On Jan. 12 of the fast-approaching New Year, the enduringly mysterious Luise Rainer turns 100 years old. Almost four years ago the Siren wrote one of her first true marathon posts on this actress, gaining in the process a great deal of respect and affection for her. She was talented, intellectual and free-spirited, and therefore a problematic fit for Hollywood in that age or this. But the Siren treasures those who refuse to let busted stardom crush them altogether. Rainer did what she could, and when that ebbed, she moved on and created another life, a fine one.
The Siren points out that in celebration of this birthday of one of the last of the great stars from the glory days, Turner Classic Movies will screen a marathon of Luise movies. The Siren recommends: The Great Ziegfeld (Rainer's scene is indeed quite special); The Good Earth (her finest performance and a moving film); and Big City (very good, gritty social drama with Spencer Tracy in fine form, directed by Frank Borzage and that last bit alone should make you set the DVR). The Great Waltz (directed by David Cairns' beloved Julien Duvivier) has definite, batty charms as well. The one going on the Siren's DVR will be The Emperor's Candlesticks. William Powell is always, wonderfully William Powell.
Here, then, for those who missed it the first time around, is The Luck of Luise, which the Siren now subtitles: We Should All Be So Cursed. It has been revised and updated to account for certain things like my not wanting to go off on the Golden Globes again, I've now seen Big City and Luise was just fine, and The Good Earth is out on DVD.
P.S. On an unrelated note, if you are near a newstand this month and happen to see a copy of the January GQ--that would be the one with a half-naked Rihanna--please consider buying it and turning to page 32. There is, I admit, no naked Rihanna on that page, but you will find me listed as critic Tom Caron's "Fave Film Blogger." The Siren is tickled to death at the honor and thanks Tom profusely, although she hopes finding out her real identity wasn't truly as big a letdown as finding out that Kissinger wasn't Deep Throat.
The start of the annual awards season has the Siren contemplating the mysteries of awards in general. So let's talk about Luise Rainer, the most famous double-Oscar-winning flameout in the history of Hollywood. Her career couldn't even be termed a brief candle--more like the brilliance and timespan of a bottle rocket.
On Jan. 12, Ms. Rainer turns 100 years old, bless her. The last time she showed at the Oscars, in 2002, she looked astonishingly good, as you can see from the photo here. When her Hollywood career was finished, she married a wealthy publisher and retired, and she now lives in London's Belgravia, surely one of the world's most beautiful neighborhoods. So obviously, Luise is doing much better than all right. That she made so few movies is our loss, but happily it doesn't seem to have been hers.
Born in Vienna in 1910 (some accounts say 1912, and others claim she was born in Dusseldorf, Germany), she was brought to Hollywood by MGM. Apparently in the mid-1930s, MGM was full of talent scouts who heard a European accent of any sort and immediately thought, "the successor to Garbo!" L.B. Mayer often used an up-and-comer as a none-too-subtle threat to an established star. (For years, Rosalind Russell was the threat behind Myrna Loy, unlikely as that sounds. Russell recalled an occasion when she was being fitted for a costume. Loy walked in and said "They signed my contract," and Russell had to disrobe on the spot. Fortunately, they were friends and could joke about it.)
So the dark, elfin Viennese came to California to line up behind the blonde, chiseled Swede like a taxi in front of a hotel. For a while she was given no roles but then, according to film historian David Shipman, Myrna Loy declined Escapade and Rainer was given the part. (Where was Russell?) The movie was forgettable, but Rainer photographed well, and the studio decided to cast her as Anna Held, The Great Ziegfeld's first wife.
The Siren enjoys The Great Ziegfeld (1936), though when she remembers it won the Academy Award for Best Picture over Modern Times she does tend to put hand to forehead. Rainer has an astonishingly short role, with but one evergreen scene. She calls Flo Ziegfeld (William Powell) on the telephone, to congratulate him on his marriage to Billie Burke (Myrna Loy). She still loves him, but she's determined to maintain her dignity. He tells her he's happy. She says she's happy, too. Tears pouring down her face, smiling all the while, Anna remarks on how funny it is, two former spouses "telling each other how 'appy we are."
Consider now what the Oscars were like in 1937, the year Rainer won. The dinner was open to favored members of the press but was nothing like the lavish stage show we see now. Stars were usually filmed for newsreels after the ceremony, giving canned versions of their speeches. Extras were permitted to vote, which they did in huge numbers, resulting, some say, in ex-extra Walter Brennan's extraordinary run--as Shipman put it, three Oscars, one performance. MGM also commanded a hefty bloc of people on its payroll who, essentially, voted as their bosses wanted them to. The power of that bloc endured for years.
Rainer got her award in the first year the Supporting Actress category was added, but MGM nominated her for a leading role anyway. It was the most powerful studio in town, and its brass did as they pleased. The telephone scene is nicely played, but I doubt most people nowadays would grant it an Oscar. But win Rainer did, over Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey, among others.
In later years, Rainer would claim the first award was no lucky break, but a harbinger of career doom.
