by Hans Ulrich Obrist
The celebrated 1930s actress Luise Rainer was the first to win an Oscar in two consecutive years. But Rainer fell out with “brainless” Hollywood, famously giving away
her second golden statuette to a removal man. Here, on her 100th birthday, Rainer talks exclusively to co-director of the Serpentine Hans Ulrich Obrist about studying theatre with Reinhardt, standing up to Brecht, and turning down Fellini.
My interview project is a kind of transdisciplinary school, incorporating lots of different sub groups. The beginning of this Rainer adventure started five years ago, when the legendary German artist Rosemarie Trockel told me she thought it was important for me to focus on pioneers, and particularly the idea of someone’s eyes having seen a whole century. Very often we don’t know where these great pioneers are because they live discreetly. Although I was familiar with some of her work from the 30s, I had no clue that Rainer was still active and about to celebrate her 100th birthday. And I certainly had no clue that she was my neighbour in London
We started what has become a series of three interviews, which took place at her astonishing home in Kensington, London, once also home to another Hollywood Legend, Vivien Leigh. Wolfgang Tillmans told me it had been one of his unrealised projects to photograph Rainer, so it was wonderful that that this story produced this interview but also this new portrait. I found that Rainer had met almost everyone of renown in theatre and cinema in the 20th century, and not only that, but she remembered everything with a photographic memory. It’s amazing that someone who met all the greats is still alive to tell us about it first hand.
After her career in theatre, Rainer was discovered by Hollywood, but she always said that nothing was as exciting as Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s. Rainer’s career has been far from linear, with many unrealised projects. If she didn’t agree with a role, she felt it was okay to say no, and I think this is what makes her such a fascinating actress. The things you don’t do are as important as the things you do, which I think is true for all of us. How can you tell a life in an interview? Rainer has said it would take her a century to tell it all. This interview was about a testimony of a century, but it’s not about nostalgia. The future is always made out of fragments of the past.
Hans Ulrich Obrist: I read a wonderful interview with you in the German newspaper, Die Zeit.
Luise Rainer: You know, they just write, write and write whatever they want, it’s crazy. I am not an actress, I am just a person.
HUO: I was wondering, what were your beginnings, how were you introduced to theatre?
LR: I am asking about you and you want me, immediately to tell you about my life?
HUO: Well, I can tell you about me more, but I thought it might bore you?
LR: What are you writing?
HUO: I write about contemporary art and architecture, but it’s a transdisciplinary project. If we want to understand the forces in art it’s important to understand what’s happening in other fields.
LR: I’m not contemporary art, I am last-century art.
HUO: You have a lot of artworks on the wall.
LR: Well, it is a normal thing, artists love beauty. I knew a lot of marvellous architects, Richard Neutra; I knew the big one in California, Walter Gropius, and I knew Frank Lloyd Wright.
HUO: You knew him personally?
LR: Yes. I lived in a house by his son, and Frank lloyd Wright said to me, ‘how can you live in a house by that untalented man!’
LR: So, what do you want to know?
HUO: I wanted to know how you became introduced to theatre. Did you have an epiphany, a revelation?
LR: It was a lot more human, I had an enormous urge to give out, but I didn’t know in what form. I grew up in Hamburg, Germany. My father was wonderful, but very strict, my mother was a fantastic pianist. My father and I went to the music rehearsal in the evening every Monday but I was never permitted to go to the theatre, because I was too young. In the 20s we didn’t have anything, television didn’t exist. Finally, when I was 14, a play called Der Kreidekreis, in English Circle of Chalk, and I thought, ‘I can do that too’. Of course, I could not let on, my father thought a young girl should go to finishing school. You must understand, these were the olden times. When my girl’s college finished, I was 16 at the time, parents were invited and various pupils were brought to the front. The head of the college congratulated me for having the ability to be a leader. My father was quite impressed with what this woman said about me, and they permitted me to have a desire, What wish could I have? I was very clever, and I knew that Berlin was a fortress for theatre.
