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Luise Rainer (January 12, 1910 - December 30, 2014) left Nazi Germany for Hollywood and soared to fame in the 1930s as the first star to win back-to-back Oscars, then quit films at the peak of her career for occasional stage work and roles as a wife, mother and mountain climber. After making a few films in Germany in 1935, Rainer made her first Hollywood film, Escapade, starring William Powell. Because of her accent and European demeanor, she was compared to Greta Garbo, who was then one of the most popular stars in Hollywood. In 1936 she appeared opposite Powell again in The Great Ziegfeld. Her skillful and flamboyant portrayal of Ziegfeld’s first wife, French actress Anna Held, earned her the first of her two Best Actress Oscars. She was just twenty-six years old. The very next year, Rainer beat out Anna May Wong for the role of O-lan, the Chinese peasant at the center of The Good Earth, a film adapted from Pearl S. Buck’s novel. In contrast to the part of Anna Held, O-lan was defined by her humility and her silent submission to her husband’s will. Rainer had few lines in the film, and she rarely looked directly at the camera. Because of its difference from her earlier roles, Rainer’s O-lan was widely praised as evidence of her strength and range as a dramatic actress. In 1937 she was chosen over Greta Garbo to receive the Academy Award for Best Actress.
Rainer was a child of middle-class Jews in Dusseldorf and Hamburg during World War I and came of age in a new Germany of depression, starvation and revolution. Under Max Reinhardt's direction, she became a young stage and film star in Vienna and Berlin, performing Pirandello and Shaw. She watched the Reichstag burn in 1933 and heard Hitler on the radio. In 1934 an MGM scout signed her to a contract.
She sailed to America in 1935, a 5-foot-3 ingenue, rail thin, with dark hair and a sweet girlish smile, too innocent for celebrity. But it seemed everyone on board knew who she was. On her 25th birthday, the stewards arranged a celebration in the saloon, and she was serenaded by the Russian operatic bass Feodor Chaliapin and the great violinist Mischa Elman.
by Carl Van Vechten
Clifford Odets and Luise Rainer by Carl Van Vechten
She landed in America, a stranger with a guttural Mittel-European accent that had to be subdued. But two years later, Rainer won her first Academy Award, as the best actress of 1936, for her portrayal of Anna Held, the actress, singer and scorned common-law wife of the showman Florenz Ziegfeld, in MGM's lavish musical production The Great Ziegfeld.
Her part, paradoxically, was small. Critics said that a single take ” perhaps the most famous telephone scene in film history ” captured the Oscar. In it, the heartbroken Anna, smiling through tears and struggling for composure, congratulates Ziegfeld on his marriage to Billie Burke. She hangs up at last and dissolves in sobs. It is a moving, poignant tour de force, and the brutal camera does not look away.
A year later, Rainer won her second best actress Oscar for the role of O-Lan, the stoical peasant wife in The Good Earth, with Paul Muni as her husband, Wang Lung. Adapted from the Pearl S. Buck novel and produced by a dying Irving G. Thalberg, the movie called on Rainer for another dimension, an all-but-mute yet shattering performance that conveyed the suffering and endurance of China's millions.
Her second Oscar stunned Hollywood. Greta Garbo, MGM's leading actress, had been favored for her performance in the title role of Camille. For Rainer, it meant fame and a place in history: the first person to win the top acting award in consecutive years, a feat that would be matched only by Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, and Tom Hanks.
She seemed to stand on the threshold of greatness. Even her rivals like Carole Lombard, Norma Shearer and Myrna Loy thought so. So did an adoring public. But behind the scenery, Rainer was deeply unhappy. Her marriage to the volatile playwright Clifford Odets in 1937 was failing, headed for divorce in 1940. (He was absurdly jealous of Albert Einstein, who had been smitten by Rainer.)
And her career soon went into free fall. She came to regard her Oscars as a curse, raising impossibly high expectations. She made five more pictures for MGM over the next couple of years, but many critics and Ranier herself called them inferior and a waste of her talents. She said that Louis B. Mayer, the autocratic head of MGM, scoffed at her pleas for serious roles in films of significance.
Beyond unhappiness with her work, Rainer came to regard Hollywood itself as dysfunctional ” intellectually shallow, absurdly materialistic and politically naive, particularly in what she called its apathy toward the rise of fascism in Europe and Asia, and labor unrest and poverty in Depression America.
She walked out on Mayer, and her contract was torn up. She was not yet 30, and her meteoric career was all but over. She returned to Europe, studied medicine, aided orphaned refugees of the Spanish Civil War, appeared at war bond rallies in the United States and entertained Allied troops in North Africa and Italy during World War II. She also made one wartime film, Hostages (1943), for Paramount. /p>
During the next three decades she appeared in a handful of plays on Broadway and in London, and took occasional roles on television. Federico Fellini enticed her into the cast of his Oscar-winning classic La Dolce Vita (1960), but she quit before shooting began, objecting to a sex scene with Marcello Mastroianni that was later cut from the script.
She made one more film, playing a Russian dowager with a craving for roulette in a 1997 British adaptation of Dostoyevsky's novel The Gambler. She also appeared at Academy Awards ceremonies in 1998 and 2003 as Hollywood paid tribute to past Oscar winners.
HeHer activities made small headlines: the once-famous actress, reduced to this or that. But there was an alternate life playing out in the wings for Rainer. In the summer of 1945 she married a wealthy New York publisher, Robert Knittel. They had a daughter, Francesca, a year later. They lived in London for decades, and in Geneva.
The couple loved travel, books, plays, music ” their friends included Arturo Toscanini, Marian Anderson, Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht ” and especially climbing in the Alps. He was a mountain climber, and he taught me how to climb, she recalled years after her husband's death in 1989. Robert went with a fiddle up to the Matterhorn, and at the top of the Matterhorn he played a Bach sonata.
Luise Rainer was born in Dusseldorf on Jan. 12, 1910, to Heinrich Rainer and Emilie Konigsberger. Her father was a businessman and her mother a pianist from a cultured family. Luise became an actress at 16, discovered by Reinhardt at an audition, and joined his Vienna company. Starting in 1928, she appeared in many plays in Vienna and Berlin. In 1935 she appeared in her first American picture, Escapade, with William Powell. After her Oscar triumphs, she was cast in five less memorable MGM films: The Emperor's Candlesticks and Big City in 1937 and The Toy Wife, The Great Waltz and Dramatic School in 1938. Then her star faded. More than seven decades later, as she celebrated her centenary in 2010, Ms. Rainer, in an interview with The Scotsman, looked back on Hollywood's golden era with a hint of revenge. 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, she said. 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 20s. You are an old man,' which of course was an insult. By the time I am 40 you will be dead. She was not quite right. She was 47 when he died. But she outlived him by more than a half-century.
She died on December 30, 2014, at her home in London. She was 104. Her daughter, Francesca Knittel Bowyer, said the cause was pneumonia.
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