Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Luise Rainer: A Personal Remembrance


Death comes to all, no matter how long or short or fair and unfair life has been to the individual.  After a very lengthy life, Death has come to Luise Rainer.

Luise Rainer has died at age 104, about 14 days shy of her 105th birthday.  I'm not going to lie: I've had issues with Rainer as an actress.  I've seen The Great Ziegfeld, and think her performance as Anna Held was extremely mannered, fluttery, not a leading but supporting role, and perhaps one of the worst choices in the Best Actress category.  The fact that she beat out Carole Lombard that year for My Man Godfrey doesn't help matters.  Lombard and My Man Godfrey are still remembered today.  Rainer and The Great Ziegfeld are not. 

Rainer's Anna Held came across almost as an idiot, and her 'great scene' where she bids a tearful goodbye to her first husband Florenz Ziegfeld is a curious bit.  It was used in acting classes, I'm told, but as an example of what NOT to do.  This scene gave her the nickname "The Viennese Teardrop". 

Then came the following year, where despite all logic, Rainer could win a second consecutive Best Actress Oscar for The Good Earth.  What makes it illogical is that we have an Austrian (complete with accent) playing a Chinese woman!  In fairness to Rainer I have yet to see The Good Earth, so perhaps she was good in the role (though again, it's an AUSTRIAN playing a CHINESE!).  However, let's look at who she beat out...

Irene Dunne for The Awful Truth
Greta Garbo for Camille
Janet Gaynor for A Star is Born
Barbara Stanwyck for Stella Dallas

She has a lovely face...

I have a feeling all those performances are better-remembered, though again I'm holding my final views until I see them all.  Dunne, Garbo, and Stanwyck were never to win competitive Oscars (Gaynor having won the first Best Actress Oscar, and Dunne being the only one of the non-winners not awarded an Honorary Oscar, though unlike the others, she was a Kennedy Center Honor recipient).  Dunne also has the unenviable footnote of having lost to the same person TWICE, matched only by Annette Bening, who lost two Best Actress nominations to Hillary Swank.

After her two-for-two wins, Rainer's career slowly ebbed away.  To her credit, she wasn't interested in being in a star.  She wanted to be a legitimate actress, and if it meant telling MGM boss Louis B. Meyer to stuff it (in her genteel manner), so be it.  I don't think she regretted not having a long film career, so long as she was true to herself.

That, if nothing else, should earn her a great deal of admiration and respect.  My hat's off to her for standing by her principles at the cost of movie stardom.

Now, again, I don't think Luise Rainer is one of the great actresses of all time.  Apart from being the first back-to-back Oscar winner, I doubt that people apart from those who love film and film history really could recall her name.  Even that may be due to her being more a curious historical footnote than for a wide variety of film-work. 

However, having said all that, Luise Rainer as a person can be praised.  There are no tales of her being a diva, of being imperious, of being anything other than what she appeared to be: a sweet, charming, Old World lady who was graceful, elegant, and well-mannered.  These are qualities that some of the greats did not have (ever hear anyone call Joan Crawford or Bette Davis 'sweet' or 'graceful') and that current stars would do well to emulate.  I've gotta admit, walking away from a career took guts, and Rainer had it. 

Again, I don't think she regretted leaving Hollywood, and she outlived anyone who might have thought ill of her (though I doubt that with the exception of Mayer, anyone did).  I think if I had met her, I would have found her charming, sophisticated, and oh so nice.  I figure I would have been so enchanted that I might not have told her to her face what I still think: she didn't deserve either Academy Award.

Then again, perhaps she might have agreed.  She never thought much of her Oscars, and I think even thought they were detrimental to her career.   As it stands, Luise Rainer has passed from the scene, and another bit of Hollywood history has passed as well.  That is worth at least a brief pause.

No, I don't think Luise Rainer was a particularly great actress. 

I do think Luise Rainer was a very fine lady.

I think she'd rather be remembered for that than for winning two consecutive Oscars. 

...God in His mercy lend her grace.


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