HUO:With Max Reinhardt
LR: With Reinhardt. We had relatives in Berlin, and I asked if I could go and visit. I didn’t go as a young girl was supposed to, to museums and what not, I made my way to the Reinhardt Theatre. I found out that Reinhardt was on holiday, but I was told there was an audition in the Kammerspiele [a theatre in Berlin that Reinhardt built in 1906]. I made my way there, and about ten young people were waiting in a room. I was horrified because I was very unsophisticated and very thin, and dressed like a girl of 12. One by one the people were called out for the audition, and the last one was me. I sat down and I forgot that I had a straw hat on, with a rim. And the straw hat went down further and further down over my face, I forgot all of my lines, and all I could say was ‘yes, yes, yes’. There was a big laugh from the auditorium. There were three men sitting there, just like shadows in the dark, and they said, ‘girly, you had better go home and learn your lines!’ That was my first experience. Let’s get a drink right away. We have sherry.
HUO: Wonderful. That’s a great idea, I love sherry.
LR: Me Too.
HUO: Is it your favourite drink?
LR: No, I don’t drink very much, but actually, I really like champagne.
HUO: It would be wonderful to talk about Brecht because I think you knew him very well?
LR:Not very, but I knew him well. Brecht asked me to help him to come to America. At the time I had been successful in Hollywood and became, I hate the word famous, but I was very known. So he came, and one day we went for a walk along the beach and he said, ‘I would like very much to write a play for you. What do you think?’ I said, ‘of course.’ In the first play I saw in my life Gustav Gründgens, who is a famous German actor, was playing the main part of Joan and I was fascinated. I mentioned this play to Brecht, and Brecht, I can still see him doing it, spread his arms and said, ‘it isn’t possible! I was going to write a play about that same story, but I will write my version.’ Which was The Caucasian Chalk Circle. And that is what happened.
HUO: But you never played in it?
LR: I went into the Second World War. I had a producer and I said ‘look, the man has no money, I would like you to pay him while I’m away because he is going to write that play. I had had Malaria in Africa, and then I went to Italy after the troops, I came back to New York and then, low and behold, I got Jaundis. I was very sick, and that poor producer told me, ‘Miss Rainer, Miss Rainer, I don’t know what to do. I paid this man Brecht every week and I never saw a single page of what he wrote.’ So I called Brecht and said, ‘I must see what you have written.’ He sent me just two double-spaced pages, He called me a day or two after and he said, ‘what do you think?’ and I said, ‘what do you mean what do I think? I think that it’s nothing, because what you have sent me is nothing!’ And he was, of course, very taken aback and said, ‘why Miss Rainer, maybe we should talk about it.’ A friend of mine, a young Danish ambassador who had to go on an assignment, had an apartment, so I arranged for Brecht to stay there. Anyway, I came to that apartment and it was like a French Comedy, I don’t know how many doors there were, but it seemed to me when I arrived, out of every door, a lady fled! I thought he was completely nuts. He said ‘Elisabeth Bergner’ – who was at the time a famous actress – ‘would be on her knees to me for this.’ And I said, ‘Brecht, I will not be on my knees to you, take your play and do whatever you want with it. I don’t want to be in it’. And that is The Circle of Chalk. [laughter].
HUO: One other theatre great with whom you worked was Pirandello?
LR: That was before I came to Hollywood. He was a marvellous man, like a dancer, he was, like his plays, quite pixelated. He was full of beautiful stories, he and Reinhardt were of course two great people, that’s how I met him. He travelled with us until we reached Holland, then he went to Milan, and I stayed in Holland doing the play Six Characters In Search of an Author.
HUO: So you acted in Pirandello’s plays?
LR: In Six Characters.
HUO: I wanted to ask you how you went from you career in theatre to the cinema? What was your first movie?
LR: My first film in America was called Escapade [directed by Robert Z Leonard, 1935], with William Powell, and it was a very lovely film. Unfortunately it was never shown. Many of my films, even The Good Earth  were just so timely, so they were not shown.
HUO: But the BFI London showed some of your films to celebrate your 100th birthday this year.
LR: Yes it was very nice, wonderful.
HUO: How was it for you to come from the theatre into the cinema?
LR: No difference, except I would turn around and stand with my back to the camera. Dear William Powell, he just gently turned me. That was the only difference to me between theatre and films: position. You see, I worked from inside out, it was not putting on an act, I must feel what I did, and when you feel what you do, you can connect with people, they listen to you. I wanted to give, that was my whole life, always.
HUO: Before you made movies, and before you were an actress, what was the first movie you saw?
