Feinberg: My Afternoon With Luise Rainer, Back When She Was Only 99

Revisiting an interview with the legendary two-time Oscar winner, who was also a wife of Clifford Odets, a friend of Albert Einstein, a rival of Greta Garbo, a target of Louis B. Mayer — and the first victim of "the Oscar curse"
Scott Feinberg and Luise Rainer in 2009

I interviewed Luise Rainer in London in 2009, back when she was only 99 years old. Rainer, the first person ever to win two acting Oscars — which happened to come in back-to-back years, for The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and for The Good Earth (1937), and just a couple of years before her Hollywood career was overdied Tuesday at 104, less than two weeks shy of her 105th birthday. So this seems as good a time as any to reflect on what she meant to Hollywood and to me.

Rainer, a German-born Austrian, was a true legend, not only one of the last connections to 1930s Hollywood — a real Golden Age of movies — but also a pupil of Max Reinhardt, a wife of Clifford Odets, a competitor of Greta Garbo, a target of Louis B. Mayer, an inspiration to many other great actors who followed (countless numbers of whom auditioned for roles by offering their own take on her celebrated Ziegfeld telephone scene) and a woman who lived so long that relatively few people today even know her name.

Read more Luise Rainer, First to Win Back-to-Back Acting Oscars, Dies at 104

I knew Rainer's name because I became obsessed with classic movies during my high school years and later, while in college, decided to try to write a book that would aim to excite other young people about them. To do that effectively, I felt that I would need to speak directly with the key survivors of that era — and, to my delight, many of them agreed to interviews.

The one I couldn't seem to track down — even though I knew she was still alive and in good enough health to have attended the 75th Oscars ceremony in 2003, where she participated in a "class photo" of all living winners of acting Oscars — was Rainer, and it haunted me that I might miss her. I tried desperately to come up with a way to track her down. This was before I knew about IMDBPro, and she didn't have professional representation anyway. Eventually I realized that she had a daughter, Francesca Bowyer, who might be willing to pass along my request if I could reach her.

Fortunately, I found Francesca (in the online White Pages, if I recall correctly) and left a voicemail explaining my project and more or less begging her to help me out. To my amazement, she got back to me and couldn't have been lovelier, telling me she would be happy to give me the telephone number at which I could reach her mother — who, it turned out, lived in London — and that she would ring her mother before I did to encourage her to speak with me. I was overjoyed.

When a reasonable hour in London finally arrived in Connecticut, I dialed the digits that I had been given and felt chills as an aide handed the phone to Rainer, who asked me in that familiar, heavily accented voice what she could do for me. I explained my request — several times, in fact, because she was clearly struggling to hear me — and was more than a little heartbroken when she stated what had become obvious: She supported what I was trying to do but would not be able to do the interview over the telephone; when I was next in London, however, I should call her again.

At that time, I had never been to London, had no plans (or funds) to go to London and was talking to a woman in her late-90s, so that seemed like the end of the road for me and Luise Rainer. But then, just a few months later, something rather unbelievable happened: My uncle and aunt called me and asked if I would like to accompany them and my younger cousin to look at Cambridge University, to which he had been accepted. They would cover my accommodations, I would cover my flight and, most importantly, I would be in London. They didn't have to ask me twice.

Not long after touching down on the other side of the pond, I was on the phone to Rainer again. This time, the trouble was that she couldn't seem to hear anything I was saying and asked, in her formal way of speaking, "Can you do me the kindness of calling back in two minutes so I can talk on the other phone?" When I did so, speaking at the same volume, she admonished me. "Please, I'm not deaf, you don't need to shout!" Fortunately, we found a level of speaking that worked, and she invited me over to her home in swanky Eaton Square — the same flat that was once occupied by another two-time Oscar-winning actress, Vivien Leigh — the following day.

When I arrived, I was shown into her grand living room by her aide and was told that she would arrive in a minute or two. I scoured the room for her Oscars but did not see them. Instead, I saw photos of her family (i.e. Odets, her second husband, Robert Knittel, and Bowyer) and close friends (i.e. Albert Einstein).

I looked up, and she was there, frail and moving slowly with the help of a walker but beautifully made up, dressed to the nines and flashing those same big eyes and smile that helped make her a star more than 70 years earlier. I got up and walked over to greet her.

"Oh, you're a young fellow!" she exclaimed, and extended her hand for a kiss. "Three years ago I ran, now I walk with this — but it has nothing to do with age!"

She then plopped down on the sofa across from me and, for the next two hours, we had a fascinating, feisty conversation about one of the strangest careers in Hollywood history. Here are samplings of her thoughts on a few topics.

Acting...

"I never 'acted.' I always 'was,' which is a different thing. I didn't 'put on'; I felt."

