Daily | Luise Rainer, 1910 – 2014

Louise Rainer

Louise Rainer

“Actress Luise Rainer, who became the first winner of consecutive Oscars in the 1930s, has died at the age of 104,” reports the BBC. “The German-born star was named best actress in 1936 and 1937—a feat achieved by only five actors in Academy Awards history to date.”

“Rainer, said to have been a keen childhood mountaineer, ascended to Hollywood’s peak swiftly but suffered a vertiginous fall after finding her intellectual outlook and solid sense of self-worth were out of sync with the studio system,” writes Ian J. Griffiths in the Guardian. “Her first Oscar came for her performance in The Great Ziegfeld (1936). This film had some strong autobiographical echoes, with Rainer bringing her own exoticism and, possibly, her experience as a Hollywood newcomer—she had only arrived in the US the year before—to the role of theatrical performer Anna Held…. Oscar number two for Rainer came with The Good Earth in 1937, an adaptation of Pearl S Buck’s Pulitzer-winning novel set amid the Chinese civil war. Rainer was rewarded for her remarkably expressive, largely non-verbal performance as O-Lan, a put-upon wife, who struggles through war, famine and appalling poverty.”

“Rainer made several pictures in 1938, including Toy Wife and The Great Waltz,” notes the AP’s Jill Lawless, “but she chafed under the studio system and clashed with MGM chief Louis B. Mayer, and soon moved to New York with [her husband, the playwright Clifford] Odets. ‘I had a seven-year contract that I broke and went away,’ Rainer said in 1999. ‘I was a machine, practically, a tool in a big, big factory, and I could not do anything. I wanted to film Madame Curie, but Mayer forbade me. I wanted to do For Whom the Bell Tolls, but (producer David O.) Selznick took Ingrid Bergman and brought her to (Ernest) Hemingway and I didn’t know Hemingway. ‘And so I left. I just went away. I fled; yes, I fled.'”

From TCM: “As her marriage to Clifford Odets disintegrated, so did her career, and she left MGM after only eight pictures in three and a half years, interrupting her hiatus only once to film Hostages (1943) for Paramount. Happily married to English publisher Robert Knittel until his death in 1989, Rainer made sporadic stage and TV appearances through the years and developed her talents as a painter before returning for her ‘second act’ with 11 riveting screen minutes in Karoly Makk’s The Gambler (1997). As the wealthy grandmother of a family already close to ruin, she is radiant one moment, bereft the next, so feverishly animated that you cannot take your eyes off her.”

Updates: “Rainer was a child of middle-class Jews in Düsseldorf and Hamburg during World War I and came of age in a new Germany of depression, starvation and revolution,” writes Robert D. McFadden for the New York Times. “Under Max Reinhardt’s direction, she became a young stage and film star in Vienna and Berlin, performing Pirandello and Shaw. She watched the Reichstag burn in 1933 and heard Hitler on the radio…. She sailed to America on the Ile de France in 1935, a 5-foot-3 ingénue, rail thin, with dark hair and a sweet girlish smile, too innocent for celebrity. But it seemed everyone on board knew who she was.”

“At that time,” notes Dan Callahan at, “all the young German actresses were inspired by the example of Elisabeth Bergner, an obscure name now but a hugely influential actress in her time who patented an adorable gamine style that was only made palatable by her technique and her steely control over her effects. If you see Bergner in a film like Dreaming Lips (1937), you will see the style that Rainer is trying for in The Great Ziegfeld and the other films she made at MGM in the 1930s, but the stylized Bergner shapes every moment and holds it to a strict standard of realism whereas Rainer indulges herself emotionally in the most reckless way…. She gave maybe her best screen performance opposite Spencer Tracy in Big City (1937), where director Frank Borzage patiently and kindly scaled down her mannerisms until she seemed like an exquisitely beautiful but recognizable human being.”

“There are very few actors whose culture and friendships ranged so widely, and who knew so many of the great names of the 20th century, as Luise Rainer,” writes Ronald Bergan in the Guardian. Besides the marriage to Odets and the work with Reinhardt, “she was the lover of the German expressionist playwright Ernst Toller; Bertolt Brecht wrote The Caucasian Chalk Circle for her. She is frequently mentioned in the diaries of the writer Anaïs Nin, who was fascinated by her; she was an intimate of Erich Maria Remarque and Albert Einstein; Federico Fellini begged her to be in La Dolce Vita; and George Gershwin gave her a first edition of the score of Porgy and Bess, with a fulsome dedication to her from the composer.”

“She was just two weeks shy of her 105th birthday,” notes Nathaniel Rogers. “She was recently name-checked not so flatteringly in the Hollywood bio Hitchcock (2012) but the actress, still very much alive at the time, could surely roll with it.”

The Hollywood Reporter‘s Scott Feinberg and the Los Angeles TimesSusan King look back on their interviews with Rainer, conducted in 2009 and 2010, respectively.

Also in 2010, Rainer was interviewed for the first TCM Classic Film Festival at the Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles by Robert Osburne for a special that’d later be broadcast on TCM. Both Michael Guillén and Cinephiled‘s Danny Miller were there and offer full accounts.

And from Variety‘s Cynthia Littleton: “20 Things You Didn’t Know About the Legendary Actress.”

Updates, 1/10: In a lovely piece for the Guardian, Patrick Kennedy recalls hanging with Rainer in London when she was a sprite at 99: “It’s probably not possible to learn how to act by talking to an actor, not over champagne and cheesecake anyhow, but it seemed to me that her strength, which contradicted her demeanor, protected something very delicate inside her. Her eyes expressed a very refined sensibility. Her personal style was simple, almost tomboyish, but her emotions on screen were ornate. To some her acting seems overexpressive or too fraught, but her imagination led to overwhelming identification with the women she played and there was a hard core of truth to it. She would say simply: ‘You must be inside the person.'”

In 2009, Farran Smith Nehme recommended “The Great Ziegfeld (Rainer’s scene is indeed quite special); The Good Earth (her finest performance and a moving film); and Big City (very good, gritty social drama with Spencer Tracy in fine form, directed by Frank Borzage and that last bit alone should make you set the DVR). The Great Waltz (directed by David Cairns’ beloved Julien Duvivier) has definite, batty charms as well. The one going on the Siren’s DVR will be The Emperor’s Candlesticks. William Powell is always, wonderfully William Powell.”

Update, 1/24: “Oh, I’m so glad for you, Flo.” Christopher Grobe for the Los Angeles Review of Books: “Go to YouTube now, listen to that line ten times, and I dare you to say it sounds the same way twice. It’s despairing. No, it’s relieved. Well, it’s bittersweet. Or maybe it’s erotic. The more I listen, the less I feel sure. This, I think, is what thrilled Luise Rainer’s audiences. When the scene began, they felt sure they could measure the gap between words and feelings, and Rainer flattered this confidence, at least for a little while. See how neat the ironies are? See how transparent I am? But by the end, we find ourselves falling into the chasm we thought we were spanning so easily. Her acting was superficial—while it was luring us into the depths. It was melodramatic—but to weirdly realist effect.”

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