Austrian actress Luise Rainer was the first actress to win two consecutive Oscars. Her screen career, though bright, was quite brief, but each of her performances was powerful and effective.
She was born in Dusseldorf on January 12, 1910. She was an acclaimed stage actress with the highly-respected Max Reinhardt’s company and appeared in four German films, with the hopes of establishing a successful career in the cinema. During the 1930’s, however, it was not easy to live in Germany as a Jewish person, particularly since this was the time that the Nazi Party began to rise to power..When a talent scout for MGM offered her a seven year contract, Luise was able to avoid the persecution she saw as inevitable in her native land by leaving the country and moving to the United States, where she hoped to get a new start in American movies.
MGM hoped to capitalize on Luise Ranier’s European charm and experienced acting background. She made her debut in Hollywood movies in the 1935 film Escapade. The writer of the film was playwright Clifford Odets. During the making of the film, the two fell in love and later married.
Amazingly, she received Best Actress Oscars for her next two films. She won in 1936 for her role as Anna Held, wife of legendary theatrical promoter Flo Ziegfeld, in The Great Ziegfeld and the following year won again for her role as Chinese peasant O-Lan Lung in The Great Earth.
After her Oscar win, her films included The Emperor’s Candlesticks, The Toy Wife, Big City, The Great Waltz and Dramatic School. None of these movies gained further momentum for her career, which, ultimately died on the vine. While some people speculated that winning two Oscars had somehow “cursed” her film future, it seems, in reality, that the end of her Hollywood career was something she willfully maneuvered.
One of the main reasons that Luise Rainer’s film career was so short-lived was that she refused to play the Hollywood “game”. Having been trained by Max Reinhardt, she maintained certain standards in terms of how seriously she took acting. Rainer deemed the typical Tinseltown values as silly and pointless, decrying the lack of intellectualism in the American film community. She was appalled rather than delighted that she won Academy Awards for her second and third American film efforts and loathed the kind of films MGM was forcing her to make. She was furious that MGM honcho Louis B. Mayer changed a character she was slated to play in a film based on a play by Moliere. The original character was to have been a prostitute, but he ordered the part rewritten to make the character more innocent. Rainer quit the film in question- The Bride Wore Red– and was eagerly replaced by Joan Crawford, who had no problem at all accommodating Mr. Mayer.
Luise was also not making very many friends in Hollywood, as some other actresses who had been around in films for much longer resented her quick Oscar wins. She made the personal decision to leave Hollywood in the 1940’s. Her marriage to Clifford Odets ended as well.
She did some work on Broadway, but nothing that took anybody by storm. Her epiphany seems to have occurred when she worked for the war effort during World War II. She discovered a deeper purpose for her life and became less concerned about acting. She also seemed to have found her soulmate, publisher Robert Knittel, whom she married in 1944. The couple moved to Great Britain.
In later years, she did a few television stints and, at 87-years-old, appeared in the 1997 film The Gambler. Since that time, she has done no more acting work and lives a quite private existence.
If you see no other Luise Rainer film, I highly recommend that you either rent a copy of The Good Earth or try to catch it whenever Turner Classic Movies airs it on television. Her poignant turn as O-Lan still moves me to tears each time I see it. No matter what her dislikes of Hollywood may have been at the time, she gives an outstanding performance in this movie and you can’t help but wonder what she might have accomplished if they had given her better parts and she had been a bit more cooperative.