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Thirties Something

David Gritten, based in England, is a regular contributor to Calendar

“Hollywood?” Luise Rainer ponders, stretching the word’s three syllables to an almost comic length. “I felt very alone in Hollywood. I couldn’t wait to get out. I hated the films they asked me to make. They put me on a pedestal in Hollywood--and I didn’t like being put on a pedestal.”

And so she quit, at the very height of her fame. Luise Rainer’s is one of the most extraordinary Hollywood stories, one of an astonishingly fast emergence, a remarkable degree of glittering success (including an unprecedented two successive Oscars as best actress in 1936 and 1937)--and then a voluntary exit from the town that briefly made her an international star.

It all lasted just 3 1/2 years. She is 87 now, and lives a civilized existence alone in an apartment above one of London’s most exclusive squares. She opens the door, a tiny bird-like woman dressed elegantly in an oatmeal-colored suit. As she talks in a distinctly Teutonic accent, she emphasizes points by gesturing and extending surprisingly long arms. But it’s her face that draws a first-time visitor--heart-shaped, hugely alert, with a generous smile and darting eyes that roll expressively to underpin silently what she is saying out loud.

Rainer devours culture, and makes frequent trips to plays, exhibitions and films--and she talks eloquently about the remarkable arc of her brief Hollywood career. Almost 60 years after she abruptly terminated that career by breaking her contract with MGM, Luise Rainer has made a stunning return to the big screen.

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In 11 memorable minutes, she plays what amounts to an extended cameo in “The Gambler,” a British film adaptation of the story by the 19th century Russian novelist Feodor Dostoevsky; it stars Michael Gambon, Jodhi May and Polly Walker, and was made by Hungary’s leading director, Karoly Makk. It will be released in Britain in November, with no U.S. release date yet.

She plays the wealthy grandmother of a family already close to ruin because of gambling debts. We see her carried aloft by footmen on a chair to sit at the roulette table, where she insists on repeatedly gambling on the number zero.

At one point she curtly shoos away her grandson (Dominic West) who is also a compulsive gambler, and continues to bet. Makk’s camera closes in tight on Rainer’s wonderfully expressive face as the croupier shouts: “Faites vos jeux!”

A multitude of emotions--fear, excitement, anticipation, disappointment--are etched successively on her face as the roulette wheel spins. The scene is almost a throwback to a style of acting unseen since the silent movie era, when an actor’s facial expressions alone could advance a narrative.

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“Oh, I had a wonderful time,” says Rainer with a sly grin of “The Gambler,” which was shot last year, mainly in Budapest. “I was absolutely impossible. I didn’t take it seriously. What I so enjoyed was that everyone was amazed I could still act--that it all came easily to me.”

This, she concedes, is because of her age: “I have just written this letter to my friend [actor] Roddy MacDowall,” she confides. “And I’ve told him, the amazing fact of finding me still alive makes newspapers want to interview me.”

Given the low profile she has maintained for more than half a century, this is understandable. She made eight Hollywood films between 1935 and 1938 before walking out on MGM, then in 1943 made “Hostages,” a World War II melodrama for Paramount. Since then Rainer has largely stayed away from films.

To understand why Hollywood left Rainer feeling like a fish out of water, it is necessary to examine her background. She was born in Dusseldorf, Germany, and in her younger years lived in Munich, Switzerland, and Vienna. Her father, an import-export businessman, was devastated when Luise left home at the age of 16 to become an actress: “He thought I was going to become a whore. I was essentially thrown out by my family and had to live on whatever pennies I could make acting.”

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When she was 18 she encountered Max Reinhardt, the German stage and film director who collaborated with all the great names of German cinema early in the century. She joined and toured with Reinhardt’s stage company, and while performing his production of Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy” was seen by an MGM talent scout who had been dispatched to Vienna to check another actress. Hugely impressed, he asked her to do a screen test the very next day, in a makeshift room with a hand-cranked camera.

She acted some scenes from the Helen Hayes-Gary Cooper version of “A Farewell to Arms,” was flown to London to make another test, and finally received a summons from MGM.

“My father had told us a lot about America and I thought I’d go over and take a look at it,” she remembers. “I was convinced the studio would throw me out, but at least I’d get to see America. I had a house on the beach and two servants. But after two months I wanted to go back to Europe, back to the theater. I was used to working every day and I was doing nothing.”

This state of affairs changed rapidly when Myrna Loy dropped out of an MGM romantic comedy, “Escapade.” “I was walking my dog on the beach, when my servants raced up and said the studio was on the phone. I had to go there immediately and meet this producer. In half an hour there was a funeral car [a limousine] outside my house to take me away.

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“So I was brought in to the studio. I was burned brown by the sun, my hair was short and bleached, I had no makeup on, I had no breasts, there was nothing at all sexual about me. I walked into this producer’s office, where he was surrounded by all his yes-men. They took one look at me and went . . . ,” raising her eyes disgustedly toward heaven. Still, they gave her two double-spaced pages of script and asked tentatively if she could learn it overnight.

“Well, I’d learned Shaw’s ‘St. Joan’ overnight, so that was no problem. The next day a makeup man put false eyelashes on me, a red mouth with lips curling up, and a lot of rouge. I asked why he had done that. ‘To make you look more pleasant,’ he said.”

On the way over to the sound stage she pulled off the eyelashes and wiped away the rouge. In truth she wasn’t quite what the studio thought it was looking for--but she performed her test scene so convincingly that the producer kissed her hand.

She was in--and co-starred in “Escapade” alongside William Powell, the first of three films she made with him. On the MGM lot at Culver City she received the star treatment, sharing a luxurious house inside the studio with Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo--another exotic import from Europe.

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“They were all a little older than me, and very nice to me,” Rainer says now. “I loved Garbo--she was so beautiful. But I didn’t socialize within Hollywood at all.”

