| 17.9°C Dublin

Forgotten screen diva Luise Rainer dies at 104


Luise Rainer

Luise Rainer

Luise Rainer

Luise Rainer

Luise Rainer in 'Escapade'

Luise Rainer in 'Escapade'


Luise Rainer

Luise Rainer, who died last Tuesday aged 104, won Oscars for Best Actress in successive years, in 1936 and 1937, the first ever to do so, but six years later quit Hollywood in a huff and did not make another film for 54 years.

A tough negotiator with a reputation for being "difficult", she made many enemies in the film industry. She scorned the saccharine parts in which MGM regularly cast her and would have no truck with studio boss Louis B Mayer's preferred method of contract discussion - seated on his knee. She did not fit in pre-war Hollywood and made only eight movies there. When she left, no tears were shed.

She was an ultra-emotional actress, a high priestess of the cult of smiling through tears. She won her first Academy Award for her virtuoso performance in The Great Ziegfeld (1936) as the impresario Florenz Ziegfeld's first wife, Anna Held. The part was small and in later years would doubtless have been considered a supporting role. Mayer tried to dissuade her from appearing in it, but she insisted that there was one scene that she could turn into something memorable.

This was the so-called "telephone scene", in which Anna congratulates Ziegfeld on his second marriage to Billie Burke, concealing her own misery behind a pose of jaunty insouciance. Only when she hangs up do the tears finally break through. Rainer claimed she wrote it herself, drawing on Cocteau's La Voix Humaine.

The scene might have ended up on the cutting-room floor. When the finished film ran for four hours, Mayer's first thought was to throw out a sequence that he considered was delaying the entry of the dancing girls. But the producer, Hunt Stromberg, argued strongly in its favour and, for once, Mayer was persuaded to change his mind.

Nobody expected Luise to take the Oscar, but, not for the first or last time, members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences let their hearts rule their heads. They did it again in 1937, when she was named Best Actress for her performance as a long-suffering Chinese peasant in The Good Earth (she would later use the statuette as a doorstop). It was regarded as evidence of a remarkable range. Yet she never looked or sounded Chinese. She registered as what she was - a winsome European with saucer eyes, a moon face and an air of infinite endurance. Those whose hearts she touched melted in sympathy; others were content to dub her "the Viennese teardrop". In fact, however, this was a misconception. She had been born in Germany, but as war in Europe grew ever more likely in the 1930s, MGM chose to soft-pedal her German birth and promote her as Austrian.

MGM never found another movie that Luise Rainer considered worthy of her talents. And in this conviction she was egged on by her first husband, the playwright Clifford Odets, with whom she shared a stormy three-year marriage from 1937 to 1940.

Jealous of her career and friendships, he exercised a baleful influence on her, encouraging her self-destructive instincts. Without him, she might have reached an accommodation with Hollywood instead of flouncing off into premature delusions of grandeur. Nearly eight decades later, her second Oscar-winning performance in The Good Earth has lasted less well than that of her defeated rival, Greta Garbo, in Camille.

Luise Rainer was a gifted actress with a limited range, but let nobody underestimate her charms. In youth she had features to make even the most hard-boiled tremble. Unfortunately, she became known too soon for a sense of her own importance, which her career had yet to confirm. It stayed with her all her days. In later life, in semi-retirement in London, she embarked on her memoirs, taking 200 pages to deal with her first 22 years - at the end of which she was still a starlet in the inter-war German cinema.

To compile her magnum opus (later abandoned), Luise Rainer kept extensive records of everything that might be relevant, including a master file headed "Persons who have corresponded with Luise Rainer". They ranged from George Gershwin to Bertolt Brecht, Luchino Visconti to Tennessee Williams.

She insisted that talent, even if left fallow for many years, does not disappear. And in a sense she was right. When, in 1997, she was persuaded to come out of cinematic retirement and appear in a movie once more - Karoly Makk's The Gambler, based on a story by Dostoevsky - she proved every bit the professional and the grande dame of yore. Aged 85 and portraying an old Russian aristocrat obsessed by gambling, she used every wrinkle, every dart of the eye, to bring the character to life and dominate the screen in the few scenes in which she appeared. By modern standards it was an over-the-top performance, but a jaw-dropping demonstration of what had once passed for great acting.

She was born, as she later admitted, not in Vienna but in Dusseldorf on January 12, 1910, and brought up in Hamburg. Her background was well-to-do. Her father ran an import-export business in oil and soya beans and travelled extensively. During her childhood, Luise Rainer changed school eight times. While in Dallas, her father took American citizenship, which was later to save his life. Married to a Jew, he was arrested early in the war and sent to a concentration camp. Only the fact that he was technically an American secured his release. His daughter, by then a big Hollywood star, was given the status of honorary Aryan, but she still featured in the Encyclopaedia Judaica, the Nazi list of prominent Jewish artists.

