In the tired lexicon of Hollywood the only career worth having is still “meteoric.” By rights, the adjective should have been retired 40 years ago by actress Luise Rainer. The doe-eyed ingenue won unprecedented back-to-back Oscars for her second and third movies—The Great Ziegfeld and The Good Earth. But then the scripts offered her turned bad and she wanted out of her MGM contract. “We’ve made you,” threatened Louis B. Mayer, “and we’ll break you.” “To him,” she says, “I was like a diamond that walked off the counter.” The actress, born in Düsseldorf, retired to Europe. Now in her 60s, Luise is getting favorable reviews once more—this time as a painter. Her first exhibition of 39 canvases and collages opened in London to notices praising her “refreshing originality” and “imaginative intensity.” The price tags range up to $1,300.
Rainer grew up with “an immense need to express,” she says with the slightly awkward English that remains from her childhood. She recalls that at 10 she reproduced a Rembrandt drawing only to be chastised by her father, an import-export executive, who told her, “It is a lie to copy someone else’s work.” (Thus traumatized, she did not take up art seriously again for five decades.) Growing up, she rebelled against her family’s unsettled life, and after eight schools by the age of 16, she dropped out for the stage in her hometown, then Vienna. In 1935 she went to Hollywood for William Powell’s Escapade, a part she had landed—along with the Metro contract.
“They completely abused me,” she recalls. “I had no say at all.” The other disappointment in her life was “a disastrous, Strindberg marriage” in 1937 to playwright Clifford Odets. He was “a beautiful, lovable man,” however, she says, compared to MGM’s Mayer, who told her other actresses sat on his knee when doing business. “I wouldn’t,” she recounts stiffly. She escaped to Manhattan and the stage in 1939 and made only one more movie, an admitted embarrassment, The Hostages. In 1945 she married Oxford-educated publisher Robert Knittel. They became the parents of a daughter, Francesca, and have lived in London since 1956.
Now a grandmother, Rainer says she’d consider a return to the screen “if the role were right.” (Fellini, she says, “sank to his knees” on Rome’s Spanish Steps to beg her to take a part in La Dolce Vita, which she rejected as ill-conceived.) In the meantime she stays busy with her painting, traveling, furnishing their vacation house overlooking Switzerland’s Lake Lugano, and entertaining an occasional wistful reminiscence. “I wish I hadn’t been so young,” she says. “Hollywood is a terribly difficult place for a vulnerable person.”