Luise Rainer Says Goodbye
An interview by Freda Bruce Lockhart
[This interview first appeared in Film Weekly magazine, 25th March 1939]
PERHAPS it won’t be for ever – but certainly Luise Rainer is considering saying goodbye to the screen for a long time. She has “interrupted” her Hollywood contract. She doesn’t know when she may take it up again. She explains her position in this exclusive interview.
IT’S liable to be a very long time before Luise Rainer makes another picture – if she ever makes one.
Officially she has come to Europe on leave from M-G-M to do a stage play. But there is no time limit to this leave.
She told me herself that her position is the same as Helen Hayes’s. Luise’s contract has three-and-a-half years to run. But she has, in her own words, “interrupted” her contract.
It will only be active again if and when she feels like going back to Hollywood and making films again. Then they would have to be made either for M-G-M or by arrangement with M-G-M.
That was how Helen Hayes left Hollywood. M-G-M still list her among their stars. But it is four years since Miss Hayes made a film.
All of which, in Rainer’s case, is an odd ending to one of the strangest chapters in star history.
Her first three films made Rainer one of the greatest stars in Hollywood. Two of them, The Great Ziegfeld and The Good Earth earned her the highest honour Hollywood knows how to confer – the Academy Award.
Artist or Morning Glory?
In five subsequent films her performances have been increasingly ineffectual – not to say irritating.
Now she may never make another. Already after three years her brief, brilliant film career may be over. It has certianly come to a decisive pause.
What does it all mean? Is Rainer the great actress we once thought her or a morning glory? A genuine Hollywood victim or a posing phoney? A sensitive artist or an eccentric exhibitionist? I went along to the Savoy not knowing which to expect. All the evidence contradicted itself.
I knew Rainer had lodged the usual artistic protests against publicity. I had also read interviews quoting such intimate outpourings as suggested either a keen publicity spirit or an unbelievably naive trust in the nice natures of the vultures of the Press.
The riddle has always fascinated me. I determined to take along an open mind and try to find the true answer.
I can’t pretend in an hour’s interview to have found a conclusive solution to the puzzle that has baffled Hollywood for three years. I can only offer a collection of impressions.
They are often contradictory. But they are first-hand, unprejudiced, honest and, I hope, throw a little light on the capricious kaleidoscope.
My first surprise was the physical one of her size – or lack of it. I am what is called average height – five feet six. But as she opened the door and disappeared behind it to let me into the little hallway, my first impression was of a shoulder-high wisp of a child.
Over the telephone, Luise had politely but firmly refused to let a photographer accompany me. She had been ill and did not feel fit to face a camera.
Certainly she looked frail. She never wears make-up and, with her pale face and lankly falling hair, she seemed like some scared, underfed bird to be approached with gentleness.
“I have put on eleven kilos – twenty-two pounds – since I left Hollywood,” she told me proudly. I could hardly believe there could be twenty-two pounds less of her.
I looked around for the traces of personality which stars always imprint even on hotel rooms. Rainer had taken a very small, unpretentious bedroom in the Savoy instead of the usual luxury suite.
Her dressing-table equipment was positively chaste. Expensive but strictly conservative scent; a minimum number of pots and bottles of pleasantly simple design, white with blue enamel tops; and a couple of brushes of almost masculine, suede-backed plainness.
All of this was a very nice change from the usual film-star display suggesting a lady-in-waiting at the court of Marie Antoinette.
Rainer sat on her bed on an eiderdown made of the same material as her dressing gown and bedroom-slippers. There was nothing exotic about the material – a checked silk in a quietly pleasing red and gold pattern.
The short dressing-gown was of schoolgirl simplicity. Yet the matching material struck, it seemed to me, a slightly self-conscious note.
Interviewing Rainer isn’t an easy process, because to her it is frankly a painful one. “It isn’t natural to talk so much about oneself,” she says wretchedly. That sounds sane to me.
“Then people ask questions which probe so directly into your inmost private life.” The words were accompanied by a look of anguish and a gesture of thrusting a rapier straight into somebody.
She was distressed at having been quoted, on arrival here, as saying that her husband, Clifford Odets, wanted her to be a great actress, while she only wanted to be a wife.
“Last year it was that I wouldn’t give up my career for him. I don’t know how it is – when they ask me questions like that – I don’t know how to answer.”
“All I can say, honestly, is that when two people are as intense in their work as Mr. Odets and myself, marriage is not simple.”
The last statement was arrived at with meticulous care, almost laboriously. All the time I felt Luise making a similar effort.
Her reserve is nothing like the usual American stars’ well-trained certainty of what or what not they mean to tell you. She is more vulnerable.
She is earnestly anxious to give you a good interview, to tell you what she feels so that she can be truthfully represented to the pbulic.
But all her past experiences – of being misquoted or made to look silly – haunt her like a nightmare. They put up a barrier of fear and suspicion which all rather touching efforts to express herself and mine to convey sympathy, couldn’t quite dispel.
There is nothing of the grand film star about her manner. In conversation she almost seems to be “underacting” compared with some of her screen performances.
That is, her eyes don’t roll about like over-brimming saucers of chocolate. They dart like bright beads.
The bird-like movements are there, the open mouth seeming to wait for inspiration and the chin tucked into her shoulder. But in real life those mannerisms, though quaint, are far from grotesque.
They don’t even seem affected. They seem natural to her and it would be easy to forget, as she would like you to forget, that she is a famous star and to treat her as a likeable little person, if only you were not so painfully aware that the whole business is a long-drawn trial to her.
