Luise Rainer spent the better part of her long life dismissing the film career that will forever be her legacy. When she passed away on December 30th, 2014 at the age of 104, one of the last remaining vestiges of old Hollywood’s Golden Age went with her. Yet it is not a legacy that she was particularly proud of, her film career blossomed in the 1930s, peaked, and then fizzled out by the mid-1940s. To any other actress, this might have seemed a detriment, but Rainer’s outlook on the glamour of Hollywood was so dismissive that she left it – according to her – with little to no regrets.
During the 1930s, Rainer was highly promoted by MGM with the kind of fanfare and mystique that the studio had gotten from Garbo. Rainer was German, a product of middle-class parents who always dreamed of becoming an actress. Yet, her time in Hollywood was brief due to her own refusal to play the studio game at a time when the major Hollywood studios put actors under a strict contract that seemed to have mafia-like overtones.
Rainer was more interested in the work than the image. “There were a lot of things I was unprepared for,” she said, “I was too honest, I talked serious instead of with my eyelashes and Hollywood thought I was cuckoo.” In that time, she found herself frustrated by the male-dominated constraints on her time, on her image, and on her freedom as an artist. Aggravated over being an artist in a business that favored glamour over substance, she made her last film in 1945.
Even as brief as her Hollywood career was, Luise Rainer remains part of its glittering tapestry. In her later years, she lived quiet retirement in London, but returned occasionally to Hollywood to be honored. In 1998, at the age of 88, she attended the academy awards on the occasion of Oscar’s 70th birthday to be part of “Oscar’s Family Album” – a collection of actors and actresses who had received acting awards. She would come back in 2003 for Oscar’s 75th.
Yet, in practical terms, you have to wonder if Rainer’s career would have been remembered so fondly if she hadn’t been such an oddity in Oscar’s scrapbook. To date, she remains the only actress in history to win two back to back Best Actress awards and she was the oldest living Oscar recipient. At a time when Oscar was still in its infancy, she won her first Best Actress Oscar for what is obviously a supporting role as Anna Held in Robert Z. Leonard’s montobulous musical biopic of Florenz Ziefeld called The Great Zielfeld. It wasn’t the bulk of her performance that won her the Oscar so much as a celebrated telephone scene in which she breaks down in tears while attempting to fake happiness at the news that her ex-husband has just gotten engaged. Today, the scene is looked at with more curiosity than admiration. Personally, I hate every inch of the film.
Much better was the performance that got Rainer a second Oscar – that of O-Lan in Sidney Franklin and Victor Fleming’s adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. Though it is a struggle to convince yourself that a German actress playing a Chinese peasant isn’t a head-scratcher, her performance isn’t bad. In fact it’s quite good if you can get past the German accent that slips through her attempts to sound Asian. I admire the film but I admit that I have to jump through a great deal of politically correct hoops to get there. It is a testament to her acting talents that, despite this, she manages to make the part her own.
It’s crude to say that it was all downhill from there, but Rainer didn’t mind. She fought with MGM’s tyrannical studio head Louis B. Mayer who threatened: “We made you, we’re gonna break you,” to which Ms. Rainer proudly proclaimed “Mr. Mayer, God made me, and long after you’re dead I will still be alive.” Leaving Hollywood, and a disastrous marriage to playwright Clifford Odetts, Rainer retired from film work in 1945 and only emerged in later years for a bit part on “Love Boat” in 1984 and The Gambler in 1997. Not long after her split with Odetts, she married publisher Robert Knittell and stayed with him until his death in 1989.
One question that dogged Rainer in her whole life is where she kept her twin Oscars. Though humble about any kind of award or honor, she smiled sheepishly when asked this question by Joe Franklin in 1981. “I don’t like showing off Oscar. I like living in the present and the future.”