Luise Rainer is a name long forgotten in the film world, except by historians and major film nerds, of which I am one. Even so-called “film buffs” have never heard of the actress who won the first two consecutive acting Oscars, retired shortly thereafter and lived to the ripe old age of 104. Certainly part of the problem is how long ago her work was recognized, her short film career, and the absence of any solid film persona that has lingered.
Any review of her work includes the tired old chestnut that “despite limited appearances” (as the ever-questionable Wikipedia entry describes) in her first Oscar-winning performance in The Great Ziegfeld (1936), it was really her one big scene toward the end of the film that won her the Best Actress Award. This is Rainer’s moving telephone conversation congratulating former lover Ziegfeld on his marriage to Billie Burke (best known as Glinda in The Wizard of Oz.) This entire perspective needs to be upended and reviewed.
Yes, the telephone scene is certainly one of the best in all film history, and probably the strongest in the studio era. The aching contrast between what she is saying and the expressions on her face is admittedly touching, and coming toward the end of the film, is probably what most viewers tend to remember about her performance. When I recently revisited the film, however, I was struck by two things: how much Rainer is actually in the first part of the film, and how very good she was in all her scenes, deserving of the award quite apart from the telephone scene.
For one, Rainer performs in numbers her real-life character Anna Held presented years before. Held was known more for her personality and style than her voice, and the performances here walk the fine line between showing her star quality while presenting a voice that is usually “good enough” to pull off the songs—most of which wouldn’t tax a real singer. Rainer makes this look easy, and the songs are usually so light, that it’s tempting to ignore the quality of her work.
But it’s her scenes with William Powell as Ziegfeld that are most impressive. She plays what we might call a flippertigibett, moving with quicksilver speed from “I hate him” to “I love him” and “tell him to leave,” to “no, tell him to stay.” Most other actresses wouldn’t have been able to navigate the quickly shifting thought processes and lightning-fast mood swings of such a character; most would have slowed it down to be able to give some kind of shading to each thought before moving on to the next, or would have skimmed over the scene, unable to provide the necessary emotional depth of each quick feeling. Rainer, however, manages to bring authenticity to every serious and silly thought and feeling, and makes it look effortless.
Her subsequent scenes in the film aren’t challenging, but she keeps in character and gives her all to each moment, even when she’s not called upon to do very much. She drops out during most of the second half of the film, which is apparently why some think of her work as more of a supporting role. Myrna Loy, as Burke, appears late in the film, and as Ziegfeld’s last female partner, perhaps leaving a stronger impression in the memory because of that. But while Loy is fine in the role, it’s far less challenging than Rainer’s, and she isn’t in the film anywhere near as much. Powell dominates the film, of course, but in terms of a female presence in the film, it’s clearly Rainer’s film.
To complete her one-two punch, Rainer played a plain Chinese peasant, as quiet, unattractive, and unassuming as Held was not, in 1937’s The Good Earth, another long-for-its-time film that is unfortunately slipping from memory. While its then-common “whites for Asians” casting is off-putting today, the film has arguably the best locust attack on film, features two solid lead performances—especially Rainer’s as O-Lan—and Oscar-winning cinematography from legendary Karl Freund.
It’s easy to Google Rainer’s famous phone scene, and it’s admittedly something of a slog to make it through the lengthy half-accurate biopic on Ziegfeld (even if it won Best Picture) to see the rest of Rainer’s work. But between her acting and the over-the-top musical extravaganza “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” the film is worth a revisit. And Rainer’s work in it deserves to be appreciated for far more than her most famous scene.