Like many compatriots in the pre-war central European arts community, Luise Rainer escaped the fascist clouds gathering over Europe to become one of the leading lights of Hollywood's German expatriate community, and the first actor of any origin to win two Academy Awards back-to-back. An up-and-coming star in Germany upon the Nazi party's rise to power in 1933, she emigrated soon after, signing on with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and making her Hollywood debut in "Escapade" (1936). She soon had landed her first Oscar for her performance in "The Great Ziegfeld" (1936) and won it again the following year for her role in "The Good Earth" (1937). She made nearly as much buzz challenging the reign of the studio moguls, clashing with boss Louie B. Mayer until he made an example of her. Though Rainer's decline would be cavalierly chalked up to an "Oscar curse," Mayer - and by some estimates the actor's own Old School expressionistic acting style - subsequently denied her choice parts and prestige projects, prompting her to quit Hollywood after only seven years in the movie business. She would try her hand at the stage, including some star turns on Broadway, but would mostly be seen thereafter in odd TV projects in the U.S. and U.K. and, much later, in the European film "The Gambler" (1997). A classic thespian import of Old World style, Rainer's legacy would necessarily carry a cautionary example of how the bygone studio system would slap down even one of its most luminous stars.
She was born in Düsseldorf, Germany on Jan. 12, 1910, the daughter of Emmy Luise and Heinrich Rainer, a wealthy import/export merchant and a citizen of the United States. Hearing the call of the stage early, she left home at age 16 to study at theatrical pioneer Max Reinhardt's Theater in der Josefstadt in Vienna, Austria. She acted in a raft of Reinhardt's productions, including Shakespearean works and George Bernard Shaw's "Saint Joan." She made her screen debut in the short film "Ja, der Himmel über Wien" (1930), and appearing in her first feature two years later in the musical comedy "Sehnsucht 202" (1932). Rainer did two more German-language films, but the assumption of power by Hitler's overtly anti-Semitic Nazi party in Germany spurred her and other Europeans of Jewish ancestry, including Reinhardt and later Rainer's father, to immigrate to America. Wooed by Hollywood's prestige studio, MGM, Rainer signed a seven-year contract. The studio put her on familiar turf, casting her in the Vienna-set farce "Escapade" (1935) opposite one of its biggest stars, William Powell. She dazzled critics and impressed Powell enough that he insisted she be cast in his next film, a grandiose biopic of New York stage producer extraordinaire Florence Ziegfeld, "The Great Ziegfeld" (1936). It was only a small role, playing Ziegfeld's ex-wife, but Rainer's scene congratulating Ziegfeld on his imminent remarriage showed such bittersweet intensity that it helped her cinch the Best Actress Oscar the next year.
Even before her win, however, MGM production chief Irving Thalberg had set the stage for her next project, an ambitious adaptation of Pearl Buck's Chinese saga "The Good Earth" (1937). Thalberg had cast Paul Muni in the male lead, which complicated his hope to give the female lead to Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong, since the censorial Hays Office would not condone onscreen "miscegenation," the odious taboo America then assigned to interracial relationships. Over studio head Mayer's objections - he wanted to hone Rainer as another exotic glamour queen, a la Garbo and Dietrich - Rainer took the part. Her turn as the steadfast farmer's wife would win her a second Oscar, but "The Good Earth" would prove Thalberg's last production before his untimely death and his absence would portend poorly for her career. Mayer assumed MGM's production stewardship, and he and Rainer soon were at loggerheads. Mayer's pathological veneration of women led him to disproportionately lighten MGM's fare and gloss over any complexity in female characters. He altered one script wholesale by changing Rainer's character, a prostitute, into a virtuous young lady, the resulting film "The Bride Wore Red" (1937) which eventually starred Joan Crawford instead. Rainer's 1937 marriage to playwright Clifford Odets, a leftist and iconoclastic founder of the Group Theater, did not thrill the conservative Mayer either. And Rainer, ever unimpressed with Hollywood's pomp and circumstance, only attended the 1938 Oscar ceremony after Mayer ordered her to go.
As the relationship soured, she found herself snubbed for roles she actually wanted. She reteamed with Powell in "The Emperor's Candlesticks" (1937), played the wife of cabbie Spencer Tracy in "Big City" (1937), essayed a sister immersed in a love triangle opposite Melvyn Douglas in "The Toy Wife" (1938), and headed an ensemble in the anemic inside-acting yarn "Dramatic School" (1938). Her last true feature hit would be "The Great Waltz" (1938), in which she played the beleaguered wife of composer Johann Strauss. After that, however, her unwillingness to accept parts being offered her led Mayer to release her from her contract. Rainer moved to New York City with Odets - though the marriage deteriorated and ended in 1940 - and returned to the stage, starring in plays in the U.K. and making her Broadway debut in "A Kiss for Cinderella" in 1942.
Rainer returned to Hollywood briefly to make "Hostages" (1943) for Paramount, the taut tale of a group of Czech citizens jailed by German occupation forces until someone confesses to the murder of a German officer. Like many movie stars during WWII, she lent her celebrity to war-bond drives and entertaining U.S. troops, making tour stops as far afield as North Africa and Italy after Allied forces had secured them. But thereafter she would essentially leave show business and the U.S. behind by marrying English publishing executive Robert Knittel in 1945 and moving to England. It would not be until 1949 that she would make another movie, the BBC telefilm "By Candlelight." She took to the stage again in 1950, starring in a brief revival of Ibsen's "The Lady from the Sea" on Broadway. She would crop up during the 1950s in featured one-off performances in early U.S. television anthology shows, such as "Schlitz Playhouse of Stars" (CBS, 1951-59), "Lux Video Theatre" (CBS/NBC 1950-59) and "Suspense" (CBS, 1949-1954), but for the most part retired to her and Knittel's homes in London and Switzerland.
Privately, Rainer tried her hand at painting and was lured back before the cameras only rarely in ensuing decades, playing a countess in an episode of "Combat!" (ABC, 1962-67) in 1965 and making an improbable guest-shot on "The Love Boat" (ABC, 1977-1986) in 1984. In 1997, she returned to the big screen in a UK/Hungarian/Dutch adaptation of Dostoyevsky's "The Gambler," drawing raves for her scenes as an aristocratic matriarch invigorated by her discovery of the roulette table. Ensconced in a luxury apartment in London after Knittel's 1989 death, Rainer made an appearance at the 75th anniversary Academy Awards broadcast in 2003 for a tribute to past winners. In 2012, she was profiled in Entertainment Weekly in a story entitled "The Oldest Oscar Winner Speaks," in which the 102-year-old legend granted a brief interview, discussing her colorful life and brief tenure as a reigning star of Hollywood's Golden Age.
By Matthew Grimm