Instead she lived a typical existence for a Mitteleuropean expatriate in Hollywood. She gravitated toward musicians like George Gershwin and the composer Arnold Schoenberg, a near neighbor of hers on Rockingham Avenue, long before the street became infamous.

Rainer was also part of a circle that included German novelist Thomas Mann and architect Richard Neutra. Unquestionably, these people were more intellectually challenging than the movie star set. Still, she was confirmed as a hot property after “Escapade,” and her next two films were the ones that brought her the Oscars.

In “The Great Ziegfeld,” a three-hour biopic that also won the Oscar for best picture, she played Anna, Ziegfeld’s first wife; her performance is remembered for a scene where she tearfully congratulates her husband on his new marriage. Rainer says she wrote the scene herself, but in doing so had been inspired by the writings of Jean Cocteau. It was becoming clear that she was no run-of-the-mill Hollywood actress.

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The impression was confirmed the following year by a very different role in “The Good Earth,” based on Pearl S. Buck’s novel. She played O-Lan, the stoic, long-suffering Chinese mother married to a farmer played by Paul Muni. As the passive O-Lan, Rainer had precious little dialogue--but she received rave reviews anyhow, along with her second Oscar.

While making “The Good Earth,” she met her first husband. “I was sitting at a table at the Brown Derby with George Gershwin and [composers] Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg when this man came in and everyone fell silent. He walked up to our table and joined us.”

This turned out to be the radical playwright Clifford Odets, a founder of the Group Theater, who was then embarking on a screenwriting career in Hollywood. He ignored Rainer on that first meeting (a significant precursor of their subsequent relationship) and they only met again weeks later at a party, where Rainer recalls, “People were standing around listening to him like disciples.”

A week later, while she was on the set shooting “The Good Earth,” he telephoned her and asked: “Can one ever see you alone?” She said “yes,” and the romance began. But her marriage to Odets was disastrous from the outset; she has described it as being like a Strindberg play. “It was terrible. He suffered from me being recognized. I once told him, ‘You’d like me to be dead, then you could have me to yourself.’ With Odets, I was like a slave.”

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He was also virulently anti-Hollywood, a place he despised for political reasons. The feeling was mutual: Louis B. Mayer once cursed Odets as “that lousy communist.” This did not prevent Mayer from throwing MGM’s weight behind a bid to secure Rainer her second successive Oscar, for “The Good Earth.”

She was duly nominated, along with heavyweight opposition: Garbo in “Camille,” Barbara Stanwyck in “Stella Dallas,” Janet Gaynor in “A Star Is Born” and Irene Dunne in “The Awful Truth.”

Yet astonishingly Rainer was unaware the Academy Awards ceremony was taking place; she was on her way back from a road trip to San Franciscso with Odets, during which they quarreled frequently.

“We arrived in Santa Barbara and I phoned home. The maid answered and said come back right away, the newspapers have been on the phone wanting to know--are you snubbing the academy?

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“We had a terrible fight on the way back. I didn’t want him to come [to the Oscars] and he insisted. I cried and cried and cried. We had to drive around the Biltmore Hotel [where the ceremony was being held] three or four times before I could go in and get my award. So you ask how I felt about receiving my Oscar? I felt miserable.”

She too turned against Hollywood, but not for political reasons. “Politics never played a part in my life,” she claims. “I started to dislike it when they gave me idiotic films.”

These included “Big City” (1937) in which she played the ailing immigrant wife of Spencer Tracy, a cab driver pitted against crooked taxi bosses. Rainer adored Tracy, but hated the movie. She also despised “Dramatic School,” a backstage film that borrowed heavily from “Stage Door.” She walked out on Mayer, who allegedly told her: “We made you. We are going to kill you.” (Rainer claims Mayer subsequently blacklisted her for other film projects.)

She took a long trip to Europe, moved to New York where she sold war bonds, divorced from Odets--and in 1944 met Robert Knittel, a young English publisher then working in New York. They wed the following year, moved to Europe, lived in London and Lugano, Switzerland, and stayed happily married until Knittel’s death in 1989. They had a daughter, Francesca, who now lives in Los Angeles.

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Rainer lost some of her will to work all the time, and involved herself in her husband’s business. But she acted on stage sporadically, last being seen in Los Angeles in a solo performance of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Enoch Arden” at UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall in 1983.

She also turned to painting with some success, and had two solo exhibitions in London; some of her drawings hang in her apartment. Until this last year with “The Gambler” she had resisted all attempts to entice her back to film. The most tempting of these was Federico Fellini urging her to take a part in “La Dolce Vita” in 1959: “I wrote a scene for myself, but in the end I walked out,” she shrugs. “I’m a walker-outer.”

A life as rich and full as hers, studded with stellar acquaintances--Rainer also encountered Einstein, Brecht and Eleanor Roosevelt in her time--cries out for a biography. Rainer has worked long and hard at writing her own life, and has completed 240 pages to date: “But I’m only up to age 24!” she protests.

She is extraordinarily fit, alert, eloquent and active, with a terrific recall for places, names and faces. “I’m proud of one thing,” she says, her voice now dropping melodramatically. “I’m proud of having emerged unscathed without liquor or dope after 50 years of mostly not doing my work. I’m healthy and I kept healthy. When I see the dissipation of most actresses who don’t work any more, I feel very lucky.”

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After her choice role in “The Gambler,” she aims to make a film based on a book with a role ideal for her; she has turned it over to a producer.

“I can’t say what it is,” she says, “but it’s about a woman who fights for beauty.” She smiles slyly. “An old dame.”

Will it happen?

“I can only hope so. I still want to achieve, you see.” She tilts her head upward: “Yes, I want to achieve!”

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