“Living The Part” With Luise
by Jack Chandler
[This article first appeared in Picturegoer magazine, 31st December 1938]
Some stars allow their screen roles to colour their private lives. Luise Rainer, as its author reveals here, has in the last few months, unconsciously lived through the part she enacts in her latest picture.
Some say there is no such thing as an actor or actress “living the part” and to judge by some of the things we see in our movies there is more truth than poetry in that idea.
I’ve heard about m’lady and m’lord who cannot simply face the camera without first going through all kinds of emotional contortions to “get into the character.” Most of it is poppycock, or in plain old English, bunk.
I don’t believe half of these Hollywood poseurs know what they mean when they talk so glibly about “getting into character.” I know what I am talking about, however, when I reverse the idea. I’ve lived and moved in Hollywood long enough to know how easy it is in many of these sad cases, for “the character to get into the actor.”
Just how far would you expect to find the great Hollywood stars falling for their own light deceptions? How much would you expect to find an actress living off the screen, the roles she plays on it? I’d say that in most instances after a star has won fame and success, his or her personality has undergone a change, according to the roles played, until only about twenty-five to thirty per cent of the original personality is left.
In a few extreme cases I have known, the highly strung and emotional types as a rule, no trace of the person who first came to Hollywood looking for fame, is left after the first year in pictures. In place of what used to be, you will find a synthetic – sometimes highly intriguing – individual made up largely of characteristics borrowed from her screen roles. Think it over and as you do so, the theory grows less fantastic. After all don’t you find callouses on the hands of a navvy? Don’t you find that waiters usually trip along as they walk the streets? Don’t you notice doctors and lawyers are cautious in their private conversations?
You do, of course you do.
Is is so strange then, after all, that a film star should take on some of the traits of characters portrayed, usually with unusual monotony one after another, on the screen?
If you asked me for an exquisite example on which to expound my theory, I would give you the case of Luise Rainer.
First because she has not been overlong in Hollywood.
Secondly because she is obviously of the most highly emotional and impressionable type.
Thirdly because success came to her so suddenly and completely that she was an unknown in Hollywood one day and a great star the next.
Added to these things, we have the chain of domestic and private incidents which have run parallel with her successful studio life.
In spite of Rainer’s attempt to become a second Garbo – in the sense of being mysterious and inaccessible – I know a great deal about Luise. I know also, a great deal about her husband Clifford Odets. I am positive that their case proves my contention that what may seem to be emotional and domestic eccentricities in their married life, are just as logical as the “corns” on a navvy’s hands.
Before Luise Rainer ever saw Hollywood, she was a rather quiet, intensely thoughtful, but not absurdly sensitive little woman. She had lived. She was no peasant to whom the blinding lights of Hollywood might prove bewildering. She had known romance, as most other people of her age. She had met with adversity; enjoyed happiness; known disappointment and tasted victory. She was an ordinary human being with all the experiences normal human beings store within themselves.
When in 1935 she appeared with William Powell in Escapade, the different producers allied to M-G-M used to keep walking over on to her sets to see her act. They all recognized something different. Some of them said it was great, others that it was “screwy.”
When the film was shown and registered an instantaneous success in Hollywood and New York, those same producers all put in a bid for her services. They all said to Louis B. Mayer, “I have just the right kind of screen play in mind, to suit Luise Rainer.” They called her “Ray-neer” and many in fact still do, presumably because that happens to be the name of a familiar brand of American beer and the correct German pronunciation “Rye-ner” eludes them.
Anyway Hunt Stromberg, as you know, won with his Great Ziegfeld in which Luise added to her laurels.
It was during the time she played the sweet, unhappy, discarded wife of Flo Ziegfeld that she first met Clifford Odets. She fell in love with him at once. And he with her. They talked stories – Luise had always wanted to be a great writer and never to be a great actress – they talked politics and found they were in absolute accord. They probably didn’t realize it, but they also were both on the very same edge of the identical emotional precipice; not every now and then, but all the time!
