During the eight-minute chat, the Düsseldorf-born (Jan. 12, 1910) Rainer, whose speech lilt hasn’t changed a bit since the 1930s, talks about her Academy Awards, and the people she once knew: Max Reinhardt, Albert Einstein, Bertolt Brecht, Greta Garbo, and Ernest Hemingway. Also mentioned are Julia Roberts and The King’s Speech.
Rainer came to Hollywood in the mid-1930s as one of MGM’s potential threats to Garbo. The fact that Rainer looked, sounded, and acted nothing like Garbo probably didn’t faze the studio heads. Rainer had a German accent; Garbo had a Swedish one. Surely American audiences wouldn’t be able to differentiate one actress from the other.
Rainer’s first Hollywood movie was Escapade (1935), opposite William Powell, then one of MGM’s top stars. The following year, Rainer landed what amounted to a supporting role in Robert Z. Leonard’s The Great Ziegfeld, with Powell in the title role and co-starring frequent Powell screen partner Myrna Loy.
But supporting or not, Rainer was pushed for the 1936 Best Actress Oscar even though the award’s supporting categories were introduced that year. Despite her relatively brief screen time as Ziegfeld’s first wife, Anna Held, Rainer went on to snatch the Oscar from the likes of Carole Lombard, Irene Dunne, Gladys George, and Queen of the MGM Lot Norma Shearer.
The following year, Rainer was cast opposite Warner Bros. loan-out Paul Muni in Sidney Franklin’s big-budget The Good Earth, in which both Muni and Rainer played Chinese peasants. Rainer was once again nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. Although many believed that Greta Garbo would come out victorious for her French courtesan in George Cukor’s Camille, Rainer – again in a relatively brief role – snatched the statuette for the second year in a row. An Academy first in the acting categories.
Many consider that second Rainer win to be one of the great outrages in Oscar history. I disagree. Rainer is outstanding in The Good Earth, much like Garbo is outstanding in Camille – and so are Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth and Janet Gaynor in A Star Is Born. (Apart from the last sequence, Barbara Stanwyck is less remarkable in the sudser Stella Dallas.)
Anyhow, Rainer says about her chief Oscar “competitor”: “I admired Garbo. She was the most beautiful thing that I’ve ever seen.”
But what did it mean to win two Oscars back-to-back in the mid-1930s? What did Rainer know about those golden, naked little men holding a sword?
“Nothing,” she tells Patterson. “I knew nothing. It didn’t mean anything to me. … I’d never heard before of this Academy Award affair. It wasn’t the ballyhoo that it is today. It was much, much simpler.” Rainer adds that receiving praise from Max Reinhardt while she was working onstage in Germany meant much more to her.
“I do not even remember the first award,” she adds in the interview. “I don’t remember even where exactly it was.”
Rainer also tells Patterson that one of her Oscars was given to “the man who moved my furniture from Switzerland to here [London].” She says that “Metro” sent her a replacement Oscar, and that both statuettes are now in her workroom, “among many books.”
Paul Muni, Luise Rainer in Sidney Franklin’s The Good Earth
Why did she leave Hollywood in 1938, after only nine films? (Actually, eight at MGM from 1935-1938; she then quit Hollywood, but returned for one, Hostages, at Paramount in 1943.)
Luise Rainer explains: “I felt the work in films that I was supposed to do wasn’t worth it. I felt I didn’t become an actress to make second-class nonsense.” Among the “second-class nonsense” were, apparently, The Emperor’s Candlesticks (1937), once again opposite William Powell; Big City (1937), opposite Spencer Tracy; and the – in my view, really good – Dramatic School (1938), featuring the likes of Paulette Goddard, Lana Turner, Genevieve Tobin, and fellow Oscar winner Gale Sondergaard.
“Because I got the Oscars,” Rainer adds, “they felt ‘Rainer can do anything!’ So, they threw films at me that weren’t worth it. But there were various roles that were very good, and that were right.”
The ones she liked were the Julien Duvivier-directed life of Johann Strauss, The Great Waltz (1938), and Richard Thorpe’s The Toy Wife (1938), based on Ludovic Halévy and Henri Meilhac’s mid-19th-century play Frou-frou, about a young, frivolous heartbreaker in Louisiana.
But life wasn’t all about black-and-white 2D dramas. For starters, Rainer joined Ernest Hemingway in helping children escape from the Spanish Civil War.
“I was very, very much against Franco in Spain. Although I was never a politician [sic?]. I was never really interested in politics. Except, I knew good from bad. And that [helping Spanish children] seemed to be good.”
Despite her self-proclaimed apolitical views, Rainer also helped Bertolt Brecht flee Nazi Germany. “I gave him an affidavit,” Rainer tells Patterson, adding that they had never met, but she admired his The Threepenny Opera, the only Brecht work she knew at the time.
“But later on, of course, I saw much more,” Rainer recalls. “I liked his poetry. But I did not admire everything [he did, for] I think he made too much difference between good and bad. Because everything in the world is in-between that.”
Rainer met Albert Einstein while she was married to playwright Clifford Odets. “I don’t know if he was or not [a fan of mine],” she answers Patterson. “But he was a friend,” she clarifies, before briefly remembering other notables she met through the years, such as Arturo Toscanini and Albert Schweitzer.
About her trip to Los Angeles for the TCM Classic Film Festival (right, with Robert Osborne), she says, “Yes, it was fun. And I had to speak to the audience for a long time.” She recalls also talking onstage at London’s Olivier Theatre, where “I spoke for a whole hour.”
One of her favorites among the current crop of movie stars is Julia Roberts. “I think she’s a very good actress. And I love her,” Rainer admits. She also loved this year’s apparent Oscar favorite, Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech.
“Marvelous. It’s a wonderful film. And it’s a fantastic story. A great, great performance [Colin Firth’s, I assume]. I hope it gets the Oscar. Of course, it will.”
Photos: BBC, TCM Classic Film Festival