Luise Rainer Confesses an Amazing Masquerade
by Charles Darnton
[This article first appeared in Movie Mirror magazine, August 1938]
Here, perhaps, in her own account of her strangest experience, is the true explanation of the talent which twice won her the Academy Award.
IT WOULD have been interesting to follow that shabby girl tramping New York’s still shabbier streets….
See through her thin disguise and discover in the unknown wanderer Hollywood’s famous and most brilliant star….
Watch her with ever-growing surprise and fascination play in stark reality her own Divine Comedy of the slums….
Listen beside her as she joined in the lively chatter of bareheaded sweat-shop girls catching their noon-day breath of air….
Sit with her on the littered steps of an East Side tenement swarming with the clamorous life of the hand-to-mouth poor….
Climb with her to a stool in a Bowery haunt where hungry down and outers made their losing fight against starvation….
Swirl with her in strong water-front currents sweeping into the full tide of rudderless humanity….
Read with her the story of mass stress and striving, the human story told in pulsing scenes and living words, the great story put into terms of flesh and blood….
It all came out when I asked my unpredictable Westwood neighbor, Luise Rainer, whether her three months’ visit in New York had brought her any interesting experiences.
“Very interesting,” she said. “For days I went roaming around all by myself in the lower part of New York. I wanted to know real people without their knowing me.”
Amazingly, Luise Rainer had dared to do what no other actress had ever done. Hollywood stars in their eastward courses are generally intent upon dazzling the metropolis by adorning gilded hotels, queening it over gaudy night clubs, and glorifying Broadway first-nights – not to mention themselves.
Not so Luise Rainer. An actress of the people, she had set out to be one with those people, to make herself part of their daily lives, to understand their perpetual problems, to learn their eternal needs.
But how she had been able to do all this with a face known to the whole movie-going world still remained a mystery.
“I made myself look different,” she explained with just the flicker of a smile as my gaze traveled up her white-slacked, brown-bloused figure to her starry eyes and raven hair. “I thought I looked like a gangster girl, but maybe I didn’t. I wore a cheap, short little dress which hardly reached to my knees, no stockings, and old shoes. I pulled my hair straight back till it was completely hidden under a small tight cap, and put on a pair of plain glasses, not dark ones. Then I put a dark spot on my chin – yes, a mole – which I made of wax. That was my make-up, and I looked like a very dirty girl.”
Even so, it seemed quite unbelievable she had been able to fool all the people she encountered in her risky adventures among the lowly.
“I nearly got caught several times,” she admitted. “For one thing, my voice almost gave me away. In fact, some came right out and asked, ‘Aren’t you Luise Rainer?’ Then I would make out I was pretty mad and say, ‘Well, I just can’t stand it any longer! Everybody says I speak and look like her. Can’t I be myself? I never saw this Rainer you are talking about.’ “
The fair deceiver curled up in a chair, with one foot tucked under her, then gave further details of her Manhattan masquerade.
“I would start out in the morning,” she related, “and walk from University Place, where I stayed, through Washington Square and so on downtown. I walked everywhere, never took a street car. That was the only way to meet people and talk with them. I talked with taxicab drivers about the strike they were on, and with lots of policemen. One cop looked down at my bare legs – I really felt ashamed – and put his hand in his pocket as if to draw out some money, then said, ‘It’s pretty chilly, kid, for you to be gadding around without anything on your gams. You better buy yourself a pair of stockings.’ I told him, ‘I’ve got a pair, thank you, but I’m saving them for Sundays.’ “
Gravely thoughtful for a moment, Miss Rainer raised her head with:
“I learned one thing I will never forget. All the people I mixed with, no matter how poor, were sympathetic and ready to do what little they could to help me. You hear it said that New York is hard-hearted, but I did not find it so, not in the parts to which I went looking as though I didn’t have a cent to my name. At the noon hour one day I was passing a garment factory on the lower East Side when I saw a bunch of girls on the sidewalk and got into a talk with them. ‘Hunting a job?’ asked one. ‘Maybe I could get you one, but the place where we work is not so hot. We make just enough to buy a few clothes and pay for our room and board, with a little left over to go to a movie now and then. Say,’ she remarked, peering at me closely, ‘you look like Luise Rainer, sound like her, too. You oughta be able to get a job as her stand-in.’ ‘Not a chance,’ I said, waving goodbye. It was time for me to be moving.
“One evening at sunset I went again through the East Side looking at the people sitting on little wooden boxes before their doors and steps, playing cards and getting a last gleam of sunlight. Tired from a long walk, I dared to sit down on some steps next to a woman with a lot of children. She lookd at me, and I was glad when she didn’t hesitate to speak, telling me immediately about the high meat prices which in the life of this woman amounted to a catastrophe. Yet even she wanted to help me in any way she could.”
With humid eyes Miss Rainer seemed to vision Charity on the housestep of Poverty.
