousness or effort, however subtle, to make an impression, she might have been merely the stenographer next door.
As the piquant little companion of “Escapade,” I saw her capture the public’s imagination as she had captured mine. For her tender, tempestuous portrayal of Anna Held, she won the Academy Award. Who would have played O-Lan if Rainer hadn’t appeared on the scene I have no notion. It was Mr. Thalberg who chose her. Had he lived to see the finished performance, to see the child of “Escapade” submerge her youth and charm to become the stolid, deep-souled Chinese woman, he would have been content with his choice.
As she moved from triumph to triumph, Hollywood talked about her as Hollywood does. She didn’t like interviews; therefore she was doing a Garbo. She preferred long walks with her dog to lunching at the Vendrome; therefore she must be a poseur. Soon after she married Clifford Odets, the playwright, she went alone to New York.
“Why?” she was asked.
“Because every time I am free, I make a trip. Mr. Odets is not free. So I go alone.” But the truth was too simple; therefore, “Ha-ha! Rainer’s marriage is on the rocks.”
After you’ve lived in Hollywood for a while, you don’t believe all the tales you hear. They may or may not be true. Anything for a headline. Suppose you have to retract your statement tomorrow. So much the better. Today’s headline will sell, nd so will tomorrow’s retraction. I couldn’t associate what I’d heard with that unknown girl in the publicity office whose every word and gesture had been spontaneous. Yet Hollywood has been known to crush spontaneity.
So, although I went to see Miss Rainer with an open mind, I couldn’t help but wonder if Hollywood really had changed her!
“Please, you must first have your lunch,” she said when I came to her dressing room. “If you try to make an interview at the same time, you will not enjoy your eating. Then I will give you what time you want.” She went to the phone to order food. “Here is Luise Ryner – Ry-ner -” she repeated, and shot me a rueful glance. “I always mispronounce my name. They all say Ray-ner. So when I say Ry-ner, nobody knows who is there. But so long it has been Ryner, it is hard to change.”
Over coffee and cigarettes – my coffee and cigarettes, since she took neither – and with Johnny, her beloved Scottie, sleeping at her feet, we “made the interview.” She sat in the corner of a couch, laughing, wistful, excited by turns. Not only her lips but her hands and body spoke, and above all, her velvet-soft eyes that changed with every changing shade of feeling. And, though her English was vastly improved, she showed that same fine disregard of dictionary speech I had noted earlier, for the sake of vigorous, unimpaired expression.
“My rebel-ation,” she said, “was from the beginning to the end that I am what I am. But I cannot think of myself as a rebel because I do not fight to make others do what I wish but only stay myself. And this is not to say I think I am God’s wonder – please understand me well – but only that I cannot do what is for me not right and natural to do. It is far-est from my mind to hurt somebody else. It never came to my head till I heard someone say, ‘This girl is a Frankenstein. She will spoil everything.'”
Her hands flew to her face, her eyes widened, recalling the shock of that moment. “I thought ‘Am I crazy? Are they crazy? What can I spoil if I am true to myself? This I must be. Sometimes I may be convinced for a moment against myself. but before I know it, my own color comes through. Not that I will not do what for me is wrong. I cannot do it. Every person has inside of himself a judge,” she tapped her forehead, “and for him this inside judge is the best.
“I will tell you something. What is the most important thing for a child? To have rest and quietness, isn’t it so? I had not this. I had deep difficulties. I had shocks like war and shooting and revolution and inflation, things which every child is afraid of. For days our only safe place from airplane shooting was the cellar. I didn’t dare to go from one room to the other because I was afraid to go alone over the floor. You know, this kind of thing can make you sick for your whole life long or it can make you strong, and this fight made me think and this fight brought me to the bad or good which is in me.