They both live on motion pictures, especially on the fictions of Hollywood: their ever-present guests are the ghosts of their own imagination, the people who either have passed across the silver screen, in the limelight procession, or are queued up ready for the great moment to come.
I have heard tell that you can always judge a man; tell, that is, what kind of a fellow he is, by the company he keeps.
Luise and Clifford Odets keep exactly the same kind of company: they keep constant company with creatures who have no life, no form, no meaning, no heart, except they themselves can give to them. If you don’t think anyone could be so captivated, so completely imprisoned within the towers of their own imagination, you don’t know Hollywood. Here, where people live, breathe, eat and dream motion pictures, there is no escape even for the most stolid person. What effect do you think this constant immersion in the concentrated extracts – and abstracts – of movies, can have upon human beings, who like Luise and her mate, have cultivated the art of absorption until they are like living blotting pads?
They train themselves to live with and among, as well as on, the creatures of their dreams. He is a writer, always looking, prying, delving, for some novel human characteristics with which to colour the prosaic realism of his people of fiction. She is an actress, trying always to feel, to suffer, to agonize as her senses tell her, the character in her current movie would do.
Do you think there is any real relaxation for people like Rainer? I have discovered that really and truly there is not.
They are fascinated, hypnotized, by the interest they themselves create around and about themselves. You may argue that this is only another form of self-consciousness- a very aggravated form of it – and you may be right, but the fact remains.
When Rainer went into The Good Earth to play that peasant woman, whose chief interest in life was her husband and the promise of future motherhood, Rainer, as her intimate friends will confirm, seemed to become more deeply interested in the domestic side of her private life. She became almost absorbed in the romantic possibilities of a life in the home, as distinct from that of the studio and the gay night lights of the Hollywood clubs.
She married Odets under that stimulus. Not that they didn’t fall in love with each other for themselves, not at all. On the contrary. But what is a famous film star and what is a famous film writer but simple reflection of their craft?
People in the know will tell you that Luise Rainer, never exactly an easy person for studio staffs to work with, because she is so entirely at the mercy of swift emotional currents, was hardest to get along with while making The Big City and Frou-Frou. Why?
I shall never forget one day while she was working with Spencer Tracy in Big City. Everybody on the set was in a state of jitters. Rainer had got them all as highly strung as herself. Not that she meant to do so, but she was under a terrific strain. She had just discovered that the idyllic happiness two people can share while they remain perfectly in balance, cannot last when one or other or even both of them, fall “out of step” in the emotional sense. She had found that her love for Clifford notwithstanding, there were times when they could not help flaring up at each other.
They never brawled in a coarse way, naturally. For Rainer and Odets are not people of that sort. But they did get completely and hopelessly at loggerheads. And once they had done it, neither could find an easy way back to peace and contentment again.
It was while all this trouble was simmering, for the first time; while they were undergoing that first great test of marriage – the fusion of personalities – that I saw Luise one afternoon in the most unusual circumstances, doing the most pathetic, as well as a most amusing thing. She doubtless had found things at home too much and things at the studio correspondingly bad and being at her wits end had turned into a small dogs’ hospital on her way home. She had there, as a patient, a little black Scottie. She hugged him and cried over him. “You are the only little person in all this world who loves me – who understands me,” she murmured.
I wanted to laugh at first. Then when I gave it more thought I felt sorry for Rainer. She really believed that. Her imagination had got hold of her: her emotions been allowed to get so much out of control. It is easy to scoff and cry “spoilt child,” but if you analyse the cruel processes of Hollywood, you will hesitate before you condemn.
Rainer didn’t know anyone was near at the time: I never embarrassed her by letting her know, but she will never forget the anguish she really was suffering that afternoon, of that I am certain. To cool-headed, well-balanced, and firmly disciplined people – and that goes for the English as a whole, much more than for the masses in America – all this may sound very silly, or at least inexcusable.
