The German actress Luise Rainer, who has died just two weeks short of her 105th birthday, was the first movie star to win the Academy Award two years running, for her performances in The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and The Good Earth (1937). She later stated, “Nothing worse could have happened to me”, and her film career was virtually over two years later, the public tiring of her teary winsomeness – she was dubbed “The Viennese Teardrop” – while her fiery personality and strong views led to frequent clashes with studio head Louis B. Mayer. Her acclaimed performances, however, were immensely effective.
Her first award was really for one scene in which, as singer Anna Held, the first wife of showman Florenz Ziegfeld, she receives a telephone call in which he describes his happiness with his new wife. Her desperate effort to maintain her poise as she reacts to the devastating call is heartbreaking.
Born in Dusseldorf, Germany, in 1910 (MGM falsified the location as Vienna due to anti-German feelings at the time) she later said that her prosperous father threw her out of their house when she stated her desire to be an actress. She went to live with grandparents and enrolled in a drama school where, as a teenager, she became a part of Max Reinhardt’s theatre ensemble, appearing in European theatrical productions of such plays as An American Tragedy and Six Characters in Search of an Author. She also made a handful of films, starting with the short Ja, der Himmel über Wien (1930).
Spotted by an MGM talent scout and signed to a contract, she spent several months waiting for a suitable vehicle, but when Myrna Loy refused to play opposite William Powell in Robert Z. Leonard’s frothy comedy Escapade (1935) due to a salary dispute, she was cast in the role, with great success.
Leonard then directed her in the mammoth three-hour biography The Great Ziegfeld, with its famous telephone scene that Mayer nearly eliminated from the film (he thought it “extraneous”). Later, Rainer was to claim that she wrote the scene herself, inspired by Jean Cocteau’s La Voix Humaine. In the scene, Anna suppresses her tears as she tells Ziegfeld, “It’s all so wonderful and I’m so happy.”
As well as the Oscar, the performance won the New York Film Critics Award, and head of production, Irving Thalberg, quickly cast her as O’Lan, the stoic wife of Chinese peasant Paul Muni in the screen version of Pearl Buck’s epic novel The Good Earth. Thalberg, for whom Rainer had great respect, died during production, and the film was dedicated to him.
Though Rainer’s touching portrayal of the peasant, much of it silent with emotions expressed by Rainer’s doe-like eyes, is much admired, its triumph over Greta Garbo’s performance in Camille has always been hotly debated. Rainer was already feuding with Mayer when she refused to go to the Oscar ceremony unless she could be guaranteed to win, something the Academy would not do. Mayer is alleged to have later asked her, “Why don’t you sit on my lap when we are discussing your contract like the other girls do?” – and Rainer’s insistence on wearing slacks, using no make-up and referring to herself as primarily a stage actress also vexed the studio boss.
Rainer’s views were doubtless influenced by her sweetheart, the playwright Clifford Odets, who was to become her first husband in 1937.
The box-office takings for her next film, The Emperor’s Candlesticks (1937), a lavish production in which she was a capricious spy flirting with William Powell, proved unremarkable, and she was then cast as the wife of a taxi driver (Spencer Tracy) in Big City (1937). After the failure of The Toy Wife (1938), in which she was a Southern belle (with a shaky accent) choosing between Melvyn Douglas and Robert Young, Mayer lost interest in her career.
The Great Waltz (1938) was a splendidly buoyant biography of composer Johann Strauss, and a fine production, but Rainer’s role as another cuckolded wife found her in familiar tearfully resolute mood. Her final film for MGM, Dramatic School (1938), gave her a demanding role as a determined theatrical student, but several studio contract players, including Lana Turner and Paulette Goddard, stole much of the limelight, and on its conclusion Rainer left the studio and joined Odets in New York.
The couple’s stormy marriage ended in 1940, and two years later Rainer was briefly on Broadway in J M Barrie’s A Kiss for Cinderella. She was hoping to be considered for the role of Maria in the screen version of For Whom the Bell Tolls, but instead took the part of a resistance fighter in the plodding anti-Nazi film Hostages (1943). In 1950 she received good notices for her Broadway role in Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea, before she settled in London with her second husband, the American publisher Robert Knittel, with whom she had a daughter. The marriage lasted until Knittel’s death in 1989.
She occasionally returned to acting on television – performing her famed telephone scene on The Ed Sullivan Show, guest-starring with Ramon Novarro in an episode of Combat!, and making infrequent appearances in British TV productions, notably a 28-minute drama, A Dancer (1998).
She also continued a lifelong interest in humanitarian causes, having recognised the evils of fascism and Nazism in the Thirties, and supporting the anti-fascist forces in Spain.
In 1997 she made her final full-length film, The Gambler, starring Michael Gambon, Polly Walker and Dominic West, based on a story by Dostoevsky. Variety reviewer Derek Elley wrote, “The pic briefly gets a real lift when veteran Luise Rainer bursts on the scene in a wonderfully showy part as a gambling addicted granny.”
She spent her last 25 years living in a well appointed flat in Belgravia. Regarding her career, she observed, “In my day, making films was like working in a factory. You were a piece of machinery with no rights.”
Luise Rainer, actress: born Dusseldorf, Germany 12 January 1910; married first 1937 Clifford Odets (divorced 1940), second 1945 Robert Knittel (died 1989, one daughter); died London 30 December 2014.