My current Top 5

My current Top 5

11/06/2010

Best Actress 1937: Luise Rainer in "The Good Earth"

Time can do a lot to movies. It can turn them into classics or it can lead them into oblivion, it can make them important or meaningless, timeless or dated. In some cases, movies can terribly suffer from the fact that we see things different today – we say ‘times have changed’ and quickly a movie can become obsolete. Even a classic like Gone with the Wind can suffer from this – its treatment and presentation of the black characters receives more and more criticism every year and slowly spoils it reputation. The Good Earth is another movie that faces this problem. The fact that European actors with make-up portray Asian characters may have been standard in 1937, but from today’s point of view it seems almost like an insult not only to Chinese people but also to Chinese actors who were deprived of the chance to star in a movie about their country. Yes, The Good Earth will certainly not win an award for political correctness but nobody should brush this movie aside too quickly because it is done in a very tasteful and dignified way that never tries to put the central characters down – The Good Earth isn’t Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Paul Muni and Luise Rainer aren’t Mickey Rooney. Their performances are very respectful and they thankfully never try to imitate or fulfil any stereotypes but rather their performances help to make the movie’s themes very universal – a story about two people who have to fight for their land, for their share of happiness and for their survival.

In the centre of this tale is the character of O-lan, the quiet, strong, self-sacrificing and withdrawn wife of a Chinese peasant, played by Luise Rainer who had just won an Oscar the year before for her very different portrayal of the temperamental, extrovert French diva Anna Held in The Great Ziegfeld. The stark contrast between these two women surely made an impression on Academy members and critics alike and allowed Luise Rainer to become the first person ever to win two acting Oscars – and in consecutive years. But, as every Oscar follower knows, things didn’t quite turn out like expected and Luise Rainer’s career ended almost as quickly as it had begun and the legend of the ‘Oscar curse’ was born. Looking back it surely doesn’t seem too shocking that Luise Rainer’s career never really took off – there is something so…different, unique, almost exotic about her acting style, even in the part of O-lan which basically required her to be so withdrawn to the point of hardly moving at all, that it must have been difficult to cast her in more ‘conventional’ parts.

But even though, her win over the odds-on favourite Greta Garbo must certainly have been a surprise – but it’s not hard to see why Academy members voted for her a second time. Her O-lan is a truly epic achievement, a revelation of expressiveness, of subtle emotions and quiet spirit. It’s a performance that is so different, so inimitable and exists on a completely different level of excellence. Luise Rainer is even more delicate than Audrey Hepburn, even more sensual than Greta Garbo, even more wide-eyed than Bette Davis. She usually appears so flittering, nervous and almost pending but she was somehow able to completely reduce these aspects of her acting style while preserving this unusual screen presence that seems to come from an inner strength, an inner fire, an inner drive. Luise Rainer symbolizes this eternal question where this inner strength comes from, she is a prime example for a woman who seems to use her physical and spiritual energy and completely applies it to her work as an actress. She always appears as if she uses every bit of strength she possesses for her performances, as if acting is both exhausting and fulfilling for her. And by reducing her extrovert acting style and concentrating on the strength and exhaustion of her work she created one of the most fascinating characters in movie history, a woman who seems to have a never-ending source of strength inside of her that allows her to keep going, keep working and keep living despite appearing so weak and helpless.

Luise Rainer magnificently portrays that O-lan's quietness, her introvert nature and her obedience don’t actually come from being weak or helpless but instead from a life of oppression, slavery and poverty. Like a tortured animal, she has retreated into the most inner parts of her own body and mind, trying to remain mostly invisible but at the same time she is able to achieve all tasks she is asked to do and, sometimes, even becoming her own master when she takes matter into her own hands – but never for herself but always for the sake of her husband and her family.

Speech is silver, but silence is golden. In the performance of Luise Rainer, silence becomes a diamond. Her face can express so many emotions at the same time while keeping up the façade of a woman who tries not to express any emotions at all. O-lan is a woman who wants to attract no attention. When she, for the first time in the story, begins to talk out of her own will and tells about her dreams of returning to the Great House with her own son, Luise Rainer becomes truly magical as she does so many things at once – she lets O-lan dream, she lets her slowly break her silent mantle and forget herself until she realizes her own behaviour and quickly, almost ashamed disappears behind her façade again.

