Oscar So White

When we look back through the history of the Academy Awards, 2016 will be remembered as the year of the backlash against racial inequality and stereotyping that has been growing for years, even decades. For the second year running there are no non-white actors nominated for an award in an industry where black players are omnipresent on screen but under-represented not only at awards shows but also in mainstream media coverage of the cinema. In this week’s UK Box Office chart three out of the top five films have a black leading actor – Ride Along 2, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Creed – hardly a minority.President Photos, Cheryl Boone Isaacs

The Academy President, Cheryl Boone Isaacs (right), has responded to criticism by announcing an overhaul of Academy membership to better represent the diversity of the business. The Academy members are majority white males over the age of 50 and it might seem like an obvious solution to mix this up a little (or a lot). There’s certainly a need for the voters to better reflect the industry and the population as a whole, but this decision seems like a knee-jerk reaction to some high profile outrage from Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett-Smith, amongst others, and from Isaacs’ own ‘heartbreak and frustration’. The idea that ‘more black people will vote for more black people’ seems wrong-footed at best and almost racist in itself, at worst. It worries me that the Academy’s approach will lead to issues of credibility for black nominees whose nominations will be viewed by some as a result of a rule change and box-ticking.

This week the actor (and Academy member) Stephen Furst spelled out his frustration with the new rules, labelling them both sexist and ageist by suggesting that ‘old white men’ wouldn’t use their vote without prejudice. I tend to agree with him and would much rather the Academy concentrated on getting their voting members to actually watch the films – it’s widely known that many don’t view the screening DVDs which are sent to them, and in some cases they even cast votes for films or actors they haven’t watched. This would seem to me to be the crux of the problem. By all means expand and diversify the membership, but those who don’t engage with the process shouldn’t be part of it in the first place, regardless of age, gender or race. Get rid of them and then you can really make an attempt to build a membership representative of the diversity of cinema.

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I fear that the Academy has taken on an unwinnable battle, and one which is not of their making. Whilst there have been a handful of high-profile films with non-white performers this year, I don’t believe there have been sufficient to merit nominations. For me, there were only two surprise omissions: Straight Outta Compton, one of the best films of 2015, unbelievably missed out on a Best Picture nomination which probably has more to do with the age of the voters rather than the race. It also suffers from a great ensemble cast which may have split the voting for one particular actor and it is an awkward, but coincidental, shame that only the (white) writers made it to the nominations sheet. I’d also expected to see Idris Elba receive a nod for Best Actor in Beasts of No Nation, but my opinion here is only based on what I’d read – I haven’t seen the film, and I don’t think many of the voting members had either, hence no nomination. Michael B. Jordan in Creed (he was much, much better in Fruitvale Station, which on the whole is a better film and should’ve been nominated last year) didn’t do enough to convince me it was an Oscar-worthy performance (and neither did Stallone, to be honest), and Samuel L. Jackson was never going to get an Oscar nod for playing Samuel L. Jackson again, no matter how many times he says the ‘n’ word.

The real problem is the lack of diversity in the roles offered to minority actors? Not just black actors but Hispanic, Asian, hell, even Inuit actors… it’s unacceptable that the ‘everyman’ roles still go to Will Smith (and to a lesser extent these days, Denzel Washington) and that award-worthy roles for black actors still tend to be those embedded in Hollywood’s skewed version of ‘black history’ and culture. It’s surprising that more black actors haven’t been nominated given the Academy’s penchant for the oppressed, the struggle and the battle over adversity considering the pigeon-holing that goes on in casting offices.

the-good-earth-paul-muni-luise-rainer-1937It was exactly 79 years ago today that The Good Earth premiered and led to Luise Rainer’s second Oscar win for Best Actress, playing a Chinese woman in yellow face (although she did refuse most of the make-up effects and insisted on the minimum, preferring to ‘act’ – now there’s an idea!) Three years later Hattie McDaniel became the first African American Oscar winner for her role as ‘Mammy’ in Gone With The Wind (1939), sitting at a segregated table during the ceremony. Both were worthy winners but times have changed, maybe not so much as we might think: yellowface performances were still being given Oscars as recently as 1983 when Linda Hunt won for her astonishing turn as Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) and Joseph Fiennes has been cast to play Michael Jackson… although any black actor hoping for that part would have to do it in whiteface make-up anyway.

second motherFor my part I’d like to have seen some representation in this year’s awards season for Regina Casé (actor) and Anna Muylaert (director) for The Second Mother (2015), for Benicio del Toro in Sicario (2015) and DooNa Bae in A Girl at My Door (2014). But what I know, and what Oscars boycotters appear not to, is that the Oscars don’t represent world cinema, they don’t even represent American cinema, they represent Hollywood cinema. If only they weren’t so damn influential we could just let them get on with it.

One day I genuinely hope that there’ll be a bunch of great actors and actresses in the Lead and Supporting categories that aren’t all the same colour, maybe they don’t even all speak the same language, but they all gave great, award-worthy performances. That’s why they will be there, not because their friends stuck a vote in for them, or they’re filling a quota but because they deserve to be.

The property of a lady

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It was announced yesterday that Julien’s of Beverly Hills will be holding an auction of property from Luise’s estate on 1st October with a vast array of items for sale from her London apartment. The sale is one in a long line of ‘celebrity’ auctions held by the house who have previously handled the estates of Greta Garbo, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson, amongst others.