LR: One of the first was A Farewell to Arms [directed by Frank Borage, 1932] with Helen Hayes, a beautiful film.
HUO: Did you find racism in Hollywood?
LR: No, I was never a political person. I knew good from bad, but it didn’t go into politics, it went into human behaviour and human feeling. I was also married to a man [playwright Clifford Odets, 1937-1940], who was very determined in certain political directions, but I never accepted it. I remember once he gave me Marx to read, I read a few pages and I gave it back to him.
HUO: I read somewhere that you were involved in some political activist committees in the 1930s?
LR: I was very Left, as I felt very deeply about the difference between good and bad, which is an idiotic definition. I felt very strongly about the difference between poor people and rich people. But it didn’t go into politics, I didn’t transfer it.
HUO: So you didn’t adhere to a party?
LR: It was purely an emotional concept.
HUO: In the war you did a lot of travelling to gather information on troop moral, in Italy and Africa, What was your position in the war?
LR: I travelled alone with a minister, he did all the religious side, and I the social welfare. Wherever I was stationed, and I went from place to place; from the islands over to Africa, I found out what the men were asking for, and I was able to report back what they were in need of, but much more, in the evening I would do my part as an actress and I did scenes from plays I had done, to entertain.
HUO: Do you have any unrealised projects?
LR: Yes, many. I broke my contract with Louis B Mayer, who did not permit me to do
certain projects. What I wanted to do would have been the role of Marie Curie [Madame Curie, directed by Melvyn LeRoy, 1943], or For Whom the Bell Tolls , but I couldn’t do either of them. Much, much later came Love is a Many-Splendored Thing  by Han Suyin, which was a marvellous story. I’m even mentioned in her novel before she knew me, but I never was permitted to do any of them. I had all kinds of offers, Fellini also, that I didn’t do.
HUO: You met Fellini?
LR: Yes, that’s big story.
HUO: Which film did he propose to you, Fellini?
LR: He wanted me to be in La Dolce Vita .
LR: I didn’t want to be in it.
LR: I met Fellini in Rome at a lunch party and he took a great shine, not to me as a woman but to me as a person, or an actress. We became great friends, and on that same day, after lunch, he showed me around Rome. A few months later he wrote to me saying: ‘you will receive some papers from me.’ Like a fortune teller. It was Christmas time, and a great piece, which he later made into La Dolce Vita was sent. I couldn’t make head nor tail of it, which is typical for Fellini. He works sporadically and takes practically whatever the actor or actress does out of their mouths and puts it into his story. I wrote back saying, ‘forget it.’ But he didn’t forget it! I was bombarded with telegrams.
HUO: He sent you telegrams?
LR: Yes I have a whole stack of them. He said, you know Italians, ‘I need your poetic face’ and whatever nonsense. He was absolutely definite that I be in the play. When I was back in London he sent a wire saying, ‘I invite you for lunch in Rome, I’ll pay your round trip’. I went, and Fellini said, ‘Luise, I want you to write your own scene, and I did. In La Dolce Vita, every woman he meets, he goes to bed with, but I said there should be one woman that says, ‘look, if you want to be a writer, why don’t you write, instead of all the time whoring about?’ That was the essence of the scene I wrote. It was a very poetic and beautiful scene. So I made a contract for La Dolce Vita, I was in Rome to do the scene, I think it was in July, and it was terribly hot. It was delayed an delayed, and I was melting
away. Every time I contacted Fellini, I said, ‘Federico, when are you going to make my scene?’ He said, ‘very soon, but first I have to make that scene and that scene…’ One day he said to me, ‘Luise, I am going to look for a location for my next scene, come with me.’ We were driving out to the country, he always has these funny locations somewhere, I don’t know how many cars we had, we were like a funeral procession, I aid to Fellini, ‘so when are we doing my scene?’ He said, ‘we are doing your scene, but he has to fuck her like the other women’, and I said, ‘no, I am telling you that I feel that one woman should say to him go to hell!’
HUO: In both stories of Brecht and Fellini you gave resistance.
LR: Because it was against my scene.
HUO: Tell me about your experiences with The Good Earth.
