Interview: Luise Rainer - 'God, or whoever it is, gave so much into my cradle and I have not lived up to it…'

LUISE RAINER (which rhymes, in the German manner, with "finer" not "plainer") shows me into a Belgravia apartment furnished as only exquisite taste and a very great deal of money can allow.

• Luise Rainer arrives for the UK premiere of The Aviator. Picture: PA

Days from her 100th birthday – she will reach 100 next Tuesday – the star popularly assumed to have initiated the Oscar "jinx" is pencil slim and regal to the point of parody, her hazel eyes amazingly alert. What is causing her present frustration is that she no longer has access to her files: "My papers are in Boston University – I gave them much too early, because I didn't know I was going to live as long as I do…"

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Her delivery is still Germanic, her manner as imperious as it was in 1938 when she stood in the head office of MGM and argued with the most highly paid man in the United States: "I was one of the horses of the Louis B Mayer stable, and I thought the films I was given after my Academy Awards were not worthy. I couldn't stand it anymore. Like a fire it went to Louis B Mayer, and I was called to him. He said, 'We made you, and we are going to kill you.' And I said, 'Mr Mayer, you did not make me, God made me. I am now in my twenties; you are an old man,' which of course was an insult" – here she laughs with guttural strength – "'By the time I am 40, you will be dead.' And I went out. He did not permit me to make any more films. I had immense ambition to become a really valuable actress. Today, the whole system is different. Take a person like Julia Roberts, she does what she wants."

Her last trip to Hollywood, for the 2003 Academy Awards, allowed her to play the star once more: "It was fabulous! Jane Fonda said, 'Luise Rainer is the best actress that Hollywood ever had.'" As for Jack Nicholson: "They said to him, 'You are a great lady's man. Who seemed the most interesting?' And he said: 'Luise Rainer.'" Yet the visit also reminded her of what was lost: "I resented myself very much; there were many things that I should have done. I feel it today, at nearly 100 years old: God, or whoever it is, gave so much into my cradle and I have not lived up to it."

Born on 12 January, 1910, she had defied parental objections, leaving her native Dsseldorf to work for the Viennese theatre director Max Reinhardt – who despaired of her when she accepted an offer from MGM. "He was very upset," she says. But go she did, only to initially find herself unwanted: "I dreamed of getting back to Europe. I had my little Scottie dog, Johnny. He travelled with me from Vienna, and we were running along the beach and a lady came towards me and said, 'Aren't you the girl who just came from Austria?'" Myrna Loy had dropped out of the film Escapade, and MGM woke up to the potential replacement they had under their noses. "And then all the nonsense started. I had to go to the make-up department, and Max Factor put false eyelashes on, and made lines from the corners of the mouth that went upwards. I said: 'Why do you do that?' He said: 'To make you look more pleasant."

Rainer's next film was The Great Ziegfeld, in which she stormed to stardom, winning the New York Film Critics Award and her first Oscar as the tearful first Mrs Ziegfeld. Even then she was dissatisfied. "I was not part of what's called social life; looking this way or that way was never quite my style." Blind to the way that Hollywood operated, she still found intellectual soulmates: "Gershwin gave me his score of Porgy and Bess, and idiotically I gave that too to Boston. He wrote in it, 'The only thing that caps her charm is her talent.'" Through Gershwin, she also met her first husband. "We had dinner at the Brown Derby and Clifford Odets came in, and everybody was silent because he was very famous: he'd had great, great success with his plays in New York." Odets was one of the founders of New York's progressive Group Theatre, but Rainer was "unconnected" to this: "I know the good from the bad, also the in-between, but I was never political."

At MGM, she continued to work in proximity to the biggest idols in the world: "Garbo was not a great mixer and neither was I, but at Metro there was a house on the lot for stars, and each one of us had an apartment while we were working: Garbo, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and I, the four of us."