The items included in Luise’s sale are mostly unconnected to her short film career. There are some pieces of memorabilia, awards and photographs but on the whole the estate is of interest for her antiques and art. She was a collector of both and amassed a varied collection of European furniture, jewellery and artworks. Of particular interest to me are her own pieces, often collage work but watercolours and sketches are also included. Luise studied art at the Camden Institute in London in the late 1950s and early 1960s but she rarely exhibited; this auction and the accompanying catalogue gives us a rare chance to see a range of her work. The sale also includes pieces by many other artists, notably sculpture by Geog Kolbe and Felix Weihs de Weldon, and paintings and sketches by Domenico Gnoli, Robin Hazlewood, Emma Sergeant, Johann Fischbach and Jan van Kessel as well as numerous unsigned and unattributed works, religious scenes and more. The portrait of Luise by Dimitri Berea, painted for the cover of France Illustration (below) is on offer with an estimate of a very reasonable $6000.FullSizeRender (18)

For film fans there is little of interest, although there are a selection of photos by George Hurrell and Clarence Bull, plus her George Eastman medal, awarded in 1982. Luise kept very little of her film memorabilia so it isn’t surprising not to see it here. In the late 1990s she gifted her archive of correspondence to the Howard Gottlieb Centre at Boston University which explains the lack of personal items although there are a few significant objects included, not least a collection of Clifford Odets’ plays signed and dedicated to Luise, and some personal photographs from their holiday with Einstein at his house on Long Island. There are also some personal items of clothing, which always make me feel a little queasy, including the cape she wore when she accepted her second Academy Award. Her Oscars, I should point out, are not included – the Academy famously brought in an agreement in 1950 that any Oscar sold should be offered back to them for a nominal sum of $1 in order to preserve the integrity of the award. Oscars have come up for auction however, and those won before 1950 are not covered by the agreement (although that hasn’t stopped the Academy fighting to have them removed), so Luise’s could be sold, theoretically, but I believe that Francesca (Luise’s daughter) is likely to want to hang onto them, and rightly so.

On the whole the property on offer shows Luise’s love for fine art and good taste. There is much to be gleaned from her collection and the items she and Robert purchased over the years. It is interesting (and not unexpected) to see that she kept almost nothing from her Hollywood years and the bulk of this property comes from her post-film career when she had returned to Europe. I hope that they find good homes for these belongings, especially the artworks and personal items which will always carry a quantum of Luise with them. Unfortunately almost everything is out of my range but I’ll be following the auction with great interest on the day, and maybe my itchy fingers will do some clicking…..

Luise Rainer: A personal remembrance

Candid - 1970sI first met Luise Rainer in 1998, only a few weeks after I’d seen her on the Oscars telecast, one of a unique group of previous winners invited back and put on display like bits of memorabilia to celebrate Oscars 70th. “Are you Luise Rainer?” I asked, already knowing the answer; even at 88 she looked like someone. “Yes…..” she replied, warily, cowering a little, “…who are you?”, with her German drawl intact, a sparkle behind the eyes, and a faint glimpse of pride at being recognised. Luise was never one for fame but I always sensed she did, occasionally, succumb to its entrapments. “Oh, it’s so great to meet you,” I blethered. “I’m a fan, I love your films,” I lied. My first meeting with the lady who would change my life, and I lied to her. You see, until that Oscars ceremony I had never heard of Luise Rainer. When she appeared on my television screen, bracketed by archive footage of her two Oscar wins, I was presented with a real head-scratcher. A film fan for years, how could I not know who this was? I was immediately curious but unprepared for her to take over my life.

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At home, 1990s.

I’ve always been a curious soul. In 1998 there was little if nothing written about Luise online. There was a listing on IMDb of a handful of films I’d never seen, but no Wikipedia page and no detailed biography. I think without this lack of information I would’ve moved on, happy to have met her. But her story was so incredible I couldn’t let it lie. From the outset I’ve been interested in telling that story first and foremost, with a secondary interest in the films she made. It seems strange to become a follower of someone without ever seeing any of their work, but that’s the way it happened with Luise. The obsession (and I use that word carefully) grew, I started researching, buying items from eBay, 1930s film magazines, interviews, books on similar subjects, and, of course, I had to track down the films. I gradually got to know Luise via this material; the trivia, the soundbites, the stories of her rise and fall were pored over and I was hooked. I found myself completely enraptured, as if spending 16 years reading an unputdownable novel, with every turn of the page discovering something new, opening another door to another corridor leading to another room in the labyrinth of Luise’s life.

I’m not a spiritual person and neither do I believe in fate, however, that day and that sequence of events set in motion a peculiar course, unplanned but full of serendipity and opportunity. At that time I was working in the area of Sloane Square (from 1997 to 2001) and happened upon Luise numerous times in the months and years following our first meeting. I’d often see her from the top of the 137 bus and I’d have to restrain myself from shouting out, “Look! That’s a bona fide movie star right there, in amongst us!” It seemed random and crazy to just bump into her on the way home from work, but that’s the way it happened, time and time again. This randomness took a peculiar turn when I left that job and moved to the National Theatre on the South Bank in 2001. I remember seeing her running to catch a bus on Sloane Street (she would’ve been 91 years old by now) in the weeks before I moved jobs, and I do recall marking this as possibly the last time I’d see her. But how wrong I was; I’d only been in the new job a few weeks when she called, I answered the telephone and we met again. That’s just a coincidence, right?

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Celebrating her 100th year, at the TCM Film Festival in 2010.

