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At 104, Luise Rainer is the oldest surviving actor from Hollywood’s golden age. It is not just her longevity that’s remarkable. The defiance Rainer showed in the face of one of the most sycophantic industries in the world is a rarity too. She did two things no one else had ever done: She became the first actor to win consecutive Oscars, and then the first actor bathed in Oscar glory to be dropped by her studio. MGM let her go because she refused to be pigeonholed in the parts her boss felt best suited his women stars, instead demanding strong roles, such as Madame Curie or Nora in “The Doll’s House.” When Louis B. Mayer threatened to blacklist her, she coolly predicted she would outlast him. “You are now 60 and I am 20,” she told the astonished mogul. “When I am 40, the age of a successful actress, you will be dead and I will live!” These words pretty much ended her career in Hollywood, and, returning to the theatre, her first love, she even used her Oscar statuette as a doorstop.
Born in Dusseldorf, Rainer was one of a handful of German Jews in Hollywood, but the studio felt it more politic to present her as Austrian, where she had indeed grown up. Her two Oscars were won for portraits of female nobility. The first, in 1936, was as a spurned common-law wife in “The Great Ziegfeld” (a lachrymose scene on the telephone earned Rainer the nickname “the Viennese Teardrop,” and took her into America’s sentimental heart). In the second, she starred as a stoical Chinese peasant in an adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s “The Good Earth.” This performance is often dismissed now as “yellow-face” acting. But Rainer was admired in her day by critics as discerning as Graham Greene and James Agee. Despite their encouragement, under Mayer’s controlling eye the studio continued to marry her off in film. So at the peak of her career, despairing of this dramatic straitjacketing, Rainer decided to give it all up.
Her renunciation still haunts the public imagination. In Truman Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” a Hollywood agent remarks, “When you walk out on a thing like that, you don’t walk back. Ask Luise Rainer. And Rainer was a star.” Rainer herself thought that the Oscar double had been disastrous: “Nothing worse could have happened to me.” However, she was more in control of the script of her life than this implies. Like that of another Hollywood refusenik, Louise Brooks, her existence post-Hollywood was routinely discounted as mere afterlife. But in 1950, the year she finally reached “the age of a successful actress,” Rainer appeared in precisely the kind of serious role she had envisaged for herself, playing Nina in a BBC production of “The Seagull.” The setting was perhaps less grand, but glamour had never interested her.
Rainer had, after all, begun her career as a stage actress doing Ibsen, Shakespeare and Pirandello; in Berlin she joined Max Reinhardt’s legendary theatre company. His expressionist style suited Rainer, and her career flourished. In February 1933, however, she witnessed the burning of the Reichstag; not long after, she left for Hollywood. So it is perhaps no surprise that once in America, Rainer gravitated to the politically radical Group Theatre. Here she met and fell in love with the playwright, Clifford Odets. Their marriage, though, was too tempestuous to survive, Odets too divided. “He wanted me to be his little wife and a great actress at the same time,” Rainer said at the National Theatre in London, during a celebration of her centenary.
After Odets’ affair with fellow Group actress Frances Farmer, Rainer left him. Odets records in his diary that he was bereft, “sluggish among the alligators, lost in the Everglades.” As it transpired, he turned out to be a rather different kind of beast: not an alligator, but a stool pigeon. Like Elia Kazan, Lee J. Cobb and several other Group Theatre associates, he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, “naming names” of fellow Communists (he had been a party member briefly in the mid-1930s), and the shame of it left him a broken man.
Rainer became increasingly dissatisfied with Hollywood, saying, “I couldn’t bear this total concentration on oneself, oneself, oneself,” and escaped to Santa Monica, where the scriptwriter Salka Viertel ran a salon for German intellectuals who had escaped from fascism. Lion Feuchtwanger, Arnold Schoenberg, Thomas Mann and his brother, Heinrich, entertained American film stars here, while Gene Kelly’s young wife, the actress Betsy Blair, walked barefoot in the sand, earnestly explaining the meaning of socialism to Bertolt Brecht.
Surely the most brilliant and incongruous talent to turn up on the back lot, Brecht felt he was prostituting himself at the Hollywood bazaar: “Every morning, to earn my bread/I go to the market, where lies are bought.” Rainer had helped to get him out of Germany, and Brecht repaid her with a new draft of “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” written especially for her. But the play wasn’t finished to her satisfaction, and other writers turned down requests to work on it: Christopher Isherwood was too busy, W.H. Auden felt it would have to be "completely remodeled.” And Rainer couldn’t bear to be near Brecht. “He reminded me of a spider, there was something crawling about him,” she said of the great man. “He was immensely conceited.”
She got along better with Eleanor Roosevelt, for whom she undertook war work, traveling to entertain troops in Africa. Afterward she decamped to Europe, marrying a publisher, Robert Knittel, whom she lived with in Geneva and London. Knittel became Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s publisher, and when the Russian stayed with them Rainer found him to be, like Brecht, an insufferable egotist. Her appearances became more intermittent, but she still cropped up from time to time. J.B. Priestley cast her in his 1957 television play about film stars hiding from the press, “The Stone Faces.” Three years later it was Federico Fellini’s turn: He offered Rainer a role in “La Dolce Vita.” Characteristically, though, she asked for rewrites to the script that Fellini was unable to accommodate. Instead, what followed were odd appearances in TV soaps like “Combat!” and “The Love Boat.” Finally in 1997, there was a last, vindicating appearance in a film of Dostoevsky’s “The Gambler,” starring opposite Michael Gambon.
Along the way, Rainer was persuaded to sell her papers to Boston University, something she came to regret. Their loss deprived us, quite possibly — given the wit and intelligence she displays in several documentaries about Hollywood’s golden age — of a book to rank alongside the memoirs of Salka Viertel, Louise Brooks and Betsy Blair. But as Rainer boasted, “I always lived more than I worked.”
Perhaps it is this attitude that accounts for her longevity, and her avoidance of the madness that beset Frances Farmer and countless others. In recent years, when actors in Hollywood increasingly conform to type and seek to ingratiate themselves — even if that means becoming creatures of Botox, diets and plastic surgery — her sense of taste and proportion seems not only a saving grace, but instructive: “I can’t watch the Oscars,” she once said, “everybody thanking their mother, their father, their grandparents, their nurse — it’s crazy, horrible.”