Most people today don’t even know who Luise Rainer was and yet she was one of the greatest actresses of her time. She was a back-to-back Academy Award winner during the glamor days of Hollywood in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Winning the two awards by the time she was only 28, she was being groomed to be the next Greta Garbo.
She was born in Germany January 12, 1910 and died at her home in London December 30, 2014 at the age of 104 years.
What makes her story unique is she experienced a meteoric rise and a mystifying, rapid descent. It puzzled fans.
Rainer was one of only five actors who won consecutive Academy Awards. The others were Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Jason Robards and Tom Hanks.
After winning the back-to-back awards for her wrenching performances in The Great Ziegfeld followed by The Good Earth, she was offered a series of lesser roles which she found very frustrating.
In the 1930s, she was under contract to the titan Louis B. Mayer who sold the idea that she was Austrian, not German. Mayer was Jewish and wanted nothing to do with Hitler’s Germany.
She fled Hollywood and her career rather than toe-the-line for Mayer. She was unhappy with the parts she was given. She wanted to be Maria in For Whom the Bell Tolls but the part was given to Ingrid Bergman. She wanted to play Madame Curie “but Mayer forbade me,” she said.
She remembered how she “hated Hollywood” in a 2001 interview. “That’s why I turned my back on it. When I got two Oscars, they thought,’Oh, they can throw me into anything.’ I was a machine, practically, a tool in a big, big factory, and I could not do anything.”
When Mayer heard she wanted to leave, she said he told her, “We made you, and we’re going to kill you.”
She ignored Mayer and left Hollywood and her unhappy marriage to playwright Clifford Odets (below).
She spent the war years trying to get her parents out of Germany. Her parents were Jewish. Her father stubbornly refused to leave Hamburg and ended up in prison for a while until she appealed to the U.S. ambassador to France for help and was able to get him released.
Her father had been a well-to-do businessman and her mother was a pianist.
After leaving Hollywood, she first lived in New York and, by 1945, she lived quietly in Europe with her second husband, Robert Knittel (below) who died in 1989. They had a daughter Francesca who has two children.
She never again worked in another major film role after walking away from Hollywood. Mayer did destroy her swiftly and completely. She appeared sporadically on TV and in film but her career was over.
Her regrets became known later on.
In a 1987 interview with The Times, Rainer said, “I’ve always felt guilty about not having continued to work. I should have made 50 more pictures.”
The loss was also ours.
The telephone scene in The Great Ziegfeld:
As O-lan in The Good Earth: