Luise Rainer is on the phone from London, politely but firmly declining to talk. It’s two days after her 102nd birthday, and Rainer — the last remaining link to the glitz and glamour of prewar Hollywood — is as strong-willed as ever. ”I cannot give you an interview over the telephone,” says the actress, her distinctive German-hued voice somewhere between a purr and a croak. ”I’m very sorry. I am 102 years old and I don’t hear very well. I would love to do it, but I cannot. There is so much to say, I remember everything, but I do not want to give an interview that way.”
Despite this unpromising beginning, Rainer eventually opens up…at least a little. After all, she has quite a story to tell. She was the first person to take home back-to-back Oscars, winning the Best Actress award for The Great Ziegfeld in 1937 and again in 1938 for her starring role in The Good Earth (beating Greta Garbo, among others). She quickly emerged as a rising MGM star, and at one point shared a dressing bungalow with Garbo, Joan Crawford, and Norma Shearer. She married famed playwright Clifford Odets, whom she’d met one night while hanging out with George Gershwin and Harold Arlen at the renowned L.A. eatery the Brown Derby. She befriended Albert Einstein and knew Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin. Then, after just three years in Hollywood, she walked away from the film business.
Born in Düsseldorf to a prominent silk-manufacturing family, Rainer found early fame as a stage actress in Vienna. In 1935, a scout for MGM brought her to L.A., where she made her Hollywood debut in the William Powell movie Escapade. A year later, she reteamed with Powell (along with Myrna Loy) for Ziegfeld, which features a famously emotional scene where Rainer reconnects with her ex-husband on the telephone. She followed that hit with an adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, a then-daring portrayal of Chinese peasants in which Rainer barely speaks.
The actress doesn’t remember much about her two Oscar wins. ”At the time that I received them, I did not really know their importance,” she says. ”I was just a few years in America. I only understood what Oscars meant much, much later. The ceremony was far less elaborate in my time than it is now.” In fact, Rainer almost missed the 1938 event. As her daughter, Francesca Bowyer, relates, Rainer had ”a terrible argument with Clifford Odets that night and was very upset.” She initially wanted to skip the ceremony, but eventually she agreed to make an appearance. ”She had nothing to wear, so she threw on this silk shift,” says Bowyer. ”Of course, my mother was always very elegant no matter what she did. You could put a potato sack on her and she looked elegant.”
After The Good Earth, Rainer appeared in five more MGM films. But despite her twin Oscar wins, she wasn’t offered the meaty roles she thought she deserved, and soon found herself at odds with the all-powerful MGM head Louis B. Mayer. Meanwhile, her relationship with Odets was crumbling. One day in 1938, Rainer walked into Mayer’s office to ask for some time off. Mayer refused, pointing out that she was under contract for several more films. ”She said, ‘I need to leave. I need to find my soul,”’ says Bowyer, relaying the story as her mother told it to her. ”He replied, ‘What do you need a soul for? You’ve got a director.’ ” Then Mayer laid it out for her. ”He said, ‘If you leave now, you will never work in this town again. We made you, we’re gonna break you.’ And she said, ‘Mr. Mayer, God made me, and long after you’re dead I will still be alive.’ She walked out.” At that moment, Rainer’s life as a Hollywood star was basically over.
Rainer and Odets split in 1940 after only three years of marriage, and she later wed prominent publisher Robert Knittel (they were together until his death in 1989). She kept acting in theater and on TV, even appearing in a 1984 episode of The Love Boat. But she never recaptured her career’s early magic. ”I think that she was very unhappy that she let her profession slip through her fingers,” says Bowyer. Rainer even told her daughter that she had been using one of her Oscars as a doorstop.
For the past 22 years, Rainer has lived in a large apartment on London’s Eaton Square. Her Oscars now occupy a position of prominence on a bookshelf in her office. (The Academy agreed to replace the damaged doorstop statuette.) Though she can’t hear very well and she’s much less mobile since a fall six years ago, Rainer remains amazingly present. ”She’s very frail and yet very strong,” says Bowyer, who lives in California but visited her mother in January. ”She’s like a hummingbird: frail, delicate, beautiful, but in constant mental movement. She’s extremely aware.”
Rainer still loves to take in London’s cultural offerings, heading out to the theater, art museums, and, yes, movies — despite her hearing problems. ”The last film I saw was a French film called The Artist,” she says. For once, hearing wasn’t an issue: The Oscar front-runner is nearly silent. ”I thought it was most inventive. But I am not sure if I like it as much as many older films.”
On her 102nd birthday, 10 or so people gathered in Rainer’s apartment for champagne. Philip Treacy, the well-known hat designer and a longtime friend, says he found her as striking as ever. ”She’s still a movie star,” he says. ”She has the same poise, the same elegance, the same presence, the same way of talking. She can only be Luise Rainer — and she didn’t disappoint.”