Luise was a regular at the theatre and we met a few more times, always professionally. The last time she visited (and the last time I met her) was in the spring of 2011 when she attended the opening night of Clifford Odets’ play Rocket to the Moon. The play has great significance for her, written as it was during the early months of her marriage to Odets and, it’s said to be the play he was working at on their wedding night, when she was banished to spend the evening on a Mexican beach, alone but for a troupe of circus performers. I’d invited her and I was pleased she could make it, even at 101. The year before, to celebrate her 100th, she had charmed an audience of hundreds in the Olivier Theatre when she spent 90 minutes talking about her life and career. All of us who were in the theatre that night knew that we were in the presence of someone who had really lived. Her energy and her resilience leapt from that stage, remarkably lucid and as vivacious as ever. Only a month earlier she had written to the theatre to say that she would be “absolutely unable” to make an appearance due to “failing health” and apologised but must “definitely decline” the invitation. What caused her change of heart I don’t know, but I will forever be grateful that she did. She once said that she grew too old too soon; at MGM she felt that she had aged well beyond her years and then spent the next 80 years getting younger, at least in heart and mind. She followed up this coup de theatre with an even more astonishing appearance at the Turner Classic Movies Film Festivals, defying not only age but exploding Icelandic volcanoes to be there. It’s a perfect example of her refusal to be cowed; like Louis B. Mayer, she dealt with her age and Eyjafjallajökull with flamboyant disinterest.

Luise and I were never close friends. We were acquaintances at best, and sometime correspondents. She was aware of the collection I’d started and of the website in particular. I made it known that I wasn’t just a fan, more a keen amateur detective trying to set the record straight and let everyone know that Luise Rainer wasn’t just a two-time Oscar winner, but an actress of stage and screen, a writer, a painter and even a director. She was also a witness to almost all of the 20th century, one of the last and one of those for whom the phrase “we will never see their like again” is most fitting. She

Luise with one of the loves of her life: Johnny, her Scottish terrier (1936)

Luise with one of the loves of her life: Johnny, her Scottish terrier (1936)

understood, I hope, that I didn’t want a piece of her as a memento, I wanted to make sure she wasn’t forgotten or at least mis-remembered.

Whenever I meet people Luise always comes into the conversation. I have bored many people witless with my tales of her life and times; I’m always enthusiastic but I do get carried away. She has been in my life for 16 years and it’s difficult to describe how I feel now she has gone. I thought about her often, almost daily, in what I hope was not an irrational way. I’ve learnt so much from her, indirectly, and she’s changed the way I think about my own life. Her passion and drive are exemplified by a life fulfilled. She may not have always been in the public eye but what does that matter? For her, living, really living, and loving, were the things to celebrate, not the ephemera.

I am so very grateful for that chance meeting. Now, I will continue to celebrate a life lived, not a life lost.

“…there were many things that I should have done. I feel it today, at nearly 100 years old: God, or whoever it is, gave so much into my cradle and I have not lived up to it.” – Luise Rainer, 2010 (and I must respectfully disagree with her)

Ford Times, 1946

Magazine Ford Times Feb 1946I’ve been a little quiet with updates since the trip to New York in November, but in the meantime I have been making some cosmetic changes to the site and updating the galleries with a host of new material that has never been published online before. I’ll be publishing most of this in the next few weeks in time for Luise’s 105th birthday on 12th January.

One of the great things about putting together an archive of Luise’s life and work is that, although she left MGM in 1939 she didn’t stop working. There’s a wealth of information and material out there relating to her post-MGM years, much of which is unknown and I’m slowly piecing together these ‘missing years’. Even after collecting and researching for over 15 years I am still discovering new material, fascinating side-stories and associations.

A recent find was this 1946 issue of Ford Times magazine, a copy of which was sentscan0008 to all employees of the Ford Motor Company. This edition belonged to Mr. S. E. Schaeffler of Toppenish, WA and bears the original handwritten address and postage stamp. Luise graces the front cover and although there is no accompanying article inside, this is an image I have not seen previously; the photo credit, which could be insignificant, also tantalises with a mention of a Detroit theatre engagement – currently I know of only one such appearance in Luise’s career, for a tour performance of Maxwell Anderson’s Joan of Lorraine, however I have that dated to 1947, so some more investigation is required to clarify what production and where Luise was appearing at this time. It’s also interesting to note that, for the first time in my research, Luise is named as ‘Mrs. Robert Knittel’ an indication of her husband’s own status (and a nod to the male readership of this particular magazine, no doubt).

scan0005Luise isn’t the only Oscar winner to appear in this issue. There’s a cute pictorial section featuring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen fooling around in a Ford with his ‘partner’ Charlie McCarthy (left). In 1938 Bergen received a special Oscar at the same ceremony, in the Biltmore Bowl of the Biltmore Hotel, that Luise received her second. His, uniquely, was made out of wood to celebrate “his outstanding comedy creation, Charlie McCarthy”. Also of interest to cinephiles is a section on set with the sound men of Disney studios (below), featuring some great backstage photos of the guys at work creating otherworldly sounds to accompany Disney’s on screen characters. None of the technicians are named but these are some fantastic rare images of them at work.

One of the joys of researching and collecting pieces like this is that you uncover some real gems in the most unlikely places. Whilst film magazines or newspapers are an obvious and unbeatable source of information and interest, Luise turns up in the most unexpected places too…. the cover of a car manufacturer’s in-house magazine is a perfect example.

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Luise Rainer: recording artist?

One of the fun facts about Luise (and there are SO many), is that her first Oscar win, in 1937, was the first time any actor had won The Great Ziegfeld CDan Oscar for a musical performance. The feat still isn’t that common and the next time anyone would do so was James Cagney who won for Yankee Doodle Dandy in 1943.

