Hollywood Calling: Luise Rainer, Sally Hawkins, and the First Law of Telephone Scenes




BEWARE OF your successes; you may never live them down. That’s one lesson to learn from the life of Luise Rainer, who died on December 30, 2014, at the age of 104. She went everywhere, knew everyone, practically embodied the 20 century. Just read her obits, which look like they were written on a pad of Celebrity Mad Libs.

[Clifford Odets] was so jealous of her friendship with [Albert Einstein] that he [defaced a photograph of him] with a pair of scissors.

(True story.) But no matter how long or eventful her life turned out to be, she never outran one minor achievement from 1936: a four-minute scene in a three-hour film that you’ve probably never watched. Believe it or not, this scene changed Rainer’s life. More than that: it set a standard for acting in Hollywood film.

This “famous telephone scene,” as the obits call it, comes late in the MGM biopic The Great Ziegfeld (1936). Luise Rainer plays Anna Held, chief starlet and first wife of the producer Florenz Ziegfeld. Halfway into the film, the couple splits and Rainer more or less vanishes, but 40 minutes later she reappears for an encore, a swan song — for the scene that would define her career.

When this scene begins, Anna has just read news of Florenz’s remarriage to another woman. Without quite thinking, she asks her maid to ring him up — to “congratulate him,” she says. But in the few seconds it takes for the operator to connect the call, Anna realizes how impossible this conversation will be. Her face floods with tears, her voice congeals in her throat, and she barely manages to croak out the words: “No, Marie! Hang up!” Too late: he’s on the line.

And this is when the scene gets really good. She stills her voice, breathes deeply, then intones, “Hello, Flo.” Each word glimmers like hand-cut crystal. You can’t even hear her heart tearing in two. And so it goes: her voice hides the truth from Flo, but her face always reveals it to us, twitching and clenching like a critter slowly tortured to death. “Oh, it’s all so wonderful. I’m so happy — Yes, and I hope you are happy, too.” Which hurts more, you may begin to wonder: telling these lies, or having them believed?

But then — do you know the feeling? After you’ve cried yourself tired, your grief goes calm and your mood goes queer. Anna reaches that state, then exhales the words, “Oh, I’m so glad for you, Flo.” Go to YouTube now, listen to that line ten times, and I dare you to say it sounds the same way twice. It’s despairing. No, it’s relieved. Well, it’s bittersweet. Or maybe it’s erotic. The more I listen, the less I feel sure.

This, I think, is what thrilled Luise Rainer’s audiences. When the scene began, they felt sure they could measure the gap between words and feelings, and Rainer flattered this confidence, at least for a little while. See how neat the ironies are? See how transparent I am? But by the end, we find ourselves falling into the chasm we thought we were spanning so easily. Her acting was superficial — while it was luring us into the depths. It was melodramatic — but to weirdly realist effect.

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Legend has it that this scene single-handedly won Rainer an Oscar. Not only that: it won her a Best Actress Oscar, though everyone later agreed (once the fever had passed) that Anna Held was a supporting role. And like that, Hollywood had discovered another law of nature: as night follows day, so Oscars follow telephone scenes.

Whether this was true hardly mattered. People believed it, and so it had power. By the ’50s, if an actor was questioned on his choice of roles or the terms of his contracts, one sentence could set all shaking heads a-nodding: Ah yes, but that film has a telephone scene for me. (This is how Edmond O’Brien explained his low billing for The Barefoot Contessa [1954].) By the ’60s, the hype was so high for telephone scenes, it became the butt of actors’ and journalists’ wry jokes. (“Young Barbara Werle does not think she will win an Oscar for her 5½-minute telephone monologue,” reports one article about the sci-fi movie Seconds [1966].)

And still, today, you can hear people passing the truism along. “You know,” director Bill Condon recently remarked, “they say for a great performance you need a great telephone scene.” All of this eager repetition can make Rainer’s achievement seem cheap. (CLICK HERE to learn ONE WEIRD TRICK acting coaches don’t want you to know!!!) But even her shallowest followers attest to the depth of Rainer’s impact on Hollywood acting. Doesn’t the sheer number of disciples bear witness to some true revelation?

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But no success goes unpunished for long in this bad, old world. With all the fatal irony of a fairy tale curse, Rainer found herself doomed to repeat this scene ad nauseam. She performed it at movie promotions and revived it for benefits. It dominated her life until, three years later, she quit the movie biz. “Nobody gave me a chance,” she explained at the time, “to say what I thought of repeating a telephone conversation over and over again.”