Norma Shearer was married to Irving Thalberg, the "Boy Wonder" of MGM responsible for casting Rainer in her finest role as O-Lan in The Good Earth, over Asian actresses such as Anna May Wong. "Louis B Mayer was very, very much against my becoming a little old Chinese girl, he wanted me to be a beauty – but Thalberg insisted that I should play that part. I read the script and she hardly talked and I thought, 'I'm going to be a hilarious bore'." The Good Earth, a worldwide success, was Thalberg's final film. "For the whole studio, he was an enormous plus – far, far above Louis B Mayer – but he died." What if he had lived longer? "I would have stayed longer at the studio." Better scripts? "I am quite certain about it."

For O-Lan, she won her second Academy Award, controversially beating Greta Garbo in Camille, just as her marriage was starting to fall apart. "We were in San Francisco, and Odets was very hard on me. I telephoned home and the girl said, 'All the newspapers are saying: 'Does Miss Rainer shun the Academy Award?' So I went back and changed in a great, great hurry, and I didn't want Odets to come with me. I was so unhappy that we had to drive a few times around the block."

Today, her Oscars sit high on her study bookshelf. One is a replacement. Rumours for this vary considerably: the original was broken in a fit of pique; it had a case of metal fatigue; it was given to a removal man who eyed it longingly.

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The films after Thalberg's death fell away in quality. The Emperors' Candlesticks was "idiotic". Big City was no better, despite co-starring Spencer Tracy. In 1938, she had a hit with The Great Waltz – also known as "The Great Schmaltz" – in which she played another neglected wife, Mrs Johann Strauss. But the failure of Dramatic School precipitated her exit from Hollywood. By that time, she had split from Odets. "He lived in New York, I lived in California, and that's not a marriage. He was very turmoiled, and I couldn't handle it."

An unsuccessful London stage debut was followed by war work for Eleanor Roosevelt, and other stage roles, including two flops on Broadway. The "Viennese teardrop" quality that had brought her so much early praise was now criticised as fey. More disappointment was of her own making. In the early years of the Second World War, she had helped secure Bertolt Brecht's passage out of Germany by signing his affidavit for the US – without having met him. "I knew his work, I always respected him as a beautiful poet, but his plays were always black and white." In gratitude, he offered to write for her. She chose what became The Caucasian Chalk Circle, but the opportunity to create the role of Grusha was ruined by her antipathy: "He was like a spider, something I didn't want to touch…"

She still attracted the adoration of many famous artists, including writers Henry Miller and Anas Nin, and the friendship of Albert Einstein. In 1945, she met her second husband, publisher Robert Knittel, with whom she remained until his death in 1989 and who proved her rock against insecurities new and old. "My parents came to America and we had a meal together, and Robert said to my father, 'Luise is a great artist,' and he just said, 'Do you think so, my son?'"

Moving to London, she appeared in the occasional BBC play, before again being presented with a chance of a major comeback – and, again, failing to embrace it – when Federico Fellini asked her to play an important cameo in La Dolce Vita. One story has it that she walked off set after he insisted that she have on-screen sex with Marcello Mastroianni; another that he cut her out after she insisted on writing her own dialogue. By the 1960s, she was almost forgotten, other than for the "curse" of her back-to-back Oscars, summarised by her own remark: "For my second and third pictures I won Academy Awards. Nothing worse could have happened to me."

Quietly, the Knittels and their daughter, Francesca, split their time between London and Switzerland. Finally, in 1997, Rainer returned to the big screen in an adaptation of Dostoyevsky's The Gambler, in which the Times' reviewer judged her to have "astonishing fire".

And here she is today: the elfin charmer who wanted to do great things and yet fell out with many of the people who could help her achieve them; who hated her time in Hollywood and yet adored returning in 2003; who disdains politics and yet whose early memories include her horror at seeing the Reichstag burn.

The contradictions are perhaps as much evidence of her star quality as her indelible portrayals in The Great Ziegfeld, The Good Earth and The Great Waltz. As our surviving link with Old Hollywood and some of the greatest figures of the last century, it may be that her life turns out to be her most significant work.

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• To mark Luise Rainer's 100th birthday, the Filmhouse in Edinburgh will screen three of her films later this month: The Good Earth on 12 January, The Great Ziegfeld on 16 January and The Great Waltz on 24 January.