LR: I knew that Louis B Mayer was very much against it because he wanted me to be very much one of his… let’s call it ‘beautiful horses’ instead of a little Chinese woman. Irving Thalberg, who was a very important part of Metro [Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film studios] who unfortunately died in the making of that film, insisted on me doing the part. When I read he script I thought, ‘my god, the woman doesn’t talk at all, I will be a hilarious bore! What am I going to do?’ So I went to Thalberg’s office and said, ‘there is another actress dying to play the part of O-Lan, and I think she would be far better then I am’, and Thalberg took me by the scruff of my neck and pushed me out of the door. I did it, as I have said before, it is all I do. Today I could do it exactly the same, no difference. When I did my last film The Gambler, the director said, ‘you can still do it,’ and I replied, ‘I could still do it for the rest of my life!’
HUO: You could do it right now?
LR: People can identify themselves with you, and that is what I wanted. Like when you read a book and you say, ‘oh, that character, I know her, I wonder what the character is going to do next’. If I can give those ideas to any body, so that they can identify that is what I hoped for. I can’t tell you more.
HUO: And that is why you never stopped, you came back to the cinema in 2003, with the wonderful appearance in The Gambler. You never stopped.
LR: It was 60 years after I had done my last film, but also I did a stage play in New York, and I did an Anton Chekhov.
HUO: I wanted to ask you about your drawings and collages.
LR: Well there was a period when I painted, and it came very easily, I had a one-woman show here in London. Mainly my collages were of the mountains, we used to be climbers, my husband an I [Luise’s second husband, publisher Robert Knittel, 1945-1989]. Everything was so fabulous. We would pick flowers… two or three o’clock in the morning, we got up and went walking into the mountains.
HUO: What is your favourite movie you did?
LR: That’s like asking if I had eight children, ‘which one do you love best?’ I have no favourite, but I love most what gave the most to people, which is probably The Good Earth, The Great Waltz or The Great Ziegfeld. The film I really liked but was not appreciated is The Toy Wife .
HUO: Yes, it was dismissed by most people, but I think it was a good film. You said that the Academy Awards you won were a bad thing for you.
LR: Yes, it is very different to stand on a pedestal, because it goes back and forth. It’s very dangerous and I didn’t like it.
HUO: I have only a couple more questions to ask.
LR: We haven’t talked about 100,000 things.
HUO: No, because your life is so rich, it would take 100 years.
LR: It is only my life, but I can’t remember the details. There has been so much.
HUO: There is a lovely little book by Rainer Maria Rilke called Letters to a Young Poet. What would your advice be to a young actor or actress?
LR: To observe, and to really watch life, because only out of life can you create. Columbia University in New York asked if I would teach acting and I said, ‘I would wring their neck!’ Why? Because you can’t teach acting. You can teach speech, movement even, but acting, it comes out of your experience.
HUO: We also haven’t spoken about your other artistic endeavours; your dancing, for example.
LR: I had an enormous search inside, I had to express myself and I wanted to, it didn’t matter what it was… I didn’t think of acting. I danced. I modelled, I made little things, I had started drawing and things like that already as a youngster, I had to get it out of myself. It sounds idiotic, because right now I cannot tell you what I felt.
HUO: No, it makes perfect sense.
LR: I had written a lot and it all went to Boston University.
HUO: And we contacted the university, as you recommended, and they agreed that we could publish some documents but they said that we should ask you which documents you would like us to publish?
LR: I can’t tell you. I have a heap of nonsense that was put together in an enormous box, and sent to the Boston University archives, and I don’t know which is what anymore.
HUO: Are there any letters, correspondence from the people you knew or met in the business?
LR: No, I didn’t have an organised archive like that. They are little notes that I wrote here and there, or every night I would remember certain things and I would get up and start writing, but I didn’t make the extraordinary effort of a writer. I just had ideas and I put them together, well that is what writers do obviously. But I have so many personal things, i don’t even know what is in that archive. They are all my love stories and I had so many, I was always in love, all my life. So, I can’t tell you what to take from the collection.
HUO: But that’s so great.
LR: I have of course many particular things, I wasn’t joking when I said all my life was love. It was, and there was also a great deal of sorrow. It was living, like everybody. Life is not even, it depends how sensitive you are, and how observant and how many human beings can enter your life or touch you, or whatever happens. You, know, life is full, it is enormous, and I sniffed in many directions.