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In the centre of this tale is the character of O-lan, the quiet, strong, self-sacrificing and withdrawn wife of a Chinese peasant, played by Luise Rainer who had just won an Oscar the year before for her very different portrayal of the temperamental, extrovert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unique, almost exotic about her acting style, even in the part of O-lan which basically required her to be so withdrawn to the point of hardly moving at all, that it must have been difficult to cast her in more ‘conventional’ parts.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.
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