Saturday, May 2, 2015

1937: Luise Rainer for The Good Earth

For the second year in a row, Luise Rainer won the Academy Award for Best Actress. This time, she plays O-Lan, a Chinese slave who is given in marriage to a poor Chinese farmer. The film tells the story of their life, with its many ups and downs.

Luise Rainer was German, but apparently Hollywood filmmakers liked to ignore that. In The Great Ziegfeld, her character was apparently supposed to be French (although the real life person she was portraying was born in Poland to a German father and French mother), which I guess is kind of close, but they definitely went too far by casting her as a Chinese person. It's very difficult for me to impartially evaluate her performance because I think O-Lan should have been played by a Chinese actress. Not that there were very many of those in 1937 Hollywood. Also, once Paul Muni was cast as Wang Lung, the Hays Code dictated that his wife also had to be Caucasian, since they didn't want to offend racist people by portraying interracial marriages. Though why they couldn't cast an Asian actor as Wang is also beyond me. Most of the other main characters were also played by white people wearing Chinese clothes, which made me so uncomfortable I could barely watch them. No, this movie did not age well. But honestly, given when this movie came out, I was surprised that it wasn't more racist.

For one thing, all the characters were portrayed with respect, as actual, realistic people, rather than the caricatures that racial minorities were often reduced to in films from that period. For another, some of the important characters and most of the background characters appeared to be played by actors who were, if not Chinese, at least of Asian heritage. By some miracle of genetics, Paul Muni and Luise Rainer managed to have three children who were actually Asian. So yes, there are cringe-worthy aspects of this film, but there were fewer than I was anticipating. There's really no legitimate justification for casting white people in Chinese roles, but the fact that it was made 78 years ago comes close to a good excuse.

Sorry, I'm talking too much about the movie as a whole and not enough about the Best Actress winner. Okay, if you can get past the whole German-playing-Chinese thing, which I'm not convinced is possible, Rainer's performance is actually quite good. While she was not at all believable as a Chinese person, she was very believable as a former slave trying to make the best of her life. Her character didn't have too many lines, which worked well for two reasons. First, while it's difficult to take a Caucasian pretending to be Asian seriously in the first place, it's pretty much impossible when she speaks in a thick German accent. Second, and probably more importantly, her facial expressions are perfect. Rainer had the whole hopeless, pitiful look down, and she gets to use it a lot in this film. The scene when she prepares to kill their ox to keep from starving and the scene when she finds jewels and is then almost executed for looting are two of the best scenes in the movie, and she pulls them off flawlessly without having to utter a word. The best silent film actors would have been proud of her performance. Again, she was definitely not right for the part, but she did the absolute best that was possible.

With this win, Rainer became the first person to receive this award twice, and at the age of 28, she remains the youngest person to receive a second Best Actress Oscar. As of when I'm writing this, she's also the most recently deceased Best Actress winner. She passed away last December at the age of 104, making her not only the longest living Best Actress winner so far, but also the only one to make it past the age of 100, although Olivia de Havilland is getting pretty close. After this film, Luise Rainer's career declined sharply, and she pretty much stopped making films a few years later. Consequently, she was never nominated for another Academy Award, which means she won 100% of the Oscars she was nominated for. Though I didn't love either of the films she won for, she was clearly very talented, and I wish she had been given better roles.

Next up: Bette Davis becomes the second person to win two Best Actress Oscars

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