And the sillier it seems, the more strongly have I proved my point that what really happens to most of these film stars is that they start to live their screen roles when they are off the screen; they begin to allow the fictional and unconventional literary figures their scenarists create for them to play, to become part of their own selves. Only the strong sane ones can fight out these fictional influences and shut the door on all creatures of fantasy the moment the day’s work is done. And in Hollywood not many are “sane.” fewer still are “strong.”
Rainer’s strongest performance in the emotional sense was in The Emperor’s Candlesticks. I don’t mean that was her best by any means. I mean merely that it showed more consistency and more firmness from day to day as the work progressed. She caused the least possible trouble or perplexity to studio staffs and in the end appeared rather better equipped with what it takes to face the hard cruel world. The character was the strongest she had portrayed.
You may argue it was mere coincidence, but she did make that film during the happiest and most placid period of her romantic life. Likewise during the filming of Frou-Frou she was almost daily weeping inside herself, for the pity of a broken home, for the misery of misunderstanding someone she might otherwise have continued to understand. That state of mind showed, I maintain, in the film.
Did Rainer effect the character Frou-Frou, or did Frou-Frou, the character, cast a spell over Rainer?
It is difficult to answer questions which go so near to the core of intimate domestic relationships. Hard enough to interpret one’s own reactions and to analyse the cause for one’s own domestic discords – and doesn’t everyone strike them? It is doubly difficult to offer criticism and I would not do so. All the same, it often is the case that those on the outside of the window can see more clearly what is going on, than those inside.
I believe, too, often when Clifford Odets and Luise Rainer have been brought into conflict, it is not because they actually had anything up against each other; certainly not because one was jealous of the other’s career, as has been suggested. But simply that the one was under the influence of characteristics and situations concerned with one job of fiction and the other with another. The characters in Luise’s current film had her temporarily in their keeping; the characters in Clifford’s current play had him in theirs.
The two sets of characters had nothing in common and the understanding which existed basically between husband and wife, was befogged by the superficialities of these foreign creatures of fiction. Neither saw that this was so, but they felt the effects. The result was hard disagreement where perfect unison had existed; hard words where love had been the only whispers.
During the making of her latest film The Great Waltz, it has been apparent to almost everyone around her that Rainer was sad. Deeply, truly sad and hurt. Sad because she missed someone and hurt because she saw no way of mending her broken life.
It happened – unless film producers like to arrange things this way – that the role she had to play in the film was that of the doting wife of Johann Strauss, who supposedly had to lose him to another woman. In the last chapter of the tale she was to win him back – by her very sweetness and unselfishness to hold him.
Now all through the film her closest friends – especially her mother – have been urging Luise to find a way to reconciliation with Odets. The role she played on the screen she was known to be playing in real life, these many months past. In the film she was given to say, “I have lived these many months with a knife in my heart – you cannot tell me – I know how I feel and I alone know how to deal with him.” Something to that effect.
How truly this touched off the facts of Luise’s private life. She didn’t have to act it. She was that very woman.
Then at the final chapter in the film she revived her deep happiness in the love of her man.
On that note the film finished. It left Rainer in exactly the right mood.
Her management had been negotiating for a stage play. She is not to make any more films for M-G-M for another six months. There have even been hints that she may make no more for them at all, but we shall see. In that six months, her manager said, she might go to London and make a personal appearance on the stage. That is something she had felt a deep desire to do, and something which they all felt might help restore her to greater personal contentment of mind. The thing was almost arranged. She had merely to say the word. To the eleventh hour her agent awaited her decision. She would go – she would not go – she couldn’t go – she must go – and then she did go. Where?
She flew to New York, where the Odets attorney contrived that she should again meet her husband. The day before she left I phoned her and she told me, “It is not true I am going to seek reconciliation with Clifford, although as you know I wish always for his great happiness. I always will love him, but happiness together – it cannot be I fear.”
Less than thirty hours later she was with him, all forgiven and forgotten. Isn’t that like a film script? I’ll say it is. Did she know it was going to happen? I am certain she did not. The waves of circumstance had washed her at the right moment towards the happy strand of emotional one-ness – just as it did in her last screen role. Do you call that “living the part,” or “letting the part live with you”?