The first actor to win 2 Academy Awards in consecutive years—for The Great Ziegfeld (1936), then for The Good Earth (1937)—she deprecated her talent, calling herself “the world’s worst actress.” I think she was being more than a tad harsh.
Apart from her double Oscar triumph, Rainer is best remembered for rejecting Hollywood at the height of her career. Frustrated with the identity dictated to her by MGM and annoyed by the shallowness of Tinseltown, she dropped her contract. She explained her decision in an interview years later, “I felt very uncomfortable on that pedestal. I was not groomed for that outer life… It all didn’t fit quite with what I wanted to do in life. And I needed to leave, to save myself. And that is what happened.”
Rainer and Louis B. Mayer, who reportedly told her that he could make a great actress out of any good-looker. She said, “I was horrified!”
When I heard the sad news about Rainer’s death, I felt that a rewatch of The Great Ziegfeld was in order. At 3 hours long, it’s a rather tedious, cameo-crammed musical biopic. In other words, it represents just the sort of sprawling, escapist extravaganza that Depression-era audiences craved from MGM, Hollywood’s most prosperous and prestigious studio.
Even the usually dependable William Powell betrays signs of fatigue throughout this overblown biopic (although, in all fairness, he portrays Ziegfeld with a helluva lot more charm than my love Cary Grant showed as Cole Porter). Myrna Loy is a delight, as she always was, but she doesn’t show up until after the intermission, which is an awful long time to wade through sequins in hopes of a reunion of everyone’s favorite screen team.
As the French-born singer and actress Anna Held, Rainer really does steal the show. She’s like a lilac-scented breeze wafting through an open window on a stifling day.
She adds a much-needed touch of naughtiness and gaiety to a post-Code musical, as though she’d magically wandered off the set of a Lubitsch musical. Frolicking across a London musical hall stage, she warbles, “Won’t you come and play with me?” Swaddled though Rainer was in yards of lace, the mischievous twinkle in her eye sufficiently conveyed that Miss Held wasn’t inviting her listeners to join her in game of checkers.
Rainer’s role in Ziefeld paralleled her real-life struggles with the demands of stardom. In one comic scene, Held throws a full-on temper tantrum to rebel against her manager’s outlandish publicity stunts, such as sending her 20 gallons of milk each day to bathe in.
Held complains that Ziegfeld doesn’t exploit her talents as much as her fabricated personality: “In Paris I was a big success because they liked my voice. In London I was a big success because they liked my singing. But in America to be a big success I need 20 gallons of milk and then sit in it!” One can imagine Rainer launching into a similar tirade against the superficiality of MGM’s publicity machine.
As Rainer said, “I must’ve been the envy of millions of young girls all over America, and they didn’t know my real life… I had great sorrow.”
I couldn’t find Rainer’s famous “telephone scene” in a better quality than 240p on YouTube, so I decided to upload a higher quality version. Watch “the Viennese Teardrop” at her most iconic, professing her happiness while she tearfully bids adieu to the love of her life.
Rainer’s acting style is considerably more stylized that what you’ll see in most modern films. However, we must recall that she is actually playing an actress—and a rather flamboyant, fluttery one at that—in a moment of intense self-dramatization. It would be utterly out of character for ze great Anna ’eld to approach such a tragic moment with deadpan sorrow or mumbling naturalism.
According to Rainer, she contributed to the dialogue for this famous scene and drew on her knowledge of contemporary theater to give it depth. Jean Cocteau’s “La Voix Humaine”—a one-woman play in which the protagonist says goodbye to the man she loves over the telephone—served as her inspiration.
“I was able to abbreviate a small scene and I wrote it. And it was obviously a success,” Rainer explained. I’ve seen Cocteau’s heart-wrenching play performed in a small theater, and Rainer encapsulated its primary emotions astonishingly well in her 3 minute scene.
In the 20th century and beyond, communications technology, from Held’s old-fashioned telephone call to texts and tweets sent from iPhones, have allowed us all to become performers when we “talk” to each other. Instead of looking someone in the eye when I tell them how I feel, I can retool my reactions and dissemble to suit the situation.
This lack of spontaneity does not necessarily mean a loss of intimacy or emotional connection. In fact, as Rainer clearly understood, the ironic contrast between what we say through our devices and what we really feel offers prime dramatic material.
As cute or affected as Rainer’s telephone scene may appear today, she grasped that the surreal disjuncture between her words and her facial expression would resonate with audiences—and she played it up to sentimental perfection.
Rainer baulked at Hollywood’s commercialism because she believed that true acting was about giving, about sharing art and passion with an audience. When Ziegfeld was released, American women were watching the men they loved (and depended on) shrivelling into husks of their former selves and, in many cases, drifting away from them. For these burdened mothers, wives, and daughters, the Viennese teardrop’s courageous mourning provided an elegant, idealized catharsis.
“Whatever impression I gave was that of a woman in love and that was my success,” Rainer said, analyzing her appeal in her adopted country. “People could identify themselves with my emotions.”
In a movie suffocating under mounds of spangles and feathers, Rainer incarnated a most unlikely 1930s heroine: a flighty but brave diva who refined the art of sobbing with a smile on her face.