Luise Rainer, First to Win Back-to-Back Acting Oscars, Dies at 104

Everett Collection
Luise Rainer with Spencer Tracy

She won the best actress Oscar for her work in 'The Good Earth' after collecting the same trophy for 'The Great Ziegfeld,' then cut short her brief, history-making Hollywood career

Luise Rainer, a star of cinema's golden era and the first person ever to win back-to-back acting Oscars, has died of pneumonia. She would have turned 105 