Fighting For Freedom
by Charles Darnton
Liberty-loving Luise Rainer reveals a new radiance as she awaits American citizenship
“FREER!” Spreading her arms like wings and looking like nothing so much as a raven-plumed snowbird in her white linen slacks, Luise Rainer perched lightly on her toes as though ready to fly.
Here was a changed actress in her changing world. All the brooding moods in which I had hitherto found her now dropped from her like a dark cloak. Radiantly facing the sunlight which poured through the broad windows of her Westwod home, this most mercurial of Hollywood stars stood transfigured.
For this transformation there were various reasons, quite aside from her pending divorce from the playwright Clifford Odets. First, accounting for that glad cry of greater freedom, was the opportunity offered by her new contract to be away from picture-making for half of each year so that she might realize her constant longing to act again on the stage. Then there was the significance of that second Academy Award won by her, beyond all precedent, within the three short years she has been in Hollywood. To cap it all, there now was something more marking the most momentous step this Viennesse actress had yet taken in the country which was quick to recognize her brilliant gifts.
But all in good time. Then let the best news come to you as the greatest surprise.
“At last,” Miss Rainer glowingly was saying, “I can do the thing that all allong I have wanted so much to do. By next season, possibly in November, I will make my first appearance on the New York stage. Several plays are under consideration. I should like to do a modern Doll’s House. Also I should like to play in Shakespeare, but this I could not do here with my accent. It was different when I did Shakespeare in German. Because of my accent my first stage part in New York will be that of a foreign woman. Later I hope to play Jeanne d’Arc in French on the Paris stage and afterward, perhaps, do it in English both in London and New York. I have already played in Paris as part of a European tour, in Reinhardt’s production of Six Characters in Search of an Author, so that city will not be strange to me. It will be easier for me than going to New York, where the critics may think nothing good can come out of Hollywood.”
Nonsense! In any event, that would all depend upon the person. Even though the New York dramatic critics may have told Katharine Hepburn to take a jump in The Lake, they are quite human, not embittered wretches living solely on wormwood. They will no doubt see in Luise Rainer, given the right play, far more than a Hollywood star full of camera tricks; discover in her an actress of fine training and achievement in no less plays than Measure for Measure, Twelfth Night, Taming of the Shrew, As You Like It, and Romeo and Juliet. But all she had to say to this prediction was, cheerily:
“I expect to get a terrific hit on the head. Oh, well! My life is full of ups and downs, and as it was always will be. But sometimes I am encouraged to go on, as I was not long ago in Hollywood. My first Academy Award was of little consequence for the reason that the part I played in The Great Ziegfeldmeant nothing. But the part of O-Lan in The Good Earth did mean something, so I was heartened by that second award. It couldn’t be a mistake. To me it was the meaning that counted. Others may care for the award itself, but what I value is the meaning behind it.”
Nothing could have explained her more truly. Honest in herself, Luise Rainer has artistic honesty, and always she calls herself ruthlessly to account.
“I must find out about myself,” she declared. “That is why I am going back to the stage for part of my time. It isn’t that I don’t like pictures. I think they are the biggest medium of all for the actor because in them he is able to reach the biggest audience. But I believe picture stars should not be made to seem stronger, for commercial reasons, than they really are. I want to be an actress, not a money-maker. I cannot bear the idea of being made just a piece of flesh that is sold in the market for the highest price. I want to do the thing I am doing for the love of doing it. But this is something not recognized or understood in Hollywood, where acting only has a box-office rating. And the sad thing is that the making of motion pictures is becoming more and more just a business. I am speaking as an individualist. But they won’t let me be one here. They take a person and make him or her like other persons of money-making reputation, at least they try to do it, with the result that all run to types. In this way individuality is utterly destroyed. But it is not like that on the stage. There the actor is a distinct and definite individual. He stands or falls by what he does in his own particular way. In one night, by one performance, he is judged. There can be no appeal from the judgment of that audience sitting out in front. It is stern, but just. But I want to face it, for I must know.”
She stared into her coffee as though to find the answer in its brown depths.
Miss Rainer had brought her cup into the living-room that morning and asked me to have one. On saying I’d already had breakfast, she remarked, “This is my breakfast.” That was all, no food. Even so, she never touched it; let it turn cold. It was impossible not to wonder what kept her going and marvel at the tremendous vitality tireless in that small body, burning in those great eyes. Nerves? No, they would be bound to wear themselves out. Courage? Yes, that was it.
“A stage performance done well is a thing of beauty,” was her high appraisal. “I am particualrly anxious to do this here because America, awakening to some kind of romanticism, makes you see a beautiful life. I am happy that I came to this country so young and could learn those things which are part of it. Its youth goes into the blood. Although America hasn’t the mellowness of Europe it has great health, and that is the basic stone on which all development rests. But at first I did not realize this. I remember that when I came to Hollywood a woman took me round to show me houses for renting. She was very matter-of-fact. I didn’t like that then, but I do now, for I see that with matter-of-factness there can be real beauty. Better work can be done with greater variation and for much more money. America has done great things for me. In a short time I will become an American citizen.”
“I have yet to study more for my examination,” she solemnly added, dropping back into her chair. “It is not easy, and there are many things I must learn before I can pass it. But that will come. This is going to be my home – if they will let me make it so. I feel it should be, for in the three years I have been here my whole life has changed.”
It was changing even then, with her marriage turned into divorce. But in the action brought by her there was no bitterness, only regret that clash of temperaments had made this necessary.
“I still love my husband, but I do not know that I may never love anyone else. You see,” and there was an impish twinkle in her eye, “I have been in love since I was six, and I shall always be in love – anyway, I hope so. Love is the key to everything, opening both the heart and the mind, and not only to the one who is loved but to an ideal. It creates in you a tremendous feeling and a marvelous beauty in which the moon is the moon and the stars are the stars. Love is the greatest, the primordial passion, the one force which drives you along, sweeps you forward. It ties people and countries together. By this I do not mean a little flirtation, or even the sincere love of a man and a woman, but a love for all the things that are good. We never know what new love may come to us, bringing a new happiness and a new zest for the work we are doing.
“Without love nothing is ever really accomplished by the actress. She must feel it in her work, for it is the one thing that humanizes her, the highest expression of feeling she can reach. The greatest actress is both the greatest lover and the greatest loser. Remember poor Duse, who gave everything – her life, her career – to love, and in losing was left to go to her end in pitiful loneliness? So love may bring both happiness and tragedy. It goes to the two extremes – I know it has with me. Yet out of it comes the creative power, like electric vibration or strong fire, that is necessary to creative work. We go from the height to the depths of feeling. I can be just as happy as I am sad. In either case the ability to love and the ability to act have a great deal to do with each other. They are the twins of inspiration.”
She went slowly to the window and gazed out over the purple hills.
“This,” flinging wide her arms, “is what I first loved here, the beautiful country.” Then it was the people. Whenever posible I would go away by myself. The country and the people were good and kind and restful. They made me think of an old peasant woman I once talked with in Italy. Her cottage was on the slope of Vesuvius, and I asked her why she went on risking the danger of living there. ‘It is home,’ she said. That told everything. But I never dreamed America would one day be my home. I knew no English at first, only French and German, and I never expected I would even be in an American picture. I felt sure that at the end of my six months’ contract they would send me back to Vienna, considering me utterly hopeless. It was just as though I were on vacation, that was all.”
She turned a wondering face and brushed back the black wing of her hair.
“If we are sometimes unhappy,” she went on thoughtfully, “maybe we do not think of other people’s unhappiness, especially today when there is so much misery in the world. I know I have been blessed, and every night I get down on my knees and thank God for it. Silently I pray. Gratitude is in the heart; it cannot be told by the tongue. I am grateful for everything in the past, and now new possibilities are opening to me. Whether I will realize them I cannot tell. But I do know that already I have gained much from American pictures. And now I am to have my chance on the American stage. What I make of it rests entirely with me. But the one thing I feel sure of is that the next step in my life will take me to something lasting, make me part of this country for the rest of my life. Then I will celebrate by flying an American flag, and it will mean this is the home not of the old Luise Rainer, from Vienna, but that of Luise Rainer, the new American.”