Luise only made eight films for MGM in the 1930s but she managed to squeeze in quite a few genres in this short time, including two musicals: The Great Ziegfeld and The Great Waltz. In the latter picture Luise didn’t perform any musical numbers (that duty fell to her co-star Miliza Korjus, who was Oscar nominated for her role). But, in MGM’s bloated Ziegfeld bio-epic, Luise performs two numbers (plus a short burst of one in rehearsal). Alongside Luise there are performances by Budd Doyle, Dennis Morgan, Ray Bolger, Virginia Bruce and the legendary Fanny Brice (later to be immortalised on screen in another Oscar winning turn, by Barbra Streisand in 1968’s Funny Girl). These performances have been recorded for posterity and have been available over the years on various formats on The Great Ziegfeld soundtrack, from vinyl LP to CD.

 

Famous Record Series ABut Luise did have her own record out once…. in 1936 the Famous Record Company of New York released what could be considered her one and only single. As part of their ‘Five Great Stars’ series they released this one-sided 78rpm picture disc which features a melodramatic intro by radio announcer Del Sharbutt, followed, not by one of her musical numbers but by the heart-breaking telephone scene which made her name and for which many attribute her Oscar success. It’s a real novelty record, and fascinating to think that you could take this home and relive this scene over and over on your Gramophone. The scene was so famous that Luise reprised it a number of times, on the radio and also ‘in concert’ at charity events.

From a single-sided, 78 year old, 8″ cardboard disc to this: today, I discovered that Luise Rainer is now available on Spotify. It’s marvellous to consider this for a moment, that Luise singing Won’t You Come and Play With Me is now available to stream digitally, in her lifetime. The Great Ziegfeld album includes this, plus her other musical presentation, It’s Delightful To be Married (with spoken interruption from audience members as seen in the film), plus some other dialogue with Fanny Brice and William Powell. The quality is not digital, but I find that makes it all the more enchanting. The other records in the series were Franchot Tone doing the “England, My England” speech from Lives of a Bengal Lancer, John Barrymore’s rendition of Hamlet‘s “to be or not to be”, comedienne Ilka Chase and comedian Joe E. Brown.

Mickey Rooney (1920-2014)

Rooney, Garland, mayer

On Sunday 6th April it was reported that Mickey Rooney, an entertainment legend if ever there was, had died at the age of 93. In an astonishing career than spanned almost his entire life, Rooney performed in all media, starting in the family vaudeville act at 18 months old before appearing in silent films, Hollywood blockbusters, television, radio and on and on….

Before his death he was one of the last surviving silent film actors, and his career was already in full swing when he transferred his skills to talking pictures and features. By the end of the 1930s Rooney was the biggest box office draw in America and was, along with Deanna Durbin, one of the world’s highest paid stars. In 1939 (also with Durbin) he was awarded the first of his two honorary Academy Awards, “For their significant contribution in bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth, and as juvenile players setting a high standard of ability and achievement.” He was a Best Actor nominee four times between 1940 and 1980 and received his second honorary award in 1983, “In recognition of his 50 years of versatility in a variety of memorable film performances.” His 92 year career of continuous work in showbusiness must surely be a record that will remain unbeaten.

Rooney’s career in 1930s Hollywood was the antithesis of Luise’s. His wholesome family oriented entertainment was exactly the fare that Louis B. Mayer was aiming for. While Luise struggled to convince the studio head to produce adaptations of classic and contemporary literature (The Good Earth, Out of Africa, A Doll’s House) Mayer concentrated on the money-spinners, and hit on a winning formula with Rooney as ‘Andy Hardy’ in a series of 15 films spanning almost 20 years. He proved his dramatic chops with a breakthrough role in Captains Courageous (1937) opposite Spencer Tracy (who won the Best Actor Oscar) and proved his versatility even further with a series of successful musical comedies opposite his great friend Judy Garland (picture above, with Mayer).

With the passing in the last twelve months of Deanna Durbin, Shirley Temple, and now Rooney, Luise Rainer is the only Oscar recipient from the 1930s, in any category, still living.

It is inconceivable that Luise and Mickey never met during their time at MGM, however, I have not been able to find any photographs or record of this. They did, however, share the stage at the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles on 23rd March 2003 when fellow nonagenarian Oscar-winner Olivia de Havilland introduced ‘Oscar’s Family Album’. It was a truly historic occasion. Watch the clip below:

 

Oscar night 1938, an historic win (and loss)…

ImageToday is March 10th and it was exactly 76 years ago on this day that Academy Awards history was made when Luise Rainer picked up her second Oscar as Best Actress. She became the first performer to win two Oscars in consecutive years and beat her recent co-star Spencer Tracy to the accolade by one year (he won in 1938 for Captain’s Courageous and repeated the trick in 1939 for Boys Town).

I’ve written (in this post) about Luise’s eventful evening before arriving at the Biltmore Hotel for the ceremony, where she made her historic double triumph. The award this year was for her role as O-Lan in The Good Earth, and when seen alongside her previous award-winning role as Anna Held in The Great Ziegfeld one can’t help marvel at the transformation. The two could not be further apart, both in character and in style. Much has been written about whether Luise was deserving of either of her awards, but in just those two parts she shows a range that many actresses spend a whole career striving for. Although her first Oscar has been attributed to the melodramatic ‘telephone scene’ in The Great Ziegfeld, the part is so much more playful than this, with two musical numbers performed by Luise and some wonderful charming and comedic moments. O-Lan, on the other hand, is a consistently dramatic part, almost silent throughout, played with real intensity and nobility.