SO I am sixteen and I start out and I am full of ideals. Well, I tell you my life hasn’t changed for a dime. In me the same thoughts and ideals live which then lived, and which I have have built up in myself as long as I can think. I had to compromise, yes, and every compromise made me unhappy. But I have not compromised with myself. Only with the outside. The day I compromise with myself – ” she leaned from her corner and a small fist struck her palm – “I guess I have to commit suicide. And this means never. Because,” she said, with a kind of amused grimness, “I do not dream to commit suicide.
“Maybe,” she continued more quietly, “this sounds high-hatted to say I am strong. I am not high-hatted. How is it possible that your hat grows high if you have your eyes open? Because there is always another thing to reach to and another thing, and when you have reached that, and when you have reached the highest height of an actress, there is always far, far above you an Einstein or a Toscanini. Why I am strong is very simple to explain. Because I know so strong what I want. And what is that? To make out of yourself the best what can be made of yourself in everything, in life as in work. And nobody else can tell you how to do that, isn’t it so?”
Suddenly she laughed. “It is funny. On the one side, I say I am strong. On the other side I must admit, if you ask me, that it hurts me if people think bad about me. Isn’t it id-yotic? Because everybody cannot think good. I know it. Yet everybody matters to me. Everybody in the whole world can hurt me. It is so easy for me to have an inferiority complex. If I have nine hundred and ninety-nine good notices and one bad one, you can be sure I have the bad one in my pocketbook. The good ones I overfly. (Ed. note:- skim through.) Mr. Odets always laughs about that. ‘Why do you laugh?’ I tell him. ‘You love me. That is why you think everything is good I am doing. This man does not love me. So it must be something bad I am doing.”
Then her face cleared. “The only thing I don’t read, and what doesn’t bother me is the gossip column. They can write about me what they want to. It doesn’t matter. Once, yes, I did read. One day I saw my test. Somebody asked me, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘All right.’ Because that person on the screen is to me not me but an actress. Shall I say always she is bad because her name is Luise Rainer? Somebody heard it and wrote, ‘Luise Rainer thinks she is kolossal.’ I laugh because I know I do not think it. They say, ‘She must be thirty.’ I am not hurt, because to be thirty is first not a crime in America, and anyway, this is something I know. I know I am not thirty. But I do not know, am I a good actress.
“Still, if something hurts me, I can bear it. Even if they would say, well, she’s a rotten actress and if they would throw me out of the whole America, all right, they can do it, and surely I will not like it, but I will still go on being what I am. This is the real something, what is deep within me and what nobody can touch. I mustn’t be an actress. Of course I love to act, but if they don’t let me there million things in life you can do and do good.
“This, that I am an actress, is something secondary to me. I was never longing for that which they call glamor. For glamor I don’t give a dime. To be a human is so much more important. And that will come through if I make stitches in a cushion;” she seized one and thumped it, “or what my hands find to do,” she cried, flinging it down again.
You couldn’t have listened and remained unconvinced. These were no airy theories, whisked out at a moment’s notice as a sop to publicity, but a philosophy painfully arrived at, intensely felt, solidly rooted. Nor was her object to convince me . What I believed was up to me. But “whatever you do, you must do it good,” she had cried. So she was “doing good” the job she had undertaken of explaining herself. In fact, she was doing so nobly from my point of view that I couldn’t help wondering about her rumored reluctance to grant interviews.
SHE answered that with the same willingness and clarity and candor she had shown throughout. “In my country,” she said, “You work very hard and you don’t get so many rewards. People are now bowling – how do you say? – bowing? I thought always bow-ling! People are not bowing to you all the time. When I came here I was surprised. I didn’t understand what are these interviews. For publicity, they told me, for advertising. So people will know you. But they will know me through my work, if they like it. I don’t want to make my way through that. I don’t want a success that goes – swish! – up and then down. I want to find for myself what I am in this country, without publicity.
“That is why, in the beginning, when I was nobody in America, I did not give interviews. Today I allow myself to give a few. Because people have been so kind to like my work. I stand now on my feet her as an actress, and the rest is no more so important. Does it sound proud? It is then only the proudness of an honest shoeman in his shoes.
