Luise Rainer was a German and American actress who rose to stardom in Hollywood during 1930s. She was the first actress to win two ‘Academy Awards’ as best actress that too consecutively and her subsequent fading away from show business left many in awe. A protégé of renowned German language theatre director Max Reinhardt, she began acting onstage and soon made name as a distinguished artist performing with the director’s Vienna theatre group, garnering accolades from both audiences and critics. Later she endeavoured into films in Germany and Austria. After being spotted by ‘Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’ (‘MGM’) talent scouts she was signed into a three year contract in Hollywood. There she landed up the supporting role of Anna Held in ‘The Great Ziegfeld’. Her superb performance left the audience spellbound and fetched her first ‘Best Actress Academy Award’. She presented everyone with another breathtaking role of O-Lan, a simple and poor Chinese farm wife in drama film ‘The Good Earth’, which was completely in contrast to her portrayal of Anna Held. It won her a second ‘Best Actress Academy Award’. However after her euphoric start she appeared in several films but failed to create the same magic and eventually returned to Europe. The expeditious decline of her career was attributed to the abominable advice she received from her then husband playwright Clifford Odets by some, while others considered the untimely demise of her producer Irving Thalberg as an apparent reason.
Childhood & Early Life
She was born on January 12, 1910, in Düsseldorf, Germany in an upper-class Jewish family to Heinrich Rainer and Emmy Koenigsberger, as their only daughter among three children.
Her father, Heinrich had become an orphan at 6 and went to America to live with his uncle. He became a successful businessman and returned to Europe later. Luise Rainer’s mother was a talented pianist.
Rainer was raised in Hamburg and Vienna. She was adored by her father who lovingly called her 'Mausele' ('Little Mouse'). However his intensity of love that often took the form of tyrannical possessiveness resulting in his controlling behaviour was of concern for her and her mother, who was a doting wife but unfortunately suffered from her husband’s controlling love.
Though Rainer remained a quiet child at home, she was very active in athletics in school and became a brave mountain climber and champion runner.
Although she loved her father she gradually realised that he wished to marry her off to the “right man” after she attended a good finishing school and thus would also be destined to lead life in a man’s world as her mother. This was in contrast to her rebellious and tom boyish nature.
Quite an enthusiast about creative arts since childhood, she soon found an outlet to express her strikingly emotional energy in creativity. She started paintings and took dance lessons from Mary Wigman.
Eventually she found acting as the medium to channelize her energy into creative pursuits and since her father was reticent about such things she travelled to Düsseldorf, with the excuse of visiting her mother and attended an audition at the ‘Dumont Theater’.
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Her debut in stage happened at 16 when by sheer chance she played Wendla, as the original actress fell ill, in Wedekind's ‘Spring Awakening’ staged at the Dusseldorfer Schausspielhaus' School of Stage Art and impressed many as an untrained actress.
Theatre personalities Louise Dumont and Gustav Lindemann soon signed a two year contract with her and from 1928 she began performing at the ‘Dumont Theatre’ in Dusseldorf.
Around 18 years of age she came under the guidance of legendary stage director Max Reinhardt and with time proved her mettle as a remarkable and gifted young actress in Berlin. Soon she began touring with Reinhardt's theatre company in Berlin, Vienna and other cities across Europe.
Her early stage performances included plays like ‘Measure for Measure’ by William Shakespeare; ‘Men in White’ by Sidney Kingsley; ‘Saint Joan’ by George Bernard Shaw; and ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author’ by Luigi Pirandello. She also performed in some German films during that time.
In 1934, she was spotted by ‘MGM’ talent scout Phil Berg in one of the stage performances of ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author’. Soon she was signed into a three year contract in Hollywood.
While in Berlin she got a firsthand experience of witnessing the Reichstag fire which was an indication of things to come in Nazi Germany. She managed to leave Germany and relocated to the US at an appropriate time while many of her Jewish friends and family members were not that fortunate and thus faced atrocities of Hitler and the Nazis.
In Hollywood she was trained by actress Constance Collier as instructed by ‘MGM’ studio head Louis B. Mayer to improve Rainer’s English, dialect and dramatic modulation.
Her first Hollywood film was the 1935 romantic comedy ‘Escapade’, a remake of an Austrian film ‘Maskerade’. She starred opposite William Powell and the film garnered success giving her instant popularity tag as “Hollywood's next sensation". She also received rave reviews from critics.
In 1936 her second film ‘The Great Ziegfeld’, where she enacted the real-life character of Polish-born French stage performer and singer Anna Held was released. Her highly emotional and breathtaking performance starring again opposite William Powell earned her the first ‘Academy Award for Best Actress’ as also the ‘New York Film Critics' Award’.
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She proved her versatility by taking up the challenging role of O-Lan, a totally contrasting role of a subdued Chinese wife from the more lively character of Anna Held, in the 1937 drama film, ‘The Good Earth’ that dealt with struggle of Chinese farmers. Her memorable performance fetched her second ‘Academy Award for Best Actress’. With this she became the first actress to win two Academy awards consecutively.
Although achieving great heights in a short span of time she failed to garner much success in her next few films including ‘Big City’ (1937), ‘The Emperor's Candlesticks’ (1937) and ‘The Toy Wife’, (1938).
Till 1940 she was contract bound with ‘MGM’ following which she moved to New York City to live with her husband Clifford Odets. In-between she made a comeback onstage with the play ‘Behold the Bride’, on May 1, 1939, at the ‘Palace Theatre’, Manchester.
She played the title role in George Bernard Shaw's ‘Saint Joan’ at the ‘Belasco Theatre’ in Washington, D.C. on March 10, 1940. Her first performance in New York was in the play ‘A Kiss for Cinderella’ in May 1942 held at the ‘Music Box Theatre’.
She twice made a comeback in films with ‘Hostages’ in 1943 and ‘The Gambler’ in 1947 with little success. She also made intermittent appearances in TV shows like ‘The Chevrolet Tele-Theatre’ (1949), ‘Suspense’ (1954) and ‘The Love Boat’ (1984).
Personal Life & Legacy
She was married to playwright Clifford Odets from January 8, 1937, to May 14, 1940.
Her second marriage was with publisher Robert Knittel on July 12, 1945, that lasted till his death on June 15, 1989. The couple had a daughter Francesca Knittel-Bowyer, born on June 2, 1946.
She celebrated her centenary on January 12, 2010, in London.
On December 30, 2014, she succumbed to pneumonia in London at 104 years of age.
‘Hollywood Walk of Fame’ has a star dedicated to her at 6300 Hollywood Boulevard.