Luise’s fellow nominees in the category that year were Irene Dunne (for The Awful Truth), Janet Gaynor (A Star Is Born), Greta Garbo (Camille) and Barbara Stanwyck (Stella Dallas). This is a stellar line-up of talent and Luise’s achievement has been somewhat overshadowed by those who didn’t win. Both Stanwyck and Garbo never won an Oscar (they were both nominated multiple times and were both given honorary awards later) and this, as well as Luise’s short-lived career, has led some commentators to suggest the Academy chose poorly. But the awards should be seen in context and without hindsight; Luise had already been awarded the Best Actress trophy by the New York Film Critics Circle two months earlier and all contemporary reviews for the film, and particularly her performance, were raves. Even now, when yellowface is almost a thing entirely alien to cinemagoers, I think her performance still stands up, certainly when compared to some of her fellow Caucasian cast members.

So it was then that this 28 year old German actress, in only her third English-language film, playing a Chinese farmer, made film history. It is the part that best represents Luise’s own aesthetic and artistic drive, and the film that stands out as the defining moment in a fleeting and unfulfilled career in film.

 

It occurred to me, while writing this post, that Luise Rainer may be the only surviving witness to one of the most curious and baffling mysteries in Academy Awards history…

It was also on this day, at the same Oscars ceremony that another piece of Academy Awards history was made… the only theft of an Oscar during the show.

This was the 10th Oscars event and was staged in the Biltmore Bowl at the Biltmore Hotel. The setting was more akin to a banquet than the extravagant show that’s laid on today. In the running for Best Supporting Actress this year were Alice Brady, Andrea Leeds, Anne Shirley, Claire Trevor and Dame May Whitty. Brady, who had been huge star in silent films and on the stage had made the successful transition to the talkies in 1933 when she made her film comeback in MGM’s When Ladies Meet. For the next few years she appeared in 15 more films at various studios. It was for her role as the matriarch of the O’Leary family in In Old Chicago that she received her second Oscar nomination (she’d been nominated the year before for My Man Godfrey) and her first and only win.

What happened next no-one really knows: Brady was not in attendance at the banquet (due to a broken ankle) but a gentleman got up to accept the award on her behalf. Who the chap was, no-one knows… but he claimed the prize and went on his way. His identity and the whereabouts of Brady’s Academy Award has remained a mystery ever since. The Academy did replace it with a second version which was presented to Brady later, but she had little time to enjoy it. She died just over a year later, of cancer, shortly before her 47th birthday.

Alice Brady accepts her Academy Award (version 2!) shortly before her untimely death.

Luise Rainer’s unknown Oscar dresses…

ImageDoing the rounds now for a week or so, this fantastic infographic shows the dresses worn by all the winners of the Best Actress Oscar since Janet Gaynor in 1929 (except those who didn’t attend the awards ceremony). Produced by Mediarun Digital, it has now been updated with the Armani Privé worn by Cate Blanchett on Sunday night. Many of the designers of the earlier dresses remain unknown, however, Shrimpton Couture have improved on the original with a fantastic run-down of the dresses, accompanied by photos of the actresses at the Oscars, filling in a few of those ‘unknown’ blanks too.

Luise is included twice, of course, and since the artwork appeared I’ve been asked several times if I know who the designers of Luise’s dresses were. unfortunately I don’t, but I do a little background to both outfits.

ImageLuise won her first Oscar on 4th March 1937 (it’s the 77th anniversary as I write this post). Only two months before, she had married the playwright Clifford Odets at her home on Cliffwood Avenue in Los Angeles. His wedding gift to his new wife was a floor length white ermine coat, and it is this, I believe, that Luise was wearing when she collected her first Academy Award.

ImageThe following year was a little more unconventional. Luise and Clifford had been apart for some time, he working in New York while she was filming The Toy Wife in California. On the day of the Oscar ceremony (10th March 1938) Luise drove Clifford to San Francisco for a day of sight-seeing and to spend time together away from both their work. Although Luise was nominated for her part in The Good Earth she didn’t intend to attend the Academy Awards and she didn’t expect to win. On their way back to Los Angeles they stopped in Santa Barbara from where Luise made a call home; she was astonished to find that the press had been calling all afternoon and not only was she favourite to take home her second Oscar, she was also expected to be there to do so. Odets, who always considered the giving of awards a vulgar affair (and was especially jealous if Luise received high praise), suggested they skip the whole thing, but Luise knew she could not. They raced back to what Luise has since described as a “weird nightmare of an evening”. She was upset and miserable and didn’t want Clifford to accompany her. “Why, if he thought it was so ‘nothing’, should he share this triumph with me!” But he insisted and so, wearing her jeans and sneakers, she quickly chose the nicest (and most convenient) dress in her wardrobe – it was in fact a nightgown.

Luise did attend, after a blazing row and the need to walk around the Biltmore Hotel several times in the rain as she was in tears. She made history and, in her nightgown, she looked stunning. But she recalled, “I made my thank-you speech. I smiled for the countless cameras and reporters. Here I was at dizzying heights, admired and envied: I was as low as I had ever been in my life. I did what I had to do mechanically, I hardly realised I had got the award.”

Oscars 2014 – Jennifer Lawrence vs Luise Rainer

So tonight we’ll see the 86th gathering of the lauded and beloved of Hollywood (with a few concessions to to the film world outside of that hallowed clique) at the Academy Awards. Although now just as interesting for the spectacle as the actual awards, the biggest night in the film calendar has, ironically, become one of the greatest pieces of theatre – from the traipse along the red carpet, to the after-show party, tonight is all about showing off.