David Shipman's essay on Luise Rainer starts with an anecdote about Raymond Chandler preparing to go to an Oscar ceremony. The writer, no fan of Hollywood, still was nervous over his nomination for Double Indemnity. His wife told him to relax, that an Oscar was no big deal--"after all, Luise Rainer won it twice."
Since Rainer left Hollywood in 1940, judgments on her career have fallen into two categories. Mrs. Chandler summarizes one line of thinking, echoed here--Rainer was a zealously promoted, so-so actress whose Oscar wins over the likes of Lombard, Garbo, Dunne and Stanwyck are an enduring mystery. The other you can find here and here, with Luise described as an early Hollywood rebel, a great talent whose intellect couldn't suffer the film colony gladly.
After spending the week looking at all the Luise material she could find, the Siren thinks Luise was a little of both. She didn't blaze off the screen like a Crawford or a Garbo, but on the strength of her best performance, she surely could have had a long, productive career if the cards had turned a little differently.
In 2003, before appearing in a line-up of former Academy Award winners, Rainer gave an interview to the BBC, describing the night in 1937 when she won her first Oscar. Her endearing catalogue of small disasters involves a breathless maid, an oversized mattress sent by her father-in-law and a spat on the way to the banquet that forced her to ask the driver to circle the block a few times so she could pull herself together and go inside.
The squabble was with playwright (and Barton Fink model) Clifford Odets, whom Rainer had married earlier that year. It would not be the last time he caused her grief. Whatever you think of Odets as a playwright, as a husband his desirable qualities were less in evidence, such as when he carried on an affair with the luckless Frances Farmer. (While few would name Odets as the source of Farmer's legendary instability, there appears to be consensus that he sure as hell didn't help.)
Despite the home situation, Rainer's career was at its apex. Soon after her first Oscar she won the role of Olan in Irving Thalberg's swan song, The Good Earth. The decision broke the heart of Anna May Wong, the stunning Chinese-American actress who tested several times for the role. But once Rainer's fellow Austrian Paul Muni was cast as Olan's husband, Wong could not play the part without triggering the wrath of the Hays Office. High on that useless body's list of things it didn't want Americans seeing was on-screen miscegenation, actual or depicted. Anna couldn't even get the secondary role of the concubine Lotus, and had to watch that go to yet another Austrian, and a dancer at that, Tilly Losch. As a result the movie gives the odd impression that Chinese women tend to sound German. (Some secondary roles are played by Asian actors, notably the wonderful Keye Luke as the Elder Son.)
This sad casting history, and the offense a later age feels at Caucasian actors in yellowface, have marred The Good Earth's reputation. The Siren hopes that won't submerge it entirely; it was released on DVD in 2006. The movie is a dazzling piece of old-style filmmaking, the definition of the sort of epic we shall not see again, and at times it is very moving, due in large part to Rainer's performance.
The Siren's knowledge of Chinese history is pitifully inadequate, but she suspects, suspects mind you, that The Good Earth is not a lifelike depiction of Chinese peasants before the rise of Mao. She respectfully suggests that the film shouldn't be judged that way. The art direction by Cedric Gibbons and the costumes are beautiful, and Karl Freund's cinematography is astounding. This is an archetypal story of peasants fighting against nature and their own baser impulses. It has more in common with Laura Ingalls Wilder's novels or even Renoir's The Southerner than it probably does with, say, some of the Chinese talkies that Filmbrain has written about.
Rainer's method of conveying Chinese-ness relies less on broad strokes and indication than Muni's. Her makeup is minimal, leaving her eyes unhampered for the camera. The stoic Olan, deeply in love with her selfish husband, is given sparse dialogue. And so Rainer's performance has effects similar to the best silent acting, with emotion conveyed by the flicker of an eyelid or the position of a hand. Her greatest moments come during the long, agonizing famine scenes. Her character is often derided as a doormat, but look at the scene where Olan gives birth as the family is starving. There is a brief cry, then silence. Rainer appears and tell Muni their child is dead. "But I heard a cry ..." Muni begins. "The child is dead," replies Rainer, with an intensity that silences her husband in mid-sentence.
Convinced she couldn't possibly win two years in a row, Rainer opted to stay home on Oscar night in 1938. Then came another phone call, and another headlong rush to the banquet. In photos from that night she looks almost as though she's still panting. Her win came, notoriously, over contenders that included Garbo for Camille. Despite her high regard for Rainer's performance, the Siren herself would have voted for Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth. To this day, however, Oscar tends to go home with someone who's perceived to have tackled a "difficult" role--meaning, heart-rendingly dramatic and preferably something that requires the actress to look plain, or at least de-glammed. The Academy evidently decided that for a Hollywood actress, a starving peasant is more of a stretch than a kept woman.
Rainer rounded out the year with The Emperor's Candlesticks (some titles seem designed to warn you off, don't they?) and Frank Borzage's The Big City with Spencer Tracy. She made little box-office impression in either, although the Siren can attest that she's swell in the Borzage. Shipman says Rainer, with two Oscars for support, asked MGM for more money. I haven't been able to track down whether she got it, but the fact that she disappeared for part of 1938 suggests "no." On hiatus at the very time she should have been expanding upon her success, Rainer finally made The Toy Wife.