If there was a ever a performance that deserved to be praised for doing so much with so little, it’s Luise Rainer’s work in The Good Earth. She knows that her dialogue is limited and her character rather one-dimensional – O-lan is the prototype of the obedient, suffering wife but she uses her facial work and few lines to create a complex and rich character. She knows that her lines are limited and so she found a perfect way to communicate them with only slight chances in the nuance of her voice. Thankfully Luise Rainer didn’t try to fake her voice in any stereotypical way and hide her German accent which only could have been a disaster. Instead, she worked from the inside to create O-lan as a character – the fact that she also rejected any make-up helped her to find the emotional realism she so gloriously displayed. She delivers her lines in a mostly exhausted way as if it is taking all her strength to find the words and the courage to speak them out loudly but Luise Rainer is able to fill that tone with something else, an underlying meaning. Sometimes she is angry, sometimes she is sad, sometimes worried, sometimes content – Luise Rainer shows a large amount of emotions and feelings in O-lan that she expresses in the most subtle way. But it’s still mostly her quiet moments that almost give a new meaning to the expression tour-de-force. As in her speaking scenes, she let O-lan become a true firework of emotions but both O-lan and Luise Rainer repress and control them to fulfil the tasks they are given to do. So many of her most memorable moments belong to the most fascinating movie scenes in history thanks to her expressive face – the way she slowly prepares herself to kill the ox, the look of disappointment and disbelief when her husband couldn’t do that for the sake of his children, her joy when she feels the envy of her former master when she presents her first son or her work on the field just moments before she gives birth. Luise Rainer is always able to fill the tension of the moment with her delicate but at the same time earthy performance and that way carries the story in the most effective way. The rare moments of happiness in O-lan’s life are also done in a magical way by Luise Rainer who possesses a quiet and shy smile that brightens up the whole screen.

Luise Rainer also uses her own acting to expand the character of O-lan far beyond the written words. The look on her face when her husband asks her if she was beaten in the Great House tells her whole life story in just a few seconds. She wonderfully chose her first moment to let O-lan raise her voice – when she teaches her sons how to beg. This way she again creates a living and always threatening past for O-lan. The fear of this past is also influencing her behaviour and her hopes and thoughts about the future which makes O-lan the more important and responsible character in her marriage to Wang Lung. He seems to live for the day while his wife thinks ahead. This becomes obvious very soon when he throws away the seed from a peach and she picks it up again, saying “A tree will grow from this seed.” When she realizes that a famine might be ahead, she remembers that this was the reason that her parents sold her and so she does her best to keep her family intact, even giving them earth to eat when nothing else is available any more. When Wang Lung wants to sell his land because they have nothing, no money, no food and his wife expects another child, O-lan, exhausted from giving birth, appears and says that they will keep the land: "We'll not sell the land. We'll keep it. We'll go south. And when we'll we return, we still have the land." When her husband asks her about the child, she just says: "The child is dead." Did O-lan kill the newborn? She doesn’t show and her voice doesn’t reveal the truth but Luise Rainer’s desperation, anger and despair create a scene that is as sad as it is strained.

Especially in the scenes in the city, Luise Rainer shows an O-lan who has her own will to survive. Her matter-of-fact delivery of the line “Meat is meat.” is especially unforgettable and gives O-lan a very practical approach. When O-lan offers her husband to sell their daughter to get money to return to their home, Luise Rainer makes sure that, despite her apparent determination, O-lan doesn’t really mean what she is saying and that her offer is mostly made out of loyalty to her husband. When the mob in the city loots the Great House, Luise Rainer becomes particularly memorable. Her fear mixed with a sense of determination until it is finally replaced by pure panic is done incredibly effectively and in these scenes Luise Rainer lets O-lan for the first time appear really active and her acting seems much more uncontrolled and disengaged, in perfect harmony with the chaos around her.