It was ever so; back in 1937, when Luise Rainer won her first Academy Award, the ‘ceremony’ was only eight years old and took place at the Biltmore Hotel where a banquet was held while the awards were presented by George Jessel. By this time the Oscars were already considered the highest mark of achievement in the film world. But not for everyone. When Luise Rainer was first nominated for an Oscar she confessed to never having heard of it and didn’t understand the significance. This disinterest was only stoked by her new husband, the playwright Clifford Odets, who felt that the studios were artistically worthless and the handing out of awards a vulgarity. Luise agreed, in part, and the two were both craving the artistic ‘legitimacy’ of the stage. Odets was particularly enraged at his wife’s burgeoning stardom, especially the possibility that her achievements may outshine his own; when the press referred to him as ‘Mr. Rainer’ he was enraged, and they appeared to enjoy putting him in his place, taunting him for accepting “capitalist gold” for his “communist ideas”. But Luise agreed with Clifford; she too found herself stifled in the ‘circus’ at MGM, and within two years she had walked out of her contract but by then her marriage had irretrievably broken down. She won her second Academy Award in 1938 and says that, “for my second and third pictures I won Academy Awards. Nothing worse could have happened to me.” With his, and her subsequent abandonment of her career, she became the first victim of the ‘Oscar curse’, but Luise says that, “the real curse is that once you have an Oscar they think you can do anything.”

Over the years she has learned to embrace the Oscars and what they mean to her; one of her original statuettes has been replaced by the Academy (it simply ‘died of fatigue and keeled over’ – she had been using it as a door-stop for many years). The Oscars now stand on her bookcase, proudly.

jennifer LawrenceAs the first performer to win in consecutive years, Luise assured her place in the history books, but she also holds a number of other Oscar records. At the age of 104 can claim several longevity records: she is now the oldest Oscar winner who ever lived and she has had her awards longer than any else (77 years). She is also  the only surviving winner from the 1930s (Mickey Rooney was awarded an honorary juvenile award in 1939, but was not in competition). We need to jump forward almost ten years, to 1947, to find the next earliest surviving winner: Olivia de Havilland. These records may never be beaten, however, one achievement may be about to fall. When Luise won her second Oscar she was 28 years old, making her the youngest two-time winner in the history of the Academy Awards. The closest anyone has come to beating this record was in 1992 when a 29 year old Jodie Foster claimed her second Oscar, for The Silence of the Lambs (after 1989’s win for The Accused). Tonight, Jennifer Lawrence (23) is in the running for her third Oscar if she takes the prize Luise’s 77 year old record will have fallen (Lawrence will also join Luise and Katharine Hepburn as the only actresses to win in consecutive years).

Here at luiserainer.net we’re conflicted about the news, but let’s see what happens on the night…

Rainer – the Rebel

This article, by Ida Zeitlin, first appeared in the July 1937 issue of Modern Screen magazine. Only two years into her MGM contract at the time, Luise already expresses her disillusionment with her career in Hollywood and the emptiness of the life as an MGM ‘starlet’. At this point she had already won her first Academy Award (for The Great Ziegfeld) and she had finished filming on The Good Earth (for which she would win her second). She talks, somewhat disingenuously, of politics, or rather her apolitical stance, although her marriage to Clifford Odets, her appearances at events protesting against the Sino-Japanese war, and her later work with Ernest Hemingway, Eleanor Roosevelt and the ‘war effort’ suggest that the onset of the Second World War, especially the incarceration of her father in a Czech prison camp, altered her view of a woman’s role in politics. It’s a fascinating article, not least due to Luise’s candid assessment of her life as a movie star, published in a popular screen magazine. One can readily see just what the bosses at MGM must’ve thought of their wayward star.

I SAT waiting in a publicity office something less than two years ago when a small dynamo in slacks and short-sleeved blouse blew in, dropped into a chair and began talking. I had never seen her before. I didn’t know whether she was an actress, visitor or scribbler. I did know – anyone would know the moment she entered a room – that here was an arresting personality.

