BFI Southbank, 17th January 2010
As part of Luise Rainer’s 100th birthday celebrations the British Film Institute (BFI) presented a double bill of The Good Earth and The Great Waltz at their home on London’s South Bank on Sunday 17th January 2010. The BFI, established in 1933, exists to promote the understanding and appreciation of film and does so with over 1000 film screenings a year, alongside events, festivals, premieres and on-stage interviews with film practitioners. Their National Archive holds nearly half a million individual film and television programmes as well as millions of photographs and posters and is the biggest such collection in the world. Both prints shown on this occasion were taken from this archive.
Luise was in the audience for both screenings and in between the two she took some time to answer questions from the audience on a range of subjects. Although I can’t give an accurate transcription of all that was said I will set out, below, to offer an insight into the discussion and interview.
The day started at 3.00pm with the screening of The Good Earth. It had been confirmed only the previous day that Luise would be attending the event, however, may of the audience were unaware that she would be there and she received a round of spontaneous applause as she entered the auditorium. She was elegantly dressed in a beige outfit, with matching skullcap, and acknowledged the response with a smile and a wave as she made her way to her seat in the front row. Despite being just a week over 100 years old and walking with the aid of a stick (and a helping hand) she looked vibrant. As she settled down into the front row she raised her hands above her head and gave another vigorous wave. Luise was accompanied by the writer Richard Stirling (whose previous articles about Luise have appeared in Hello! magazine (1997) and The Scotsman newspaper (2010)) and he gave a brief introduction before settling down for the film.
Amazingly, both films screened at this event are not readily available in the UK on DVD (The Good Earth is available on region 1 DVD from the USA) so to see them on the big screen was a real treat. (As each film is discussed at length elsewhere on this site I won’t go into them here). After the film there was a short comfort break before Luise returned to face the audience for a short interview. Upon sitting Luise greeted the crowd with, “I am still alive!”, not only a reference to her age, but to the final scene of the film we’d just seen when ‘O-lan’ finally succumbs to her illness. She admitted that this had been the first time in 50 years that she had seen the film and lamented that she doesn’t understand why such beautiful films are no longer made. She was aksed if she had a good birthday to which she smiled cheekily and said, “Oh yes! It was too much, too much!” and then recalled requesting a Bloody Mary when she arrived for the day’s screenings. Although suffering from profound hearing loss Luise was more than willing to take questions from the crowd, in fact, when Richard Stirling went to ask another question she interrupted him, “I don’t want you to ask me any more. I want them to ask me,” gesturing towards us. That forthright feistiness that so upset Louis B. Mayer is still there.
And so, for about 30 minutes we had the chance to ask of Luise what we wished, each question relayed to her by Richard and almost all met with a full and honest response. Only two questions were not answered with Luise’s usual candour; the first from a lady who wished to know if Paul Muni (her co-star in The Good Earth) was as charming off-screen as he seemed in the film. To this Luise’s eyes twinkled mischievously and with a shrug of the shoulders she didn’t say a word. This amusing masquerade was met with laughter, heightened only when Luise finally offered, after a dramatic pause, “I have answered it!” A similar response occurred when asked about Fellini’s proposal that she appear in La dolce vita. Luise spoke a little about how she wrote herself a scenario but refused to say why she did not make the film, not because she didn’t want to, but seemingly because she felt it too lurid a tale to tell. This fits with the most common story that Fellini wished to have her in a sex scene with Marcello Mastroianni, which she refused as not in character.
For the rest of the session Luise was happy to discuss everything from her work with Reinhardt to Bertolt Brecht, and both of her marriages, to Clifford Odets (“a great man”) and Robert Knittel (“an angel! an angel!”). In one memorable anecdote she described how, whilst on tour with Reinhardt’s company in Switzerland, she fell down a trapdoor in the stage, only to return, in character to give a perfect performance. She remembered that Reinhardt, upon seeing her acting said, “Rainer,” (she pronounced this with an exaggerated rolling ‘R’ in an impersonation of the man himself), “How do you do that?”. Luise remembers this as the biggest compliment she ever received, which meant so much, coming from one she so respected as an artist. She admitted that she did not know what an Oscar was when she arrived in America and that they meant very little to her, certainly less than such an honour from Max Reinhardt. On the other side of this coin there was the attitude of her father whom she recalled was not too pleased about his daughter’s choice of career. When asked if he changed his opinions after her success she simply said, “He loved me very much, but…NO!”
On acting Luise expressed that she always felt she had to give, from the inside out, to find the truth. When asked if she had been inspired by any actresses whilst growing up she reconfirmed that, for her, it was not about achieving status as a famous actress, but that she was inspired only by the work itself, reading plays and being drawn in by the writing. On her work at MGM she recounted her unhappiness and the feeling of being “a horse in a stable” under the power of Louis B. Mayer. She expressed dissatisfaction with many of her films made after the double Oscar win, but when asked if there were any roles she would have liked to play she confessed that there were a few which she regretted missing out on, including a biopic of Madame Curie (eventually played by Greer Garson in 1943) and, surprsingly, a version of John Patrick’s Love is a Many Splendored Thing (filmed in 1955 with Jennifer Jones).
With time at a premium the Q&A was brought to a close to prepare for the next film, The Great Waltz. Although it was announced that Luise would be leaving before or during the film as “she would like to have her supper”, in fact, she stayed until the end. Perhaps she realised that she had not seen this film for even longer than the first. What she was thinking as she watched that young woman up on the screen is for Luise alone to know, but I felt privileged to be in that audience to share it with her. Throughout the day it was wonderful to see that her expressiveness has not waned. Each answer was met with an emphatic reaction; a roll of the eyes or a flamboyant fling of the arm; it was refreshing to see that Luise still feels so passionate about her life and work.
When the curtain finally came down on The Great Waltz there was another spontaneous applause and standing ovation. Luise made her way to the exit, but, with her customary vigour, she turned her head back slightly and, with her luminous smile, she blew a farewell kiss.