“Down on the Bowery,” she resumed, “I went into a little eating place. On the stool alongside mine was a trampish looking man having a cup of coffee. He turned and inquired, ‘Well, sister, how’re pickin’s?’ ‘So-so,’ I said. ‘I’d stake you to a cuppa cawfee,’ he remarked with a grin, ‘but my bank failed today.’ He finished his cup, then advised me, ‘Take a tip from an old-timer and beat it uptown. The Bowery’s no good for your racket. If you slicked up a little you oughta do pretty well for yourself cruisin’ Park Av’noo.’ When the shock of his full meaning struck me I choked on a bean of the soup I was eating.”
But a peal of laughter evidenced her sense of humor.
“When I went down to the docks I got pushed around. But I didn’t mind; in fact, I enjoyed it. And it led to something very interesting. They were tying up a big ocean liner. There was drama in watching passengers leave the ship, with people welcoming them. It was drama of the rich and the poor. For the rich there were armfuls of flowers, but for the poor just open arms. In the bundles carried by those from the steerage there was everything, perhaps, they had in the world. As I went close to study the expressions on their faces I fell over some ropes. One of the longshoremen, a rough and grimy but pleasant fellow, picked me up and pulled me out of the tangle. A little later he slouched over and started talking to me. He asked me what I was doing down there, then what I did for a living. ‘Housework,’ I told him, catching at the first thing that came into my head. He wanted to know where, and I said, ‘California.’ ‘Hollywood?’ he said, as if it were the only place in California. ‘Yes,’ I answered. ‘I suppose.’ He took it for granted, ‘you saw some of the movie stars out there.’ ‘No,’ I replied, ‘they never interested me.’ ‘Same here,’ he said. ‘Why, if that Louisa Rayneer – somehow you remind me of her – walked up to me right here and now I wouldn’t give her a second look.’ But he did give me one, then remarked, ‘You don’t look like the molls that hang around the docks. But you do look like a square meal wouldn’t hurt you none.’ Then a funny thing happened.” She smiled half-shyly. “He tried to make a date with me. But he wasn’t fresh, just nice about it. He probably was lonely. ‘Look here,’ he said, ‘if you want to wait till I get through work we’ll go and put a steak under our belts, then kill the evening together at a movie.’ The only way I could get out of it was to say I couldn’t wait then, but might be able to come back and meet him the next day.”
IF that West Street gallant ever finds out he tried to date up a Hollywood star he probably will fall right off the dock.
“I went also,” added Miss Rainer, “to the children’s courts and Bellevue and Mt. Sinai hospitals, where I dressed as a nurse and saw operations performed. All that I saw in those places made me very sad.”
A deep silence fell upon her. Then she flung it off with a sorry shake of her head to say:
“But I had one very pleasant time. It made me most happy to visit Einstein at his summer home on Long Island. Like all great persons, he is a wonderfully simple man. He was running around in a little white knit shirt. in the neck of it he carried his pen. Tapping it with a finger, he said, ‘This is all I need.’ We went rowing in a boat on the little lake and nearly fell in the water. As we walked about the grounds, Einstein spoke of very simple things. He did not go into his theories, which my brain would not have been big enough to understand. He mentioned motion pictures, only to say he did not know much about them. but he had seen ‘Good Earth.’ He laughed and said, ‘I think you are pretty good.’ “
Pausing briefly, Miss Rainer reflected:
IT is always ‘Good Earth’ which is mentioned when people speak of my work. The other pictures in which I have been have meant nothing. When Max Reinhardt, in whose European stage productions I had played, went with me to the opening of ‘The Great Ziegfeld’ all he said was, ‘Luise, Luise, how can you do that?’ It is strange I was given the Academy award for playing Anna Held in that picture, then given it again for playing O-lan in ‘Good Earth,’ because they were so utterly different. Naturally, the second award made me very happy, for it meant recognition of the kind of work that I feel is worthwhile. I want to do real things, play characters that mean something in the human scheme of things. That is why I disguised myself and went about among real people in New York. It is only by knowing such people that it is possible to know how to act human beings. I did not mingle with them out of mere curiosity or for my own amusement. It is only in real people that you find real values. To find reality in Hollywood is impossible, because Hollywood is necessarily artificial. It has glamour, but that means nothing to me, for I am not glamorous. I must be true to myself if I am to be anything. That is why I moved from a house in Brentwood to this apartment in Westwood. Living in a house which I rented furnished was too much like Hollywood to suit me. I wanted a little place with my own things, wanted to feel that within four walls there was something of myself. It is the same with my work. I can’t be made to feel that I am just a piece of material to be used as anyone chooses, or like a Wall Street stock which is owned by many. I want to own myself – that is the least I can do. As I have to live for myself, I must fight for myself. That is what I did when I went out alone among the poor of New York. It was a step towards reality. And now I must go on in the same direction, if only for my peace of mind and my health. I must give – give back what I have taken. From those real people in New York I got loads of material, and some day I will use it.”
Of them herself, Louise [sic] Rainer needs to act for them, the people.
[This article first appeared in Movie Mirror magazine, August 1938]
Luise chats to locals on the steps of a New York tenement block, as envisaged by illustrator Charles Dye from Movie Mirror (August 1938).
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