   The dynamic effect was produced not by sound and fury, but a quicksilver vitality. Expression played over her vivid face like light and shadow over a stream – as changefully, as unconsciously, as agreeable to watch. Dark eyes under the windblown bob flashed and softened by turns. Her warmly tinted skin had a translucent quality. And though she was obviously a foreigner, her speech flowed vigorous and free. Never waiting to fumble for language that was always graphic, if not always grammatical. Through sheer color and glow she took and held your attention.
   “That’s Luise Rainer, a European actress,” I was told when she left.
   “What? No mystery? No glamor? No airs and graces?”
   “She’s different.”
   I’d heard that often enough to be skeptical. Yet I’d seen for myself that her appearance and manner were different. You couldn’t type her. You wouldn’t classify her. You couldn’t say she was a second this-one or that-one or any other Hollywood star. She was like no one you’d ever seen but herself. And for any self-consciousness or effort, however subtle, to make an impression, she might have been merely the stenographer next door.
   As the piquant little companion of “Escapade,” I saw her capture the public’s imagination as she had captured mine. For her tender, tempestuous portrayal of Anna Held, she won the Academy Award. Who would have played O-Lan if Rainer hadn’t appeared on the scene I have no notion. It was Mr. Thalberg who chose her. Had he lived to see the finished performance, to see the child of “Escapade” submerge her youth and charm to become the stolid, deep-souled Chinese woman, he would have been content with his choice.
   As she moved from triumph to triumph, Hollywood talked about her as Hollywood does. She didn’t like interviews; therefore she was doing a Garbo. She preferred long walks with her dog to lunching at the Vendrome; therefore she must be a poseur. Soon after she married Clifford Odets, the playwright, she went alone to New York.LR CLIFFORD ODETS 1
   “Why?” she was asked.
   “Because every time I am free, I make a trip. Mr. Odets is not free. So I go alone.” But the truth was too simple; therefore, “Ha-ha! Rainer’s marriage is on the rocks.”
   After you’ve lived in Hollywood for a while, you don’t believe all the tales you hear. They may or may not be true. Anything for a headline. Suppose you have to retract your statement tomorrow. So much the better. Today’s headline will sell, nd so will tomorrow’s retraction. I couldn’t associate what I’d heard with that unknown girl in the publicity office whose every word and gesture had been spontaneous. Yet Hollywood has been known to crush spontaneity.
   So, although I went to see Miss Rainer with an open mind, I couldn’t help but wonder if Hollywood really had changed her!
   “Please, you must first have your lunch,” she said when I came to her dressing room. “If you try to make an interview at the same time, you will not enjoy your eating. Then I will give you what time you want.” She went to the phone to order food. “Here is Luise Ryner – Ry-ner -” she repeated, and shot me a rueful glance. “I always mispronounce my name. They all say Ray-ner. So when I say Ry-ner, nobody knows who is there. But so long it has been Ryner, it is hard to change.”
   Over coffee and cigarettes – my coffee and cigarettes, since she took neither – and with Johnny, her beloved Scottie, sleeping at her feet, we “made the interview.” She sat in the corner of a couch, laughing, wistful, excited by turns. Not only her lips but her hands and body spoke, and above all, her velvet-soft eyes that changed with every changing shade of feeling. And, though her English was vastly improved, she showed that same fine disregard of dictionary speech I had noted earlier, for the sake of vigorous, unimpaired expression.
   “My rebel-ation,” she said, “was from the beginning to the end that I am what I am. But I cannot think of myself as a rebel because I do not fight to make others do what I wish but only stay myself. And this is not to say I think I am God’s wonder – please understand me well – but only that I cannot do what is for me not right and natural to do. It is far-est from my mind to hurt somebody else. It never came to my head till I heard someone say, ‘This girl is a Frankenstein. She will spoil everything.'”
   Her hands flew to her face, her eyes widened, recalling the shock of that moment. “I thought ‘Am I crazy? Are they crazy? What can I spoil if I am true to myself? This I must be. Sometimes I may be convinced for a moment against myself. but before I know it, my own color comes through. Not that I will not do what for me is wrong. I cannot do it. Every person has inside of himself a judge,” she tapped her forehead, “and for him this inside judge is the best.
   “I will tell you something. What is the most important thing for a child? To have rest and quietness, isn’t it so? I had not this. I had deep difficulties. I had shocks like war and shooting and revolution and inflation, things which every child is afraid of. For days our only safe place from airplane shooting was the cellar. I didn’t dare to go from one room to the other because I was afraid to go alone over the floor. You know, this kind of thing can make you sick for your whole life long or it can make you strong, and this fight made me think and this fight brought me to the bad or good which is in me.
 