“And still I think, if you do the best work you can and spend the other life you have left in not thinking about yourself, but taking new things into yourself, it is more important than any interview. My acting I give to who wants it. The rest I would give to my husband and those few who love me. This is three-quarters of myself, what I give to the fans. They should please leave me the last quarter.” Her voice had turned almost pleading, her face very sweet and serious. Then a little coaxing smile flickered ’round her lips. “And they should please not be angry with me.”
I asked what the Academy Award had meant to her. She raised her lashes and I caught a hint of mischief in her eyes. “I am very thankful,” she said. “For a couple of weeks I have no more my inferiority complex.”
“You see,” she said, “the last thing I did was this ugly little woman, O-Lan. Beautiful inside, but ugly outside. Each time I look at myself I think, ‘No man in the world could like you again.’ So the complex becomes always more inferior. Then I was supposed to do this – ‘The Emperor’s Candlesticks,’ my next picture. William Powell got lost in the woods, nobody could find him, so I said, well, if he gets lost in the woods, I make a trip in my car.” Gone was the serious mood of a moment ago. Now she was having fun.
“So I took my husband and we both went to see a piece of the country and we were very happy, and we saw the redwoods and Carmel and a piece of San Francisco, and we were lying in Santa Barbara on the beach – see, I am all sunburned. Then we came back late in the evening and my maid grabbed me. ‘Miss Rainer, Miss Rainer, you are back. Mr. Mannix called, Mr. Mayer called, Mr. Capra called. They send the police behind you.’ ‘What’s the matter?’ I said. ‘What can happen? They didn’t start the picture yet.’ ‘I don’t know what’s the matter,’ she told me,’but the telephone doesn’t stop.’
“Then again it rings and a friend of us tells to Mr. Odets, ‘Well, you better look out. The grapevine -‘ is there such a grapevine? – ‘the grapevine says Luise probably gets the Award.’ I say, ‘It’s nonsense.’ Mr. Odets says, ‘Well, darling, what do you want? Do you want to go to this banquette?’ ‘But I cannot go like that. I am burned with the sun. Look, I have a head like a balloon.’
” ‘You are beautiful,’ he said. He is my husband, you must excuse him. ‘You look so healthy,’ he said. ‘But I am afraid, I am embarrassed.’ ‘They will think you are high-hatted.’ So we chase down in a taxi. And I was afraid, and I was embarrassed, but deeply thankful, too, so I don’t know how to look. But now when I see my little statue I say, ‘Go away, complex. I don’t give a dime for you.’ Sometimes he goes, sometimes he stays,” she shrugged.
I CLOSED my book. “You are finished? Then I must tell you one thing, and I want you to print it, because I come in many funny situations, especially lately, through certain circumstances. It is about politic.” I pricked up my ears, beginning to realize that the “certain circumstances” had to do with her marriage. Because Odets’ plays reveal him as an enlightened and compassionate thinker, in tune with his times, the undiscerning have tagged him radical.
“I never had anything to do with politic,” said his wife, “and I don’t dare to give any remark on politic because it would be id-y-otic everything I say. But I do not believe in women having to do with politic. This I leave to my husband. I deeply believe that women should shut up in politic and better be womanly. I know that I make with this remark new enemies but I cannot help it. Maybe I am a rebel in this, too,” she smiled, “that my husband’s happiness means more to me than success. I am only happy if he is happy, and happiness and success – ” her eyes looked off into space – “they haven’t much to do with each other,” she concluded gently.
My first impression of her innate simplicity, I knew now, was the true one, and her leap to the pinnacle of movie fame has changed her only in this – to intensify her appreciation of the genuine, her hatred of sham.
I had always thought of her as a gay and charming child, despite her perfect identification with the woman O-lan. Now I began to understand how she had been able to sink herself so completely in the role. I think it was because she understood O-lan with her heart because she shares with her O-lan’s essential grace. “To be human is so much more important,” she had cried. Like O-lan, I think she knows how to be human and to be it “good.”
For more original magazine articles and interviews with Luise Rainer click here.