First impressions of MGM...

"I was more open-mouthed than impressed. It was so overwhelming, and so big, and so out-of-proportion from what I'd lived with before that I was aghast. After I met Louis B. Mayer and all his yes-men who were around then, they sent me in a car to go back home. I went into that big, wonderful limousine, and we were driving, and I passed through this enormous studio — there was Johnny Weissmuller swinging along on a tree, and there was a big lake with a boat on it, and it kept going. Finally I asked the driver, very carefully with my school English, 'What are they doing here?' And he said, 'Missy, we are now in Beverly Hills!' I thought it was still all Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; we had long driven out. Then I said, 'Could you please bring me to the ocean?' Because I knew Louis B. Mayer could not have built the ocean!"

The telephone scene in The Great Ziegfeld...

"You wouldn't believe it. The scene was, of course, written. I wrote it, mainly; I stole it from [JeanCocteau — he had a big play, just a telephone scene. So I had to write it, and I remembered the emotion I felt about that, and I pushed that into the scene. Two or three days before the scene was made, my little Johnny dog got sick, and I went to the vet with the dog. There was a little spaniel who wiggled through the gate — through his little cage — and I put my finger in, and he licked it. I loved [the dog]! The veterinarian came and said, 'Oh, we have to put him to sleep tonight because of' whatever he had, and I felt terribly sad for that beautiful little life in that dog. And when I did that scene, I simply thought of that dog. So that was how I created the emotion."

Her first Oscar...

"I got an Oscar. I didn't know what an Oscar was, and it didn't impress me. I was far more impressed when Reinhardt said something good to me than when I got an Oscar. In those days, of course, I don't think it was called 'Oscar'; it was an Academy Award, and I didn't know what the whole ballyhoo was about."

Louis B. Mayer's reservations about casting her in The Good Earth...

"He had something against The Good Earth because there I had to be a very plain, simple woman, and he thought I could become a big star — I was already a star, but he wanted to build me up like Garbo. Greta Garbo was the crown jewel of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and he felt I had equal possibilities, so he didn't want me to appear like an old, little — I wasn't old; Olan in The Good Earth starts as a young girl, but — a Chinese peasant."

How she got into the part of a Chinese peasant...

"I thought myself into it. First of all, we had seen a great deal when I was in Europe. In Yugoslavia, I had seen peasants — a lot of peasants — and I had observed, in my own little way, how they lived and so forth. And so I thought about a human being of that kind that lives on the land, is dependent on sun, rain, the elements and the earth. And then also there were a lot of Chinese people in California, and I saw how they had small movements. Out of that, intuitively, I took what I needed."

The end of her career and the notion of an "Oscar curse," of which she is often cited as the first victim...

"Oh, I was hurt by the two Oscars, because after that, except for The Great Waltz, the stories and the ambience was not very good. I didn't like it, and I wanted to get back to Europe. [They gave me bad parts] because they thought, 'She can do anything!'… I didn't like the stories. I didn't think that was what I wanted to do in life. I broke my contract with Metro. … When I saw [Mayer] the last time, I said, 'My source is dried out. I want to go.' I wanted to get out. I wanted to finish. He said to me, 'We made you, and we're going to kill you.' And I said, 'Mr. Mayer, you are an old man' — and he obviously was not at the time, he was in his 50s. And I said, 'I'm in my 20s' — and Gertie Lawrence, Katharine Cornell, all the big actors of the time were in their 40s. I said, 'When I am in my 40s, you will be dead!' And I walked out."

Attempting a comeback...

"It became very difficult because I went back to Europe. And when I came back, I was not permitted to work because Louis B. Mayer did not permit me, because I'd broken my contract. … I wanted badly to do For Whom the Bell Tolls, but it wasn't to be. Louis B. forbid me. … Later on, I felt very sad not to have managed to give out much, much more in my life, which was given to me in my cradle."

How she would like to be remembered when someone asks, 'Who was Luise Rainer?'...

"I don't think anybody will say it. You know, to tell you the truth, I have never thought about it. Of course, I would like to be remembered positively, but in what way I cannot say. Yes, it would be lovely to be remembered well."

* * *

When our conversation came to an end, Rainer graciously humored me and showed me her two Oscars, which were rusting high up on a shelf in her adjacent office. These, I marveled, were the same statuettes that had made her the charter member of an elite club that still has only a short and highly exclusive list of members — something she was never particularly proud of or helped by.

Actually, I later learned, one of them was not the original statuette she had received. Later that day, her daughter, whom I called to thank for facilitating the meeting, told me that years earlier, her mother had called a plumber to perform an urgent repair and then, upon realizing that she had no cash in her home, "paid" him with one of her Oscars (which the Academy later replaced). That's how much the accolade meant to her.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg

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