The Siren caught this one a few years ago on Turner Classic Movies. Rather than the fiery Southern belle you get in Jezebel or that Selznick movie, in this one you get Southern Belle Version 2.0, the doomed variety. Rainer's character is named Frou Frou, in imitation of the sound her skirts make. She was educated in Paris and returns to her native New Orleans with a German accent. She marries Melvyn Douglas, but has an affair with Robert Taylor, and for whatever reason, Rainer was about 100 times more convincing as a Chinese peasant. The one moment where the Siren thought she saw an actress was a scene where Frou Frou's small son comes to wake her up. She bounces around on the bed and plays with him, and in this small moment displays an unaffected sparkle that she never summons again, not in this movie.
She finally got another hit with The Great Waltz, Julien Duvivier's venture into the MGM musical. Or is operetta? or biopic? or historical romance? The movie is so transcendently weird that you can take your pick. My favorite interpretation so far is the IMDB review that insists the movie is a political allegory about the Anschluss. Well, The Great Waltz has at least as much to do with the Anschluss as it does with the life of Johann Strauss. As the wife, Rainer did a good job with what the script gave her. Unfortunately, the script left her to dangle her bonnet and mope after Fernand Gravet's Strauss as he pursues Miliza Korjus and composes waltz after waltz. Luise had the billing, but Korjus got to help compose "Tales from the Vienna Woods" in a single carriage ride.
The next movie, Dramatic School, was intended as a showcase for Rainer. It flopped. Rainer was given six months' leave, Shipman says, to visit Odets and prop up their shaky marriage. Her contract was not renewed. She did a couple of plays in London and returned to Hollywood in 1939. There was no way Rainer, Jewish and proudly left-wing, would go back to Europe, but the months slipped past with no roles in sight. In 1940 she returned to New York with Odets, divorcing him later that year.
Shipman says "her potential was exhausted." Later writers would say that L.B. Mayer offered Rainer a series of roles that were beneath her. Rainer, they say, became frustrated with the sheer dumbness of Hollywood, a place "where clothes were a major preoccupation."
Hollywood bored her right out of a career. Plausible. But, to quote the lyrics from a song by an intelligent composer who did just fine in movies, it ain't necessarily so. When the Siren hears someone--particularly a German-speaking actress--calling the Hollywood of 1940 an intellectual Sahara, her eyebrows just about disappear into her hairline. By that year the film community was awash with refugees, including some of the century's finest European minds. Many of them met regularly at the home of Garbo's favorite screenwriter, the Austrian Salka Viertel. If Luise had wangled an invitation (and surely two Oscars at least got you that) she could have chatted up Arnold Schoenberg, Thomas Mann, Heinrich Mann, Erich Maria Remarque, Gina Kaus, Bruno & Liesl Frank, Berlin Alexanderplatz novelist Alfred Döblin and Grand Hotel author Vicki Baum. If she had stuck around until December she might have encountered Alma Mahler-Werfel and husband Franz Werfel. Bertholt Brecht arrived the next year.
Anyhow, you see my point. The idea that there was nothing in Hollywood to interest an intellectual and politically engaged woman doesn't wash. Especially if you have seen The Toy Wife.
Her marriage over, Rainer spent the war years doing the occasional play and selling war bonds. In 1943 she did a movie at Paramount, Hostages. The Resistance drama did not rekindle interest in her. She didn't make another movie until 1997's The Gambler. She married publisher Robert Knittel, returned with him to Europe after the war, and by all accounts has led a contented life.
There is a sting, however, in her latter-day remarks about Hollywood, one that suggests some regret. Her IMDB bio quotes her saying in 1997, "I was dreaming naturally like anyone to do something very good, but after I got the two Academy Awards the studio thought, it doesn't matter what she gets. They threw all kinds of stuff on me, and I thought, no, I didn't want to be an actress."
Though Rainer has, admirably, never emphasized this, her marriage to Odets couldn't have come at a worse time. There's nothing like a turbulent personal life to bleed a career. You can deduce, too, that in addition to her scorn for the sucking-up a Hollywood career thrives on, Rainer may not have been all velvet to work with. Lana Turner's autobiography described Rainer holding up production on the set of Dramatic School. Federico Fellini wanted Rainer for a part in La Dolce Vita, but she asked for rewrites and he abandoned the idea. Demanding rewrites from the director of La Strada suggests, shall we say, a certain perfectionism.
Curses make for cute headlines, but lousy analysis. The Hope diamond didn't doom Harry Winston, the discoverer of King Tutankhamen's tomb died in bed, and Rainer's career was undone by a combination of bad timing, a bad husband and some bad choices. She made only eight movies in the 1930s. She's pretty good in three of them and very good indeed in one more. Looking at the chic, beautiful old woman as she stands in a line-up of past Oscar winners, her confidence evident in every line of her carriage, the Siren concludes that Luise was lucky indeed.