For Luise Rainer, Possibly a Return to Hollywood
When she was in Los Angeles on a visit in 1987, Luise Rainer mused about a career that, more than most, could be described as meteoric, in both directions.
She had been discovered in Vienna in 1935 by an MGM scout who saw her on stage in “An American Tragedy.” Her first Hollywood film, “Escapade,” in 1936 (written by Herman Mankiewicz, directed by Robert Z. Leonard, co-starring William Powell), made her a star.
She made eight films in three years. Amazingly, she won Academy Awards as best actress in successive years, for “The Great Ziegfeld” (1936) and “The Good Earth” (1937), a feat no one has equalled since.
But there followed some roles, which for the most part she hated, in lesser films, and suffered a disastrous three-year marriage to playwright Clifford Odets, which finally ended in 1940. Less than a decade after she arrived in Hollywood she left for good, and she has acted only sporadically since then.
“In my first three films,” she said one day last week during another visit to her daughter, Francesca Bowyer, in Beverly Hills, “I played a governess, a tempestuous actress and an old Chinese woman. Louis B. Mayer, who was not one of my favorite men, said, ‘My God, that woman is hard to cast.’ I was so foreign to them in every way. They didn’t understand me and I didn’t understand them.
“I was in Hollywood too early, I think. Now actors can take only the roles they want to do. When you were under contract, you had to do roles whether you liked them or not. I fought. I was not so much glamorous as clamorous. I was full of fire and enthusiasm and very hard on myself.”
Then it was over. But life has its compensations. In 1946, she married Robert Knittel, the only son of a Swiss novelist and himself a cosmopolitan figure in the world of publishing: editorial director of the major English firm Collins and publisher of authors as various as Sidney Sheldon, Herman Wouk, Carlos Fuentes and Jean Renoir (“Renoir, My Father”).
“I was determined to make a successful marriage, and I did,” Rainer says. They were married for 45 years, until June of this year, when he died in Locarno, Switzerland, where they had moved from London after he retired in 1979.
They had traveled widely, had in fact visited India, China and Thailand in the months before his illness struck. Sicily and the Balkans were on their agenda for later this year.
Now she will close their Swiss house and resettle in London or Los Angeles. “But who can afford Los Angeles?” she asks. “My old house in Brentwood is now worth $4 million.”
Unwilling simply to live with her memories, Rainer hopes, at the age of 79, to work again. A few years ago she did a successful one-woman show of “Enoch Arden,” performing to good reviews at UCLA and in New York among other places.
She has also filmed her segment in London of a six-episode film in which an international company of women examine the situations of women alone. Glenda Jackson has done a segment, she understands, and Jeanne Moreau is supposed to do one, all under the aegis of Jane Fonda.
She has had a one-woman show of her paintings and she has written the first 300 pages of an autobiography, up to the early Hollywood days, when her social life included the likes of Thomas Mann, Jascha Heifetz, Franz Werfel, Bertolt Brecht and Arnold Schoenberg.
But when she got to the Odets years, she says, “I developed a writer’s block, a very big writer’s block.” Whether she will return to the autobiography she is not certain, although her daughter says loyally that it is “wonderful and poetic.”
Like any actress, she thinks of the roles she didn’t do. Rainer says Franz Werfel hoped she might do his “The Song of Bernadette.” She would have liked to do “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and, most particularly, “Madame Curie.” But her relations with MGM, where her friend Sidney Franklin produced “Curie,” were already strained.
“I told Mr. Mayer I would have loved to make ‘Johnny Belinda’ (a Warner film in which Jane Wyman played a woman deaf and mute). He said, ‘My God, we’re making talkies these days; what would you want to do that for?’
“I said my source has dried out. He said, ‘What do you need a source for; you’ve got a director, haven’t you?’ ”
So she and MGM parted, and she left, as she says, “to be engulfed by a great romance.” Now the romance is memory, and she would like to find again the engulfing romance of work.