After Hostages (1943) Luise continued to explore other film projects, and whilst her contract with Paramount only led to that one film, she received offers and scripts from various sources. In 1945 she married her second husband, Robert Knittel, and they spent more time in Europe, eventually settling there a few years later. She continued to commute to the US for theatre and television appearances and she discussed a number of projects with film directors in Europe. In the early 1950s she was attached to a project by Italian neorealist director Vittorio de Sica, and in an interview with Italian magazine La settimana incom she mentions a forthcoming project for English director Carol Reed. Neither of these unnamed projects, however, were ever made, at least not with Luise. Another in the list of ‘the ones that got away’, and one of the most notable, was her work with Federico Fellini on La dolce vita (1960).
I believe that Luise first met Fellini at a lunch party in 1958 when she was in Rome to take part in a centenary celebration for the actress Eleonora Duse. It was certainly here that they became friends and Fellini arranged for a private screening of his film Nights of Cabiria for Luise, and when he first raised the idea of a role in La dolce vita. The film is an episodic journey in the life of a paparazzo, Marcello Rubini (played by Marcello Mastroianni) taking place over seven days and nights in Rome. It follows his escapades in love, sex and life, meeting a disparate group of characters along the way. This framework offered an opportunity to cast small one-scene roles with interesting character actors and Luise was offered the part of ‘Dolores’, a writer and ex-lover of Rubini’s who would appear in one episode. Luise was interested but wished to know more about the film, interrogating Fellini on the other characters, the story and the machinations of the plot. He was slightly taken aback and, although he wouldn’t usually share such detail with someone not yet contracted, he didn’t want to be rude to her. Luise’s interest was voracious and she persuaded him to give her a copy of the script to study while she was away in New York. Later Fellini would reflect that, “she didn’t stop to breathe. She was so full of ideas. It reminded me of me. Too much.” Planning for the film continued; Anita Ekberg had already been cast as Sylvia, and Lex Barker, recently divorced from Lana Turner, was offered the role of her boyfriend. Both Henry Fonda and Maurice Chevalier also read for parts (which they would eventually be either unable or unwilling to take) and, with contracts signed, filming got underway in March 1959.
Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimée, Luise Rainer, Federico Fellini, Anita Ekberg and Yvonne Furneaux – the would-be cast of ‘La dolce vita’
In New York Luise read the script and became increasingly unhappy with the character; she wrote to Fellini calling Dolores ‘sordid and hateful’ and asking for rewrites. In an interview in 2010 she recalled that “I couldn’t make head nor tail of [the script], 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”. The exact cause of Luise’s distress with the part has never been fully disclosed, however, in interviews she has intimated that she was particularly unhappy that Dolores was to have sex with Rubini, a scenario she refused to entertain. Fellini, still keen to have Luise involved asked her to write her own scene.
She told Fellini, “There should be one woman that says, ‘look, if you want to be a writer,
- Italian pre-release poster for La Dolce Vita includes Luise Rainer’s billing as one of the film’s stars.
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”. Fellini responded with platitudes, telling her that her involvement would lend the film “a miraculous luminosity” and re-assuring her that all would be fine once she returned to Rome. She did so in May 1959 (at his expense) and went into a long and heated discussion with him in his Cinecitta office. There were compromises on both sides, Fellini, unusually, giving into her demands out of a reverence for Luise and her enthusiasm, and yet, when Luise returned to New York nothing had been agreed upon. There followed more telegrams, more delays and discussions until Fellini finally told Luise, “We are doing your scene, but he has to fuck her like the other women”. She refused, telling the director, “No, I am telling you that I feel that one woman should say to him go to hell!’ When we consider that during this time Fellini was working on other parts of the film with a multitude of actors in various locations it is no surprise that this manoeuvre from Luise was the final straw; he decided that Dolores wasn’t required after all, and he jettisoned the part entirely. Luise, desperate to play the part and with so much time and energy already invested, was furious. She continued to correspond with Fellini, to no avail. There are rumours that she held up the release of the film whilst she negotiated her pay, a contractual obligation on the part of the film-makers who had cancelled her part.
Madeleine Lebeau as the actress ‘Stella’ (with Marcello Mastroianni) in Fellini’s 8½. Her character was inspired by Fellini’s experience with Luise during La dolce vita.
La dolce vita became one of the most critically-acclaimed films of all -time, nominated for four Oscars and winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival; it now regularly appears on lists of the greatest films ever made. Luise, always so forthright and enthusiastic talked herself out of a role that would’ve undoubtedly been a major comeback after fifteen years. Although Luise didn’t appear in the film the experience did make it onto the screen, indirectly: in his next film, 8 1/2, Fellini used Luise as inspiration for his character, Madeleine, a demanding and tumultuous French actress.