Another difficulty is the language barrier. I’ve always thought that a Continental star’s worst torture must be “living an accent”; wrestling with foreign words in which it is so easy to misrepresent herself before even the journalistic ogres can misrepresent her.
Rainer speaks fluent English without too unwieldy an accent .She uses an extensive vocabulary, but her thoughts run ahead of it.
In her Native German
It was easy to see how a malicious selection of quotations could caricature her. With no American accent, her flow of American slang makes for bloomers.
“I am normal – but I am not a he-men,” she said, smiling, with reference to her health. Twice while I was with her she spoke in German on the telephone. In her own language she became immediately a different person, adult and assured.
Her voice took on authority as well as the quite remarkably pleasant, level tone it has even in English, when strain and effort are not driving it into a plaintive whine.
If I could have interviewed her in German, I felt, I might have discovered a much gayer, more comfortable and relaxed personality.
The one thing which emerges clearly from her conversation is that she has worn herself out with worry and unhappiness in Hollywood. Not that she says so. She is careful not to say she was altogether unhappy or that she regrets it.
“That would be so ungrateful,” she points out. “I was beginning to be quite a big star in Europe. But I was just a young actress until I came to Hollywood. Look what it has done for me.
“And I don’t think one can really regret experiences.They become part of one’s life, part of oneself and even the unhappiest ones may in time be absorbed and become valuable- perhaps in one’s work.
“But it has been a very great strain – I have been there three and a half years – and I feel it is ten years out of my life. I think you have to be rather husky to take it in Hollywood.
“The Good Earth was the only one of my films I liked. I hate every one I have made since.” (How I agree.)
“You see, after The Good Earth, I felt done, I didn’t want to make any more pictures just then. I didn’t feel I had them in me. But under my contract I had to go on When I signed that contract in Austria I really had no idea what was in it. And I had no idea what filming in America would mean.
“I had only made one film at home* – and that was so different. So different from the great Hollywood machinery when you are bound to work when you are told, in parts you cannot believe in.
“Working like that drained all the energy out of me. I was so unhappy over making The Great Waltz and when I saw myself in it I thought I could see that unhappy woman on the screen.”
Too Tired To Care
“In Dramatic School I was so exhausted I hardly knew or cared what I was doing, what lines I was saying.
“But I cannot hate Hollywood for that. Lots of people are content to work in that way. I was just unlucky. I made a mistake. I made a contract I didn’t afterwards feel I could fulfil.”
You couldn’t have a much more honest admission than that. And at least Luise’s sad story clears up the professional part of the riddle. Nothing else could explain as clearly as the nervous exhaustion she describes, the collapse of the skilful artistry of her first three pictures into the meaningless mannerisms of her last few.
I’d say her judgment of parts, too, was sounder than you might suspect.
“The only part since The Good Earth I wanted to do was Madame Curie,”she said quietly. I remembered that M-G-M had announced they were buying it for her, then almost at once said Garbo would do it. “Yes, I began to fight with them then, to ask for release,” she commented.
Now she has got, if not release, relief from the contract she “didn’t feel she could fulfil.”
She was sitting surrounded with scripts of plays, pronouncing pretty shrewdly on the necessity for choosing not only a good part but a good play. But she was not bitter about films.
“I think films are a tremendous thing for an actress. If she has anything to give, she should do films to reach that huge public.
“I think, later, I may want to do one film a year,or two at most, but later.”
Julien Duvivier, the Frenchman who directed her in The Great Waltz would like her in his next French film**. Luise likes and admires Duvivier, the story (by Selma Lagerlof), and the cast (includes Louis Jouvet). But –
“Even if M-G-M would give me permission, I could not make up my mind to do a picture just now,” she said, turning away with a shudder.
Except during her two German telephone talks, I only felt that nervous strain let up once – when I asked her about her dogs.
“O-o-o-oh! Do-o-on’t re-maaa-ind me,” she implored. That was a painful recollection, too. But, for a moment she became a free, relaxed human being, suffering natural regret instead of tangled, tormented nerves.
“You cannot say Hollywood is this or that,” she insists. “So many people are happy there. I used to worry myself sick wondering what was wrong with me because I couldn’t be happy there. Now I begin to think maybe I was right – for me, you know.” Which really sums up the whole thing. As I see it Luise belongs to a definite type of Continental actress. They regard acting as a serious artistic vocation.
Given an acting role they can respect, they can give it something like genius, as Rainer proved in The Good Earth. Acting to them means creating a character, as Luise did in her first three films.
She Sacrificed Salary
Asked merely to show off personality they are helpless. The personal idolatry element of the Hollywood star system is not only impossible to them but terrifying and appalling. They lack both the numbing vanity and the saving sense of humour which could reconcile them to it.
Hollywood and that type of actress just don’t mix. You can’t blame Hollywood or the actress.
You may not sympathise with the reasons for Rainer’s private rebellion. You may feel she takes herself too seriously in her sense of persecution. But you have to grant her serenity.
After all, she has voluntarily given up a whopping great salary for the sake of her passionate principles. She gets no more money from Hollywood until she goes back there.
Lots of other stars rail more bitterly against films than Rainer, but come to heel on payday.
It’s a pity, because Rainer has been great on the screen. But it can’t be helped, for if she’s unhappy evidently she becomes far from great. So that’s that.
But I still wonder if I might have found a happier and equally true answer to the Rainer riddle if I’d kept the conversation to dogs.
[This article first appeared in Film Weekly magazine, March 25, 1939]
* In fact, Luise had made at least two, if not three films in Europe before going to America.
** This film is undoubtedly La charrette fantom, released in 1939.
This interview took place in the Savoy Hotel whilst Luise was in London to appear in the play Behold the Bride.