LUISE RAINER REVISITS HER OLD DOMAIN
The Hollywood career of Luise Rainer is sometimes cited to prove that Oscar can be a jinx, as if that famous gold statuette can fetch calamity as well as prosperity.
It is true that Rainer received unprecedented back-to-back Academy Awards as best actress, for “The Great Ziegfeld” in 1936 and “The Good Earth” in 1937. It is also true that within half a dozen years she had fled Hollywood for the sanctuary of the New York stage and then for England and her native Europe and a new life.
But the problem, she explained during a brief revisit to Los Angeles last week, was not dear Oscar or even the movies as such, but a discordant marriage to the playwright Clifford Odets. They were married from 1937 to 1940, and it sounds like the script of a bad film.
“He didn’t want me to work, and that made me utterly sad,” Rainer says. “I was young and full of life and I was determined to become the greatest actress of all time. But I couldn’t handle a career and the problems of a disastrous marriage.”
She is now 77 and has lived for seven years in Switzerland, near the Italian border, with her husband of 42 years, Robert Knitter, the retired managing director of Collins, a major publishing house in London, where they lived until his retirement. (“Forty-two years--no one can believe it; neither can I,” she says.)
They were invited to Los Angeles for the “Happy Birthday Hollywood” pageant over the weekend, and seized the opportunity to visit their married daughter, Francesca Boyer, who lives and works in Los Angeles.
It has been said that her roles after the Academy Awards were not as choice, yet they included “The Great Waltz” in 1938 and, one of her favorites, “The Toy Wife,” with Melvyn Douglas and Robert Young, the same year. Only “Hostages,” a 1943 wartime melodrama, done at Paramount instead of her home studio MGM, was a wretched disappointment, in her estimation, and she has never seen it.
She has seen, but cannot now bear to see again, “The Big City,” a Frank Borzage melodrama with Spencer Tracy. Tracy was kindness itself (“that darling man”), but “all I can see is the pain in my eyes. . . .
“I made eight films in three years,” she says. “And it was hard labor, especially hard because I was never really satisfied with my work. I always believed it could be done better. Actually, I’ve always felt guilty about not having continued to work. I should have made 50 more pictures.
“I feel like that song of Piaf. She dies and goes to heaven and St. Peter won’t let her in. She says, ‘Look at my hands,’ and he looks and says, ‘Come in.’ He will look at me and say, ‘You haven’t even started. Go back .’ ”
Rainer had started acting at 16 with the great Max Reinhardt in her native Vienna, playing Juliet and all the great young parts and making a few films until she was swept up in Metro’s drive to sign all the luminous actors on Earth. She was in her 20s when she arrived in Culver City in 1935 to make “Escapade,” the first of three films she did with William Powell.
From the start it was unsettling. “In Hollywood you were standing on this enormous pedestal, and instead of being able to climb higher and higher, as I wanted to do, you could only stand there.”
It was all difficult. “I was so madly unprotected here; that’s what I feared and resented. To hold a marriage in Hollywood you need incredible fortitude, and good luck. There is so much penetration of your private life, so much temptation, so much pressure from the work.” She had the reputation, she admits, of being difficult. “If you are a perfectionist, you are said to be difficult,” she says.
“I was lucky, if I may say so. I had my innate health and my basic values (I wasn’t the divorcing kind, which made it difficult). I didn’t crack up like some of the sad ones who came after me.”
In later years she took up painting, successfully, and has had two solo exhibitions in London. Three years ago she did a one-woman show on stage, a dramatization of Tennyson’s ballad “Enoch Arden.” Just recently she has signed to do a segment of a compilation film by Doris Chase, in which Jane Fonda and other actresses will participate, she says. She also did a “Love Boat,” in which she played twins, one good, one evil.
But in the ‘40s, when the film offers still came, she rejected them, which is now a source of regret as well as the guilt. “It seemed to me it was even a duty. And I loved the work, and I still deeply love the work. But nothing around it--the negotiations, the arguments, none of that.”
Her primary activity, however, is a daily stint from 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., writing her autobiography, in longhand, in English. She will, she reports, tell all, and there is a great deal to tell. And, no thanks to Hollywood, there is a happy ending.