For Claude Rains’ birthday: a conversation some years back, where Mitchell and I discuss the superb actor. I asked Mitchell to describe him in one word, and we took it from there. We both love Rains so much, it was fun to discuss him.
SOM: One word.
In a lot of ways, Cary Grant was the greatest male movie star ever. But I think that Claude Rains was actor first, movie star second. You need it done? You get Claude Rains. He’s the pro. There’s a scene in Mr. Skeffington where he has dinner with his daughter and it is so heartbreaking and so contemporary and so real. His performance is so full of compassion. He’s got those warm watery eyes. But then you can see him play somebody almost evil like in Notorious.
MF: He can be funny and quirky like in Casablanca. And then somebody so good and honest like in Now, Voyager. Or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Then he played Caesar in Caesar and Cleopatra, with Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra, and he’s marvelous and funny and warm.
MF: Nobody looks like Claude Rains. It would be very difficult to know who he really was. Cary Grant wanted us, on some level, to know who he was. He was sort of telling us what to think about him in a lot of ways, and then he used that as the jumping-off point of his acting career. But with Claude Rains, I don’t know who the hell Claude Rains is. I couldn’t even begin to tell you. To a lot of people he’s The Invisible Man. To a lot of people he’s the guy from Casablanca. To me his ultimate performance is in Mr. Skeffington because he is so full of kindness in that movie.
MF: On Turner Classic Movies they do these little mini bios between movies and I think Richard Chamberlain did one about Claude Rains and working with Rains towards the end of Rains’ life. Rains was older and having trouble remembering his lines. This is why I say he was a professional. He had a big speech in the movie, he kept blowing his lines, he was getting frustrated, he kept saying, “There’s too many words.” You know, blaming it on the script in some way. And before he became too much of a douchebag about it, he said in a self-deprecating way, sort of called it on himself: “Clearly I can’t remember my lines.” He was totally professional to call that out on himself, and then of course went on to give a fabulous performance.
MF: I think Claude Rains … I don’t want to limit it to film acting, I think he’s one of the greatest actors who has ever lived. Even though he was always Claude Rains, clearly recognizable, his funny little face, his weird stance … he’s the greatest there ever was. There’s Deception with Bette Davis where he plays this evil son of a bitch music teacher and she ends up shooting him. And you totally buy him in that, and then you totally love him as the father in all those movies where he has a brood of girls. You just believed him, no matter what he said.
SOM: He doesn’t change his appearance radically which is the trend now with actors, they feel like they’re not doing enough: “If I look like myself, I’m not acting”. Claude Rains always had his silver hair, but it’s like his soul changed. He could change his soul.
MF: I think he came from the school where I’m not sure they knew how to do it any other way. You walked out onstage and you became the character. I’m not familiar with his history. Was he a stage actor?
SOM: He had a ton of stage experience. He came from good old Show Trash. His parents were actors.
MF: See, that’s it. And isn’t that interesting, my first word was professional. The man was a pro. He also finished off with some classic films, unlike Joan Crawford. That’s a cautionary tale.
SOM: Well, he’s a male.
MF: The boys fared better. Joan and Bette … they gave Meryl Streep the gift of being able to have the long career that she has. The battles that Joan and Bette fought, all of them, Susan Hayward, Meryl Streep is the beneficiary of that.
SOM: When people dismiss Meryl Streep as “Well, she’s a leading lady, she’s a movie star, whatever”, my point always is: “Whether or not you like her acting is irrelevant. What other leading lady in her mid 60s do you know of?” This is a pioneer career. Can we give her props for that? I am so sick of ignorant commentary like that where people have no idea of the context of what is happening right before our eyes.
MF: There are two women of that age who can open movies, and it’s Barbra Streisand and Meryl Streep.
SOM: Joan Crawford was not doing the parts she should have been doing when she was an old lady.
MF: Yes, she did not get the opportunity. So the fact that those ladies lasted, in spite of everything that was against them, is extraordinary. But boy, Claude Rains finished out pretty great. His two last films were Lawrence of Arabia and The Greatest Story Ever Told. That’s pretty high up there. He wasn’t doing Trog, let’s put it that way. He was a consummate pro.