   SO I am sixteen and I start out and I am full of ideals. Well, I tell you my life hasn’t changed for a dime. In me the same thoughts and ideals live which then lived, and which I have have built up in myself as long as I can think. I had to compromise, yes, and every compromise made me unhappy. But I have not compromised with myself. Only with the outside. The day I compromise with myself – ” she leaned from her corner and a small fist struck her palm – “I guess I have to commit suicide. And this means never. Because,” she said, with a kind of amused grimness, “I do not dream to commit suicide.
   “Maybe,” she continued more quietly, “this sounds high-hatted to say I am strong. I am not high-hatted. How is it possible that your hat grows high if you have your eyes open? Because there is always another thing to reach to and another thing, and when you have reached that, and when you have reached the highest height of an actress, there is always far, far above you an Einstein or a Toscanini. Why I am strong is very simple to explain. Because I know so strong what I want. And what is that? To make out of yourself the best what can be made of yourself in everything, in life as in work. And nobody else can tell you how to do that, isn’t it so?”
   Suddenly she laughed. “It is funny. On the one side, I say I am strong. On the other side I must admit, if you ask me, that it hurts me if people think bad about me. Isn’t it id-yotic? Because everybody cannot think good. I know it. Yet everybody matters to me. Everybody in the whole world can hurt me. It is so easy for me to have an inferiority complex. If I have nine hundred and ninety-nine good notices and one bad one, you can be sure I have the bad one in my pocketbook. The good ones I overfly. (Ed. note:- skim through.) Mr. Odets always laughs about that. ‘Why do you laugh?’ I tell him. ‘You love me. That is why you think everything is good I am doing. This man does not love me. So it must be something bad I am doing.”
   Then her face cleared. “The only thing I don’t read, and what doesn’t bother me is the gossip column. They can write about me what they want to. It doesn’t matter. Once, yes, I did read. One day I saw my test.  Somebody asked me, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘All right.’ Because that person on the screen is to me not me but an actress. Shall I say always she is bad because her name is Luise Rainer? Somebody heard it and wrote, ‘Luise Rainer thinks she is kolossal.’ I laugh because I know I do not think it. They say, ‘She must be thirty.’ I am not hurt, because to be thirty is first not a crime in America, and anyway, this is something I know. I know I am not thirty. But I do not know, am I a good actress.
   “Still, if something hurts me, I can bear it. Even if they would say, well, she’s a rotten actress and if they would throw me out of the whole America, all right, they can do it, and surely I will not like it, but I will still go on being what I am. This is the real something, what is deep within me and what nobody can touch. I mustn’t be an actress. Of course I love to act, but if they don’t let me there million things in life you can do and do good.
   “This, that I am an actress, is something secondary to me. I was never longing for that which they call glamor. For glamor I don’t give a dime. To be a human is so much more important. And that will come through if I make stitches in a cushion;” she seized one and thumped it, “or what my hands find to do,” she cried, flinging it down again.
   You couldn’t have listened and remained unconvinced. These were no airy theories, whisked out at a moment’s notice as a sop to publicity, but a philosophy painfully arrived at, intensely felt, solidly rooted. Nor was her object to convince me . What I believed was up to me. But “whatever you do, you must do it good,” she had cried. So she was “doing good” the job she had undertaken of explaining herself. In fact, she was doing so nobly from my point of view that I couldn’t help wondering about her rumored reluctance to grant interviews. GE Poster 1
   SHE answered that with the same willingness and clarity and candor she had shown throughout. “In my country,” she said, “You work very hard and you don’t get so many rewards. People are now bowling – how do you say? – bowing? I thought always bow-ling! People are not bowing to you all the time. When I came here I was surprised. I didn’t understand what are these interviews.  For publicity, they told me, for advertising. So people will know you. But they will know me through my work, if they like it. I don’t want to make my way through that. I don’t want a success that goes – swish! – up and then down. I want to find for myself what I am in this country, without publicity.
   “That is why, in the beginning, when I was nobody in America, I did not give interviews. Today I allow myself to give a few. Because people have been so kind to like my work. I stand now on my feet her as an actress, and the rest is no more so important. Does it sound proud? It is then only the proudness of an honest shoeman in his shoes.
   “And still I think, if you do the best work you can and spend the other life you have left in not thinking about yourself, but taking new things into yourself, it is more important than any interview. My acting I give to who wants it. The rest I would give to my husband and those few who love me. This is three-quarters of myself, what I give to the fans. They should please leave me the last quarter.” Her voice had turned almost pleading, her face very sweet and serious. Then a little coaxing smile flickered ’round her lips. “And they should please not be angry with me.”
   I asked what the Academy Award had meant to her. She raised her lashes and I caught a hint of mischief in her eyes. “I am very thankful,” she said. “For a couple of weeks I have no more my inferiority complex.”
   “You see,” she said, “the last thing I did was this ugly little woman, O-Lan. Beautiful inside, but ugly outside. Each time I look at myself I think, ‘No man in the world could like you again.’ So the complex becomes always more inferior. Then I was supposed to do this – ‘The Emperor’s Candlesticks,’ my next picture. William Powell got lost in the woods, nobody could find him, so I said, well, if he gets lost in the woods, I make a trip in my car.” Gone was the serious mood of a moment ago. Now she was having fun.
   “So I took my husband and we both went to see a piece of the country and we were very happy, and we saw the redwoods and Carmel and a piece of San Francisco, and we were lying in Santa Barbara on the beach – see, I am all sunburned. Then we came back late in the evening and my maid grabbed me. ‘Miss Rainer, Miss Rainer, you are back. Mr. Mannix called, Mr. Mayer called, Mr. Capra called. They send the police behind you.’ ‘What’s the matter?’ I said. ‘What can happen? They didn’t start the picture yet.’ ‘I don’t know what’s the matter,’ she told me,’but the telephone doesn’t stop.’
   “Then again it rings and a friend of us tells to Mr. Odets, ‘Well, you better look out. The grapevine -‘ is there such a grapevine? – ‘the grapevine says Luise probably gets the Award.’ I say, ‘It’s nonsense.’ Mr. Odets says, ‘Well, darling, what do you want? Do you want to go to this banquette?’ ‘But I cannot go like that. I am burned with the sun. Look, I have a head like a balloon.’
   ” ‘You are beautiful,’ he said. He is my husband, you must excuse him. ‘You look so healthy,’ he said. ‘But I am afraid, I am embarrassed.’ ‘They will think you are high-hatted.’ So we chase down in a taxi. And I was afraid, and I was embarrassed, but deeply thankful, too, so I don’t know how to look. But now when I see my little statue I say, ‘Go away, complex. I don’t give a dime for you.’ Sometimes he goes, sometimes he stays,” she shrugged.
 
   I CLOSED my book. “You are finished? Then I must tell you one thing, and I want you to print it, because I come in many funny situations, especially lately, through certain circumstances. It is about politic.” I pricked up my ears, beginning to realize that the “certain circumstances” had to do with her marriage. Because Odets’ plays reveal him as an enlightened and compassionate thinker, in tune with his times, the undiscerning have tagged him radical.
   “I never had anything to do with politic,” said his wife, “and I don’t dare to give any remark on politic because it would be id-y-otic everything I say. But I do not believe in women having to do with politic. This I leave to my husband. I deeply believe that women should shut up in politic and better be womanly. I know that I make with this remark new enemies but I cannot help it.  Maybe I am a rebel in this, too,” she smiled, “that my husband’s happiness means more to me than success. I am only happy if he is happy, and happiness and success – ” her eyes looked off into space – “they haven’t much to do with each other,” she concluded gently.
   My first impression of her innate simplicity, I knew now, was the true one, and her leap to the pinnacle of movie fame has changed her only in this – to intensify her appreciation of the genuine, her hatred of sham.
   I had always thought of her as a gay and charming child, despite her perfect identification with the woman O-lan. Now I began to understand how she had been able to sink herself so completely in the role. I think it was because she understood O-lan with her heart because she shares with her O-lan’s essential grace. “To be human is so much more important,” she had cried. Like O-lan, I think she knows how to be human and to be it “good.”
For more original magazine articles and interviews with Luise Rainer click here.