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Book Review: Seen from the Wings: Luise Rainer. My Mother, The Journey

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There’s an apocryphal story about the first time director Alfred Hitchcock was nominated for an Oscar (for 1940’s Rebecca).  He hadn’t planned on attending the ceremony—in fact, he and wife Alma Reville spent most of that afternoon on the tennis court.  Yet the Hitchcocks thought it might be a lark to show up for the Academy Awards, and in a manner not out of place in a screwball comedy, rushed around like mad to doll themselves up for the affair in time.  Finally, they both realized they were being a bit silly about the whole thing (spoiler warning: Hitch didn’t win) and as the couple collected themselves Reville remarked on the ludicrousness of both the preparations and the Oscars in general.  “After all,” she cracked, “they gave Luise Rainer two of them.”

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Henry Stephenson and Luise Rainer in The Emperor’s Candlesticks (1937)

Indeed they did.  Rainer was not only the first actress to receive two back-to-back Academy Awards, she was the first performer to win back-to-back acting Oscars period.  Luise was also the first to win two trophies before the age of thirty, the first actress to win for portraying a real-life person (Anna Held in The Great Ziegfeld [1936], and the first performer to score a perfect track record—two nominations, two wins.  Her Oscar triumphs are not without their controversy, however.  It’s been persuasively argued that her turn in Ziegfeld is really more of a supporting one (her famed crying scene earned her the nickname “The Viennese Teardrop”) and those MGM employees with membership in the Academy put Rainer over the top by means of “block voting.”  Her second statuette came from playing “yellowface” in The Great Earth (1937; as O-Lan, the only Chinese peasant with an Austrian accent); many have called it Rainer’s finest hour onscreen but I tend to side with Danny Peary and his assessment in Alternate Oscars: “To be fair, Rainer did a satisfactory job, even if she spent too much of the picture using a stunned, hurt expression, as if she just stubbed her toe and didn’t want anyone to know her pain.”  (Irene Dunne was nominated along with Luise that year, and let me just state for the record that I can watch The Awful Truth—with that peerless comic performance by Dunne—far more many times than Good Earth.)

book-coverI didn’t compose those previous two paragraphs to slag on Luise Rainer, by the way: nothing snarky I say is going to take those trophies away, and brava to her achievements.  One of the reasons why I was intrigued to read Seen from the Wings: Luise Rainer. My Mother, The Journey—written by Rainer’s daughter, Francesca Knittel-Bowyer—is that I was curious to learn if there was something more to Luise’s cinematic legacy than the movies of hers I’ve seen (Ziegfeld, Earth, and 1937’s Big City).  There’s an anecdote in Knittel-Bowyer’s book that I think offers rather convincing evidence Rainer had little regard for her Academy Award triumphs: apparently the Academy replaced her Good Earth Oscar at her request because the statuette had become weatherbeaten over the years.  (Luise left out the portion of the narrative that she had been using that Oscar as a doorstop.)

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Rainer accepts her first of two Oscars (for The Great Ziegfeld). (Image from Francesca Knittel-Bowyer’s website.)

With Rainer now in possession of three Oscars, daughter Francesca asks if she can have the warped one.  “Absolutely not!” Luise tells her child. “That would be against the law.”  (There ain’t nothin’ meaner than Oscar law, pilgrims.)  Though she pleads with her mother and makes a persuasive case that the trophy will still be in the family, Rainer stubbornly sticks to “the rules.”  With the passage of time and a relocation of her famous mom to London, Francesca is unpacking a box marked “Oscars”…and finds only two statuettes inside.  She presses Luise on the whereabouts of the missing third trophy, and Rainer replies: “Oh, Daahhling, I needed a plumber in Lugano to do a little repair work for me.  I didn’t have the right amount of money on me, so I just gave him the Oscar.”

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Young Francesca and Luise

If you’re a Luise Rainer fan, you’re most assuredly going to want to read this book.  I have to be honest: I was a little disappointed—not because it presents an uncomfortable side of the actress (Knittel-Bowyer’s book reminded me a lot of the infamous Mommie Dearest, only with the absence of wire hangers and midnight cleaning expeditions), though it certainly does that.  Seen from the Wings is mostly Francesca’s story, with cameo appearances from her famous ma here and there, an existence accurately described by Knittel-Bowyer as an emotional “roller coaster experience.”  The reader is gently persuaded to accept that an artist like Luise means overlooking her difficult temperament (her interactions with her daughter border on outright cruelty from time to time)…and while no one’s mother can meet true paragon qualifications, if I were the child of perfectionist mom Rainer, I don’t think she would have made it to 104, if you get my meaning.

Knittel-Bowyer’s narrative is also discouraging because while she displays an admirable commitment to her own two daughters—something completely at odds with her relationship with her Oscar-winning mom—the on-again, off-again difficulties between Luise and Francesca are magnified in the marriages of Knittel-Bowyer: one to a textbook Peter Pan type, the other to a Jekyll-and-Hyde who belts Francesca around after enjoying a few belts himself.  It’s quite painful reading these sections of the book; if you’re like me you’ll find yourself saying “Girlfriend, kick him to the curb!” after a fashion.

luise1With Luise Rainer’s passing in 2014, the fourth estate was quite anxious to get a statement from her only daughter.  Francesca Knittel-Bowyer would tell the curious: ”If you knew her, you’d never forget her.”  Seen from the Wings, sadly, doesn’t provide us with a satisfying opportunity for either; whether or not it was the author’s intention, Luise Rainer often comes across as a Carol Burnett-like parody of a motion picture star, and the book is also not helped by Francesca’s potboiler approach to chronicling her life’s adventures (a lot of the dialogue in this book comes off sounding like something from a paperback bodice-ripper).  If books about movie stars written by their offspring is your meat (Maria Riva’s Marlene Dietrich: The Life; B.D. Hyman’s My Mother’s Keeper) you’re going to want to crack open this BookBaby tome.  (Many thanks to Facebook compadre Jeff Abraham at Jonas PR for slipping me a copy.)

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