In the second half of the story, Luise Rainer adds a heartbreaking dimension to her performance when her husband decides to take a second wife – in fact, O-lan is the one who suggests that he takes this new woman into the house. Even in this situation, she keeps loyal to her husband and his wishes. Her quiet suffering, unnoticed by everyone around her, her afflicted acceptance of her fate is shattering to watch and Luise Rainer creates some of the most moving images that ever graced the screen. Later, she tries for the first time to defy her husband when she complains about his second wife which again becomes an outstanding scene where Luise Rainer shows how O-lan tries to repress all her anger, moving her upper body back and forth, the words slowly debouching.

Overall, the whole performance could have been a complete disaster – the obvious miscasting of European actors and the nature of the part might have ended in a boring, inappropriate or at worst unbelievable performance but in the hands of Luise Rainer, O-lan becomes one of the great female characters in movie history. Luise Rainer shows that O-lan is a fighter in her own way – she never leaves the guidelines of her husband but she does her best to support him and find means to keep their dreams, their lives and their family intact. O-lan often seems invisible because she is so withdrawn and always prefers to stay in the background but when her husband tells her that everything they have is owed to her, it becomes really clear how strong O-lan’s and Luise Rainer’s presence really is.

This performance is definitely legendary – but only because in the historical context. And this is a true shame because Luise Rainer's performance is a piece of work that should be legendary simply based on its own merits. One of the greatest performances in motion picture history that easily receives

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

She was good,but not spectacular.Still better than her 'wasted oscar' performance in The Great Ziegfeld.Dunne and Garbo were better imho.

dinasztie said...

Although I'm not that enthusiastic about her, she gave an excellent performance.

Francesco said...

Hey.

Do you think she deserved an other nomination for a later performance ?

Fritz said...

@Francesco: I think she was fantastic in The Great Waltz and a nomination would have been deserving. BTW, the posts on your blog about the Oscars are very interesting. My French is unfortunately not so good but google helps me to understand your words better.

Sage Slowdive said...

Fantastic review, and of course I agree.

Fritz said...

Thanks a lot, Sage, and I am happy to heart that!

Dempsey Sanders said...

Another great review. Have not seen this performance yet so I feel I can't comment appropriatly, however after reading and agree on many of your other reviews, I certainly trust your judgment

Fritz said...

Thanks a lot, Patrick, but this is a case where you might diasgree with me since 90% of the people seem to dislike her performance very much. But if you ever get the chance so see it, please tell me what you thought about her!

joe burns said...

You saw much more in her then I did: I thought she had some good moments, but she was way too stiff and that ruined her performance. But I hated the movie so much, so that might have closed my mind while watching, so I might have missed something. She will win.


And a great review!

Fritz said...

Thanks a lot, Joe. I think this performance can easily divide people and I totally understand what you mean with being "too stiff" but this performance had just a different effect on me. Shows how subjective acting really is.

Francesco said...

@ Fritz. Many thanks. My english is really too limited, I can't write in the same language than the others bloggers but I read everyone with great pleasure.

About Rainer not only I like her very much in Good Earth (althought I was a bit desappointed the last time I saw the movie) but I really think her performance in Ziegfield is an excellent composition and she deserved clearly at least a nomination as supporting (and even as leading I'm not shocked.)
In the Great Waltz I had the feeling she was playing again her Good earth caracter. Unfortunately her others famous performances (Toy wife, Dramatic School, Escapade ...) are invisibles in France.

Fritz said...

Interesting that you think her performance in The Great Waltz was like The Good Earth. Personally I thought it was more like The Great Ziegfeld - sadly she was typecast as the suffering wife but nobody did it better than her.
She was also great in Big City.

Francesco said...

I think a half of her Ziegfield's performance is playing a French Diva, very frivolous, feminine and nice, but not so clever. Today people are often annoyed by her rendition. But I'm sure she's imitating consciously a certain type of women, almost a "femme-enfant". And she's doing that very well. We could not endure such a caractere in 2010, that's all. In her other supporting wife roles I know, that composition no longer exist. So I can do the connection between Great Waltz and Good Earth more than between Waltz and Ziegfield.
I hope I'm understandable. :-)

Fritz said...

Yes, you're perfectly understandable and your thoughts are very interesting!