That scene had made Rainer a legend, but even legends were supposed to do what they were told — especially female legends. Rainer, though, wouldn’t stand for it. Sick of the mediocre scripts and sexist treatment, she gave Louis B. Meyer an ultimatum: produce a movie starring me as Marie Curie, then shoot Ibsen’s A Doll’s House with me playing Nora. Meyer balked, of course, and Rainer slammed the door. During the 75 years that remained of her life, she would appear in only two more feature films.

I admit, it feels strange to imagine Luise Rainer (a.k.a., “The Viennese Teardrop”) playing the Nobel laureate Marie Curie or the proto-feminist Nora Helmer — but this is only because MGM never let us imagine Rainer that way. Instead, the studio made her repeat the same scene over and over — both literally and figuratively. It was a scene of emotional transparency and availability to her audience. It was women’s work, this business of telephone scenes.

Men may later have claimed that they, too, were doing telephone scenes but, in general, the phone worked differently for men in films. AT&T once marketed their service to businessmen by saying it would send “the strength of [their] individuality” along its wires, thereby endowing them with a new, “sixth sense,” “the power of personal projection.” (Just one touch of his customer’s steely “individuality,” and the ad-man falls into a swoon!) This was Hollywood’s standard image of a man at the telephone. He might either succeed or fail, but he was attempting to coordinate and control. Rather than scenes of exposure, the phone afforded him scenes of power.

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Tinseltown’s First Law of Telephone Scenes is about to be put to the ultimate test. There are two films eligible for an Oscar this year that are made entirely of telephone calls: Locke (2013) and The Phone Call (2013). These are obvious star vehicles for Tom Hardy and Sally Hawkins, respectively, and if either is nominated and wins, you can bet Luise’s ghost will be haunting that podium. (The Phone Call is only 20 minutes long, so there’s no hope of a solo Oscar for Hawkins; but if the film wins for Best Live Action Short, then it will surely have been thanks to her work.)

Locke (dir. Steven Knight) takes place entirely in a car en route from Birmingham, England to a hospital in London. As the title character drives, he darts from call to call on his car’s built-in speakerphone. I’m loath to spoil any detail of setup or plot, since a film this minimalist relies on leaking its facts slowly. So, I’ll simply say this: Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is a family man and a foreman who’s trying to manage two crises while guzzling cold syrup and speeding all the way to London. (Don’t tell his insurer.) One crisis is technical, the other emotional, but they both feel pretty emotional to him.

At 85 minutes long, Locke is billed as a thriller, but it’s actually a thrillingly deep character study. Tom Hardy speaks with a soft, Welsh accent whose music is mesmerizing from the start; and with each call Hardy shifts his tone ever-so-slightly, cutting new facets into Ivan Locke’s character. The film’s premise — the car as a sort of mobile command center — may make it sound like one, long act of “personal projection,” but the movie succeeds in transcending this cliché. Ivan Locke’s very calmness amid the storm, at least as Hardy portrays it, begins to look like the surest sign that all is lost.

The Phone Call (dir. Mat Kirkby) takes place in a call center for a crisis helpline, and its dialogue consists entirely of one call with a man contemplating suicide. Again, it feels wrong to spill details the movie rations so stingily, but I can at least say this: the employee who fields the call (Sally Hawkins) must strike a balance between showing empathy and taking action. It’s a brilliant meditation on the limits of empathy, and Hawkins is riveting in the role. You watch her striving to be what the distressed man wants her to be, while always pursuing her own agenda on the side.

This element of suspense and action makes The Phone Call much more than another spectacle of women’s transparency to us. It’s not a mere example of the affective labor that society seems to demand exclusively of women; it becomes, in Hawkins’s hands, a shrewd reflection on this demand. The man on the line may expect her to be a hand-holder and a surrogate daughter, but even while she plays this role, she knows how to go on doing her work. The film falls short, though — it fails Hawkins — when it needlessly ends with a scene showing her character on a date with a friend and co-worker from the call center. As a cracked, baby-talk voice sings — “Take this chance on me!” — they seize the day with a Relationship Upgrading kiss. How dispiriting to learn that this is all Mat Kirkby thinks of his own film.

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If I believed in myths and curses, I’d root against The Phone Call this February. I’d hate for Hawkins’s career to end like Rainer’s. But I don’t believe in such things, so I’m rooting for The Phone Call — not for the film, with its sappy ending, but for the way it might perpetuate Rainer’s legend. Let’s give her more than 10 seconds in an “In Memoriam” reel; let’s give her a surrogate and an heir at that podium. Ride on, Sally! May you lift that statuette — then go on to make all the movies Luise never could.

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Christopher Grobe is Assistant Professor of English at Amherst College.


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