Once a screen legend, always a screen legend.
Luise Rainer, who turned 100 in January, is not only the oldest living performer to win an Academy Award, she was the first to win back-to-back Oscars for best actress for 1936’s “The Great Ziegfeld” and a year later for “The Good Earth.”
The German-born actress’ stint in Hollywood, though, was short-lived. She chafed under the strict contract system at MGM and was at loggerheads with famed studio boss Louis B. Mayer. Her subsequent handful of films for MGM after her second Oscar didn’t impress critics or audiences. She ended up breaking her contract in 1938
A London resident, Rainer flew to Los Angeles to present a screening at the Egyptian Theatre last Sunday of “The Good Earth,” in which she plays the long-suffering Chinese peasant O-Lan, as part of the TCM Classic Film Festival.
Interviewed at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, Rainer showed that she hasn’t lost her feistiness or her beauty. Wearing pink lipstick and no other makeup, Rainer still has that luminous quality that made her a star in “Ziegfeld,” in which she plays the showman’s first wife, Anna Held. Rainer stole the film with her brief and poignant telephone call — “Hello, Flo” — congratulating her first husband on his new marriage.
Following her self-imposed exile from Hollywood, Rainer made just a few films including the 1997 drama “The Gambler” (Fellini cast her for 1960’s “La Dolce Vita” but Rainer got tired of waiting for him to film her scene and quit). After a disastrous short marriage to playwright Clifford Odets in the late 1930s, she found happiness with publisher Robert Knittel whom she married in 1945. He died in 1989.
She moves slowly now, with the help of a cane. But she’s fully in command, and like any true star she knows exactly how she wants the photographer to shoot her (looking up at her from the floor, no close-ups). The very independent Rainer isn’t happy that she has to rely on the kindness of friends, family and strangers. “Everything takes 20 minutes,” she says. “I am impatient. Now I am punished. I have do everything so slow.”
Up until four years ago, though, she was walking all over London. “I was already 96 years old and people always said ‘I don’t believe it. You run like a young girl.’ ” A bad fall and surgery limited her mobility, but she remains as spirited as ever otherwise, particularly when it comes to her memoires of Hollywood.
“Mayer,” she recalls, “couldn’t make me out. You know it was a little bit difficult for him. I was a type that he wasn’t use to. So the poor man didn’t know what to do with me. For my first film, ‘Escapade,’ William Powell said you got to star that girl.... My first film made me a star.”
She has better memories of the studio’s “boy wonder” producer, Irving Thalberg, who died during the making of “The Good Earth.” “I hardly knew him, but he was a wonderful man,” she says.
Ironically, Rainer was never trained as an actress. She simply went on instinct when playing her iconic characters Anna Held and O-Lan.
“People thought and think today that I am intelligent,” she says. “No. I am sensitive to life and somehow acting comes to me. I can’t explain it. I have met in my life so many great people and they appreciated me and wanted to know me because I was a natural. My acting was from the inside out. I don’t believe in anything artificial. I don’t believe in makeup. It has to come from you like a child you give birth to. That is how you act.”
Rainer had been in a few movies in Germany as well as appearing on stage in Berlin and Vienna as a member of renowned theater director Max Reinhardt’s company. “He was a great man, a wonderful artist,” she says of Reinhardt. “He loved me — but not physical. He felt I was a big talent.”
According to the actress, an MGM talent scout was in Europe to “collect a certain actress for the studio.” Rainer was doing a play in Vienna at the time when the scout caught her onstage. “He came to my dressing room. He didn’t take the hat off. It was very strange to me because there are certain manners we have in Europe. He talked in a certain way — he snarled. My English was school English and I couldn’t understand him.”
Rainer did a screen test that wasn’t successful. She was in Holland with the Reinhardt company when she learned they wanted to do another one in London. “I came to England and made another test of the same scene,” she says.
Coming to Hollywood, though, wasn’t important to her. “I thought they were absolutely crazy,” Rainer say. “I am an actress. I am not a movie star.”
A few days after the second test, she learned the studios wanted her. “When I did come out to Hollywood months later, I thought they would take a look at me and said, ‘For God’s sake, what did the cat bring in?”
Rainer says she never read her contract; her only condition was that she be allowed to bring her beloved Scottish terrier, Johnny, with her from Europe. “I was permitted to take my Scottie with me,” she says. " I have a photograph here upstairs [at the Beverly Wilshire] of Johnny. I loved my Scottie.”