The short-lived Hollywood career of actress Luise Rainer was thought to inspire the urban legend that winning an Academy Award is a jinx. Nicknamed “The Viennese Teardrop”, Rainer was the first person to receive Oscars back to back for a leading role, first in 1936 for The Great Ziegfeld, and again in 1937 for The Good Earth. However, her success was remarkably short-lived. Only a few years later a disenchanted Rainer turned her heels on Hollywood, never to return during its Golden Age.
Luise Rainer was born in January 12, 1910 in Dusseldorf, Germany. When she was only 16 she was immediately hired by the famous German director Max Reinhardt. She starred in four German films and several of Reinhardt’s stage productions. A scout for MGM studios saw her during one of these performances and advised her to move to Hollywood. Encouraged by the scout and worried about Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, Rainer moved to Hollywood in 1935. She signed a seven-year contract with MGM studios when she was 23. Her short Hollywood career started with her appearance in the film Escapade. During the production of this movie she met Clifford Odets, a playwright rumored to be Communist. They married in 1937.
Rainer and Hollywood mixed as well as oil and water. She refused to conform to Hollywood standards and often was seen around town shabbily dressed. She also shunned makeup and movies, leading reporters to relate her to Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo. She was disappointed with the narcissism and materialism of Hollywood and the lack of alarm as Hitler and fascism began taking over Europe.
William Powell, another famous actor, played an important role in getting parts for Rainer. She starred opposite him in her second Hollywood film, The Great Ziegfeld in 1936. She received an Oscar for Best Actress due to her emotional performance. Rainer refused to show up for the award ceremony unless she was assured that she would win. When she finally showed up she was several hours late and her hair was not done.
She won another Best Actress Oscar the next year for her role as the Chinese wife O-Lan in the screen adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth in 1937. Taking her cue from a Chinese woman extra, she wore only minimal makeup to better fit her role. Rainer had no interest in attending the award ceremony that year either. However, Louis B. Mayer, the chief of MGM studios, insisted that she go.
After winning two Oscars in a row, things started to go downhill for Rainer. According to her, “For my second and third pictures I won Academy Awards. Nothing worse could have happened to me.” After her success MGM rushed her through monotonous roles in several minor movies. She was unhappy with the roles the studio chose for her and missed the variety of characters she used to play when she was a stage actor. She voiced her complaints to Mayer, who refused to accommodate her. Her last movie during Hollywood’s golden age was Hostages in 1943. After that movie failed she told Mayer “You are now 60 and I am 20. When I am 40, the age of a successful actress, you will be dead and I will live.” She cancelled her contract with MGM and moved to New York with Odets. She was not alone; other actors and actresses were also leaving their contracts or refusing movie offers at the time. However, most of them quickly came back to Hollywood, while Rainer didn't return until decades later.
Rainer kept busy outside of Hollywood. During World War II she helped with the war effort, appearing at war bond drives with Eleanor Roosevelt. She talked with soldiers, and supplied them with books. Her relationship with Odets took a turn for the worse, and they divorced in 1940. She later married Robert Knittel, a New York publisher, in 1945. They moved to England, had a daughter, Francesca, and remained married for over fifty years. During this time Rainer had occasional roles on television shows, including The Love Boat, but did nothing on the American big screen. More than fifty years after her last Hollywood movie, she was finally coaxed out of retirement to play a role in the 1997 film The Gambler. She also was brought back to Hollywood as a guest at the 70th Academy Award show that honored past Oscar winners.
Rainer has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6300 Hollywood Blvd.
- Escapade, 1935
- The Great Ziegfeld, 1936
- The Skyscraper Wilderness, 1937
- The Big City, 1937
- The Emperor’s Candlesticks, 1937
- The Good Earth, 1937
- Dramatic School, 1938
- The Toy Wife, 1938
- The Great Waltz, 1938
- Hostages, 1943
- La Dolce Vita, 1960
- The Gambler, 1997
Luise Rainer died on December 30, 2014 in London at the age of 104 from pneumonia.