Luise's father exercised a firm control over the family and disapproved strongly of her desire to become an actress - regarding it as tantamount to prostitution, he threw her out of the house, she claimed, when she was only 16 and she was forced to beg for apples and eggs. Corroborative evidence, however, has never been found, and much of her early history was recorded from interviews in her 80s at the time of her screen "comeback".

Expelled from her father's house, she went to live with her grandparents and presented herself at the Louise Dumont Theatre in Dusseldorf, asking for a job for the next season. This is how she liked to recall it: she was granted an audition, played a scene from Schiller's Joan of Arc, was immediately signed up, and within months was starring in Frank Wedekind's notorious sexual melodrama Spring Awakening.

In this part she was so striking that the great Max Reinhardt summoned her to Vienna, where she appeared in plays by Pirandello, Shakespeare and others. As she told it, it was like a fairy tale, and a carefully shaped one. She scored a big hit, too, with the playwright Ernst Toller, who was much smitten by her charms. Alas, he was but one of many. "Toller was nothing to me but a man," she admitted. "I was in my teens and his fame didn't mean anything to me. But I had no room for him because there were so many other men in love with me at the time."

One of them, apparently, was especially gallant. When an MGM talent scout spotted her in Vienna and invited her for a screen test in London, she packed two left shoes in haste and did not discover the error until she was already halfway across the Channel. Since she was too poor to replace it, and would not accept a gift from strangers, a besotted Dutchman sailed straight back, retrieved the missing shoe and presented it to her in a basket. Cinderella could have asked for no more.

Between 1930 and 1933 she had appeared in a few German films, beginning with a short, Ja, der Himmel uber Wien in 1930, followed by Sehnsuch, 202 (1932) and Heut' kommt's drauf an (1933), a musical with Hans Albers about a jazz contest. Her screen career took off, however, when she signed with MGM and transferred to Hollywood.

Her first American film, Escapade (1935), opposite William Powell, was a remake of an Austrian production, Maskerade, but was considered too slavish an imitation and was not successful. She got the part only when Myrna Loy, who was to have starred, pulled out. At first, Louis B Mayer was reluctant to give her star billing; but he eventually agreed under pressure from William Powell, an immensely popular actor with considerable clout at the time.

Escapade was followed by her two Oscar-winning roles. But thereafter MGM was at a loss to know how to cast her. Guessing that the Powell/Rainer combination was what the public wanted to see, it rushed them into a romantic spy melodrama, The Emperor's Candlesticks, in 1937, but it proved a miscalculation. No better was Big City (her third film of 1937), in which she was the long-suffering wife of Spencer Tracy's New York cabbie.

In 1938 Luise Rainer made three more films, of which only The Great Waltz - a fictionalised account of the life of Johann Strauss - suited her talents. She played Strauss's dewy-eyed wife who loses him to a glamorous diva, played by Miliza Korjus ("rhymes with gorgeous", as contemporary trailers had it). A cream cake of a movie, it was Luise Rainer's only film to approach the ultra-sweet charm of The Great Ziegfeld. Also in that year, she was miscast as a Southern belle in The Toy Wife, with Melvyn Douglas, and appeared in Dramatic School. After that she was granted six months' leave of absence to try to patch up her failing marriage to Clifford Odets. There were rumours of early retirement, and MGM did not renew her contract.

In 1939 she appeared on the stage - first in London with a production of Behold the Bride, then on Broadway in a revival of A Kiss for Cinderella, which flopped. She returned to Hollywood, but no studio was interested in an MGM cast-off. It took her until 1943 to win another part, this time for Paramount, in Hostages. But it proved just another Resistance story that sank at the box office. After that, she dropped out of movies until 1997, except for a 28-minute short in 1988 made especially for video. Called A Dancer, it was a dramatic piece in which she played a dance teacher reunited with a lover she had not seen for 30 years.

Luise Rainer did not formally retire, but lived largely in seclusion in London with her second husband, Robert Knittel, a publisher with Jonathan Cape who later became editorial director for Collins. She made few professional appearances in London, turning up unexpectedly in two television productions in 1950, By Candlelight and The Seagull, and later in a BBC television play, The Stone Face. In 1978 an exhibition of her paintings was held at the Seale Gallery.

Sporadically she returned to the stage, achieving notable successes in 1952 in New York with The Lady from the Sea and in 1960 in Vienna with a revival of The Little Foxes. In 1981 and 1983 she scored a personal triumph with a one-woman touring performance of Tennyson's 900-line poem Enoch Arden.

Luise Rainer's life was so colourful it was sometimes hard to tell where reality ended and fable began. A casual meeting with Albert Einstein on Long Island Sound allegedly drove her jealous first husband Odets to snip the physicist's face out of a photograph. She also claimed that Brecht wrote The Caucasian Chalk Circle expressly for her but she turned it down; and when Federico Fellini pressed her to take a cameo role in La Dolce Vita in 1960, she turned him down, too, because he insisted that she must play a sex scene with Marcello Mastroianni.

Luise Rainer's second husband Robert Knittel, with whom she had a daughter, died in 1989. For the last 25 years she had lived in relative seclusion in an elegant flat in Belgravia.

Sunday Independent