No Glamour Please!
by Cyril Vandour
[This article first appeared in Silver Screen magazine, July 1938]
Luise Rainer is an emotional actress of fine artistic integrity, who prefers to stand or fall as an artist – not to be propped up with adjectives.
The Biltmore Bowl was jammed with a galaxy of stars and celebrities….Outside, softly purring limousines continued driving up to the gate of the swank hotel to discharge their cargoes….Gorgeous. lovely, vivid, languid, provocative ladies alight with their stiff-shirted, tanned escorts, and are greeted by a barrage of photographic lights and popping bulbs….And as a radio anouncer described their charms on a coast to coast hook-up, they swept in through the lobby in all the splendor of their wealth, fame, power….Everybody excited, at his or her best….The film colony was enjoying its tenth annual Academy Award banquet.
On that same night Luise Rainer was spending a quiet evening at home with her playwright husband, Clifford Odets of the professorial specs. She had no intention of attending this gala dinner, when, at about 9 o’clock, she received a message from the studio informing her that she had won the award for the best performance of the year by an actress for her role in “The Good Earth.”
In a flutter of excitement, she donned a simple pink crepe gown and black velvet cape, and without troubling herself about make-up or even brushing her hair, she hurried to the Bowl with her husband to receive the acclaim of the industry for the second consecutive year.
Mr. Odets, we might remark, wore a business suit, with a scarf wrapped around his neck….They were the last to arrive, and stood out, in that spectacle, with their unpretentious homely simplicity and complete lack of pose.
It was a double triumph for the little Viennese gal with the child-like eyes. No other actress in the history of those famous banquets has won the coveted gold statuette twice.
“How do you feel about it?” we asked her at her home in Brentwood.
“I didn’t expect it, I’m very grateful, of course,” she said, the color deepening in her sunburnt cheeks. “But,” she opened her eyes wide, “I don’t feel any different! I wish I could.” She gave a little laugh, threw herself into an armchair.
If you were to see her in the street you would never take her for a movie star. She doesn’t have that orchidaceous hoity-toity manner, if you know what we mean. She was dressed in slacks and a reddish blouse with short sleeves, and wore monastic sandals. Her skin is of a warm olive tint, and has all the marks of being exposed to the copyrighted California sunshine without benefit of make-up. Her dark rebellious hair never looks combed. She is frail, 5 feet 4, and looks more like an impecunious Greenwich Village poetess than a vendor of movie glamour. The architecture of her home is severely simple, and has the appearance of a streamlined greenhouse on top of a hill – all windows, air and sun. It gives you a feeling of being high up in the air, and we can imagine Miss Rainer sitting in her living-room and dreaming during the glittering Pacific nights. She lives close to the elements. We noticed bird guides and flower guides on the book shelves that line the walls. And in a bowl there were bananas, apples and grapes.
O-lan in “The Good Earth” remains her favourite role. “It was the most difficult part I’ve ever played,” she explained, patting her Scottie dog on the head. “And the most interesting. I didn’t want to do it at first, I was afraid that I might not be able to do it justice.”
No other actress of Miss Rainer’s age, standing and cinematic reputation would have accepted that role. She was known to the public as a Viennese glamour gal. She had won the Academy award as the sexy Anna Held in “The Great Ziegfeld.” She had the most beautiful eyes in Europe, the publicity department maintained. She had umph, and puh-lenty of it, on the screen. But it is a measure of Miss Rainer’s artistic integrity that she became a Chinese peasant, mother of a starving brood, bowed down with the cares of Oriental womanhood, and graying into old age. Can you imagine your Garbos and Dietrichs and Crawfords playing O-lan? It was an unforgettable performance.
We were curious to know how she prepared for that role. Did she steep herself in the civilization of China as Paul Muni did? Muni approaches every character given him with the systematic zest of the great naturalistic novelist. Did she live with a Chinese family, did she devour a library of books on China?
She did nothing of the sort. “I play from the inside,” she asserted, putting her hands on her heart. “No book can give you that inside feeling. I felt I was O-lan. I don’t know how to explain myself.” There was an expression of despair in her face. We assured her we understood what she meant.
“You see,” she added earnestly, “I never play with the idea that I am Luise Rainer, an actress. No! No!”
She shook her head when we asked her about Anna Held. “I did not care for it. I want human, and not glamorous parts.” You may be sure that her distaste for the artificialities of Hollywood extends to conventional roles in the boy-meets-girl photodramas of juvenile phantasy.
She prefers the stage. Definitely. “I want to go back to the theatre. I think I’ll get permission from the studio to do a stage play next season. Oh, I lof the theatre!” Remembering “The Emperor’s Candlesticks” and “Big City,” we don’t blame her. Her new picture, “The Toy Wife,” with Melvyn Douglas and Robert Young, promises to redeem her, although we haven’t seen it yet. Miss Rainer is an earnest artist. Box-office means nothing to her. She said ruefully, “I get very little satisfaction from screen acting.”
She came to Hollywood with no picture experience whatsoever¹. A Metro talent scout saw her in Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” and signed her to a long term contract. She made her stage debut at 16, in a leading feminine role, thus starting at the top from the very beginning. Her star rapidly rose under Max Reinhardt’s guidance, and not only her native Vienna, but also Paris and London acclaimed her as an emotional actress of the first calibre. In spite of her extreme youth, she played a variety of mature roles. She is 25 or 26 now.
“I don’t come from a theatrical family,” she said. “My father, Heinz Rainer, is a merchant. He lived in America for many years and became an American citizen before returning to Europe and setting up a business of his own.” Her mother recently came over from Brussels and now lives with her. They are greatly devoted to each other.
“I was was very unhappy during my first few months in Hollywood,” she recalled. “I did not know any English, and I thought the studio would never give me a part. I was so lonely I used to cry.” For six or seven months Hollywood did not know she existed. Even her studio seemed to have forgotten her. When Myrna Loy struck for higher wages and treated herself to a vacation in Europe, Miss Rainer finally got her break and was cast opposite Bill Powell in “Escapade.” It was a gamble for the studio, as she was totally unknown to American film audiences and, as we said, had no film experience¹. But she nearly stole the show from the versatile Mr. Powell, and when “Escapade” was previewed, Hollywood realized a new star was born.
She won a reputation as a rebel, as one who would not conform, and her artistic sensibilities were interpreted as eccentricities. She refused to play the glamour game, and was the despair of the studio’s publicity department. An interview was an ordeal for her, and as a matter of fact, still is. Writers couldn’t see her and had to write “interpretative” articles. She did not care for any publicity ballyhoo. Her ignorance of the Hollywood vulgate combined with her utter sincerity was the cause of considerable misunderstanding. Today she speaks a fluent, even though accented and at times highly original English. She is a guileless, lovable character, and you never resent her for being almost as elusive as Garbo, and as unpredictable. This is one of the very few interviews she has given in her home, and spoken freely as long as the interviewer desired!
You never see her in our celebrated nocturnal salons, during premieres and other festive occasions of the film society. She lives in Hollywood, but is not of Hollywood. What does she do when she isn’t working, how does she pass her days?
“I lof to walk,” she said. “I walk every day for at least an hour. Sometimes two or three hours. Walking is my relaxation. I become very clear about things when I go for a walk. And I lof to listen to music, play the piano, read. My days aren’t long enough. I regret only one thing – sleep at nights. If I could have my way I would never go to bed. Sometimes I don’t do anything, but I am really very busy inside.”
She has a special passion for music. There are magnificent stacks of records in her living-room. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy, Gershwin. We expressed our admiration for her library. “These are only half of my books,” she said. “The other half is in New York.”
She seldom goes to a movie, and her friends aren’t in pictures. They are doctors, architects, painters, musicians, writers. “My husband’s friends are also my friends. I like to be in a different environment when I am not working.”
“Don’t you miss Vienna?” we asked her.
“No, I don’t. I don’t miss anything. My country is where I can create. I lof Vienna and I lof Europe, but I also lof America. America is a wonderful country, and I am the wife of an American,” she stated with obvious pride.
Miss Rainer and Clifford Odets were quietly married on January 8, 1937, after a romance that began when the brilliant young playwright with a Cause saw her in “The Great Ziegfeld.” It’s a first marriage for both. Two romantic rebels have found each other, and it’s a very tender relationship.
[This article first appeared in Silver Screen magazine, July 1938]
¹ Once again no reference is made to Luise’s films made in Europe. They were often overlooked, and Luise herself referred to Escapade (1935) as her film debut on numerous occasions.