Life fell apart at 24 for Luise Rainer
by Michael Kernan
[This article first appeared in the Washington Post, July 1982]
The mystery of Luise Rainer is really no mystery at all.
It’s just a sad story, says the celebrated actress.
There she was, the toast of Hollywood, the first woman in history to win the Oscar two years in a row, in 1936 for portraying Anna Held in “The Great Ziegfeld” and in 1937 for her role as the peasant O-Lan in “The Good Earth.” She had arrived just 18 months earlier from Austria, married the great playwright Clifford Odets and was to make eight pictures in three years. She was, as they say, hot.
Went off to France
Suddenly she quit MGM. A “contract dispute.” Left Hollywood. Divorced Odets. Went off to France to help bring refugee children out of Spain. Rarely acted again.
Why? What happened? This was no mere contract dispute. This was a young life falling apart. She was only 24 years old.*
Rainer was asked recently about that turbulent time.
“I was the most unhappy girl you could imagine,” she said. “The awards meant nothing because I considered the acting just a gift. They made my life so difficult, so clamorous. I had just lost a baby. And I was involved in this tragic, Strindbergian marriage. I couldn’t handle it. They kept putting me in these fluffy roles, all wrong, froufrou stuff. You can’t do that when you’re so unhappy.”
To “the cigar-eating executive of Hollywood” she was seen as “difficult to cast” after three vastly varied parts, she said. “You think it would be, ‘She can do anything!'”
In the excruciatingly detailed new biography, “Clifford Odets, American Playwright” by Margaret Brenman-Gibson, Rainer’s marriage comes through as an incredible roller coaster of frantic love letters, recriminations, door-slammings, separations, wild telegrams and self-flailing remorse. According to the book, Odets, neurotic, madly posessive and apparently unsure of his own sexual identity, was promiscuous, loved to humiliate women sexually, demanded total attention and was jealous of his wife’s fame.
The book says a lot about the Rainer-Odets relationship, and one stiff little footnote mentions “Miss Rainer’s insistence on retaining her own wording” in the account. She wrote herself sometimes in the third person, sometimes in the first.
Listen to this version of the ceremony for the ’37 Oscar: Driving back from San Francisco, they had learned that she might win and that she was being accused of snubbing the dinner.
“It was 6 p.m.; the drive back would take a good two hours. Odets, hiding his competitiveness behind a mask of indifference to such vulgar honors, suggested they skip the affair. Luise knew she could not do that. A fierce fight started. Luise drove, Odets shouted… Clifford was furious, eyes rolling. I was in jeans and sneakers. I had to change. I had no time to appease Clifford… I felt upset and miserable and he was the cause…
“Arriving at the Biltmore Hotel, all lit up for the great evening, I could not face going in. It was raining and I was crying. We went in just as it was announced… Clifford’s face remained grim throughout. I smiled for the countless cameras and reporters. Here I was at dizzying heights, admired and envied: I was as low as I had ever been in my life.”
Compared her with Duse
Odets, who liked to compare her to Eleanore Duse and told her, “You are the only true actress,” was only provoked by her dazzling fame, she wrote in a letter to the book’s author. “He broke what he could break. Had I not grown up with a decent sense of values within a stable environment, I might well have done away with myself. Years later I felt deeply sorry for Marilyn Monroe. I understood her suicide.”
After the divorce in 1939, Odets married another actress, Frances Farmer, whose career was to end in tragedy. He died in 1963 of cancer.
Luise Rainer lived on. She married Robert Knittel, a London publisher, had a daughter and now, aged 72, according to “The Film Encyclopedia,” lives in Switzerland and London.
The daughter, Francesca Bowyer, has two children, considers herself more European than American and makes light of her life as a celebrity’s daughter. (At 14, baking a cake, she and her mother turned out “a brick so hard you could put it in the wall.” Her mother says, “it was marvellous, it was marvellous.”)
Rainer (Rye-ner) chooses work that pleases her. In 1943 she made “Hostages,” her only other American film, but she has appeared on Broadway and in television.
“I’ve always worked sporadically,” she said. “I’m not a career girl. What I do, I like to do well.”
Talked way into school
At 16, spirited daughter of a well-to-do, stuffily correct German family, she talked her way into the theater school of classic actress Louise Dumont in Dusseldorf. Dumont told her to learn one of Wedekind’s then-scandalous Lulu plays.The next day she came back, went up on the empty stage and turned herself into the sensual, wanton Lulu. At the time, she said, she barely knew the facts of life.
An hour later Dumont stopped her as she sobbed, swept away by the role. “But you have been on stages?” “No, never.” she replied. Astonished, Dumont made the girl her leading lady for three years doing Ibsen, O’Neill, Pirandello and Shakespeare.
Then the fabled Max Reinhardt brought her to Vienna for four sensational years of stardom.
Three times she turned down movie offers, thinking that film was only for the Garbos of the world. She always insisted – and still does – that she was not beautiful. Finally, after her finace had been killed in a plane crash**, she let herself be talked into making “Escapade” in Hollywood.
They called her the new Garbo. Set electricians cried on the catwalks when she played Anna Held. Mme. Chiang Kai-shek, seeing her as O-Lan, refused to believe she wasn’t Chinese.
“It’s illusion,” Luise Rainer said. “Illusion is everything. Doing Anna Held, I was just a kid, I’d never heard of her. But people said I was Anna to the life.” She shrugged pleasantly. “I’m not Joan of Arc either, but when I do her I have this fist of God in my back…”
Acting, she said, doesn’t mean putting something on (“you should be able to do a role in a nightgown”) but bringing out a feeling that is identical with the audience’s. “You’re in love with your wife… you know how she feels. You can put yourself in her place, become her.”
As she spoke, her hands gripped the air as her eyes flashed. Small and slight, her whole body pulled taut with her intensity.
“Film work is so hard, all the stop and start, it’s hard to keep an emotion. When O-Lan has to give back her pearls she must cry, but inside. We did the scene again and again and I couldn’t let myself go. After it was over I went outside and ducked around the corner and cried and cried. Joan Crawford came by in her limousine and jumped out and put her arms around me and said what was the matter, and I had to say I fell, I hurt my knees. Because I was ashamed to say what I felt.”
Asked if she still went mountain-climbing in the Dolomites, she flared instantly. “What do you mean, ‘still’?” She and her husband of 37 years love to climb, love the nearness to the sky, the talk of trails and huts with strangers, the concentration on each step, each rock, each fingerhold.
An actress, one of her more acid rivals in Hollywood is quoted: “Luise is one of those actresses who are acting all the time.”
She will keep on acting, she said. When she gets the roles she likes. There aren’t enough great women’s roles. Shaw’s Joan, “the woman’s Hamlet,” she called “a schizophremic part, changing from a simple girl to Shaw himself. And there’s Chekhov, Ibsen, some other classics, but not enough new ones.
“Everything is turned out so fast now. Nothing very good can be done very fast.”
* Luise was actually aged 28 when she left her MGM contract
** The identity of this man in not known. My research has led me to believe he was an officer or official who died in a plane crash in Italy in the early 1930s. Any further information would be gratefully received.
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