by Gerard Gilbert
[In 2009, aged 99, Luise was interviewed at her home in London by Gerard Gilbert. The following article appeared in the British newspaper The Independent on 20 February, the weekend of the Academy Awards ceremony.]
In the 1930s Luise Rainer won Best Actress Oscars in successive years. Gerard Gilbert meets a movie legend.
One former Academy Award winner who won’t be watching the Oscars this Sunday – and not just because she is almost deaf and no longer bothers with television – is the 99-year-old actress Luise Rainer. “All that ballyhoo… all these long speeches, thanking the grandparents and the great-grandparents… No, I find it very boring”, she says in her German-accented English. You can only feel thankful that Rainer was spared Kate Winslet’s simpering breakdown at the Golden Globes last month.
“Luise who?”, you may be forgiven for asking. And yet there was a time, before she turned her back on movies, when the Düsseldorf-born Rainer was as famous as Greta Garbo and Bette Davis. She won the Best Actress Oscar in 1937 for her part as William Powell’s forsaken wife in The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and again the following year for playing a Chinese peasant opposite Paul Muni in The Good Earth – MGM’s most expensive film since Ben-Hur; Katharine Hepburn is the only other actor to have won successive Academy Awards.¹
MGM had only recently spotted Rainer’s potential as “the new Garbo” while she [was] touring Europe with her theatrical mentor, Max Reinhardt. So much for a big, tear-stained Oscars speech; all Rainer gave was a modest “Thank you”, spoken in her still fledgling English.
“It didn’t mean a thing to me… I had never heard of the Academy Awards”, she tells me over coffee and sherry in her ornate Belgravia apartment – the same Eaton Square block that Vivien Leigh once called home. “Any word from Max Reinhardt meant more to me. Reinhardt once said to me after one particular performance… ‘Rainer, how did you do that?’ That meant more to me than any Academy Award.”
The Oscars that meant so little are kept unobtrusively in the library, and Rainer now needs a walking frame to get there. “Until three years ago I was as fit as you are”, she says, and I don’t doubt it. “I used to go walking in the mountains of Switzerland” (Rainer and her second husband, the British publisher Robert Knittel, lived in Geneva; she returned to London on his death in 1989).
One of the Oscars is slightly chipped and, anyway, you feel she is rather more proud of a framed photograph beneath them, in which a young Rainer is relaxed and laughing with Albert Einstein.
“He was a great man… simple and kind. I was lucky in my life I have met quite a few marvellous men.” At no time does it sound like name-dropping as she tells of her friendships with Einstein, George Gershwin, Frank lloyd Wright, Jean Renoir, Bertolt Brecht, Anaïs Nin and Albert Schweizer and other giants of the first half of the 20th century. The only people she didn’t befriend in Hollywood were other film stars.
“There was one actor who I really liked… that was Melvyn Douglas. He was intelligent and talked about things other than acting. I was married, I didn’t love him, but I liked him very much.”
Rainer was married, unhappily so, to her first husband, the left-wing writer Clifford Odets, who would later script such cinematic classics as Clash by Night (1952) and Sweet Smell of Success (1957). It’s the one area of her long, eventful life that she still finds hard to discuss. “It was a very unhappy affair because he was like my father… I can’t talk about it.”
The tears that Rainer shed on the night of her second Oscars victory were not of the Kate Winslet variety. She had been having a long, blazing row with Odets during a visit to San Francisco, where, as usual, says Rainer, Odets had “been very negative”.
“On the way I telephoned home to find out how my dog was and the maid said, ‘Miss Rainer you must come, tonight is the Academy and the newspapers are calling. Are you coming or are you just saying you don’t care about it?’ I was still in a state over Odets… crying, crying. crying… when we arrived at the Biltmore Hotel. Then I was called and I got my second Academy Award.”
The second Oscar proved the high-water mark of Rainer’s Hollywood career. Already chafing at the studio system, she was pushed into a number of ill-advised parts by MGM, before a final showdown with the mighty Louis B Mayer himself.
“Mayer said, ‘I hear that you want to leave’, and I said, ‘yes’, and he said, ‘well, we made you and we are also going to kill you’. And I said, ‘Mr Mayer, you didn’t make me, God made me. And I want to tell you something: You are an old man and I am a young woman – you are dead when I am still full of life and can do whatever I want. He was very upset. I walked out. Finished.”
Regrets, she had a few: not to play Madame Curie or Maria in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. “But I felt like a screw in a factory. I wanted to be an artist.”
An artist. Rainer doesn’t approve of being called an actress. “I hate the word”, she says . “I believe in giving from the inside out. I don’t care what sort of face I should give, or what voice I should have, or what you wear. An actress puts on; I believe in digging out.” And sitting here, digging out the past, Rainer is indeed transformed – from an elderly woman in her hundredth year – into, well, someone quite ageless – wryly funny and full of animation; at moments she almost seems to shimmer and you can see that the camera would have loved her.
Her adult life spans the decades from Weimar Germany to Obama’s America. “Did you see the inauguration? Wasn’t it fantastic?,” she asks. Some brushes with great people were not friendships, but the encounters of a person who habitually travelled first class. A chance meeting with the US ambassador, for example, on one of the last transatlantic liners out of France in 1940, led to a commission from Eleanor Roosevelt to North Africa (where she contracted malaria) and Italy gathering intelligence on troop morale. And when she flew back to America after the war, of course she shared a military transport with Martha Gellhorn.
“Everybody says, ‘you had such a wonderful life’. Well, possibly it was, but I don’t feel that I had such a specially wonderful life. I was lucky enough to meet people who were special, and that was the wonderful thing that happened in my life.”
And then there was Bertolt Brecht, who wrote The Caucasian Chalk Circle especially for Rainer. “He was a very strange man – he reminded me of a spider… there was something crawling about him… he was immensely conceited. Politically I couldn’t even talk to him.
“I helped Brecht come over to Hollywood… I gave him an affidavit. I arranged for a producer to pay him while he wrote this play for me, but when I got back from the war, Brecht sent me all he had written… two double-spaced pages! He wanted me to read them for him. He said, ‘Miss Elizabeth Berger would be on her knees in front of me for this role’. I said, ‘Mr Brecht, goodbye. Have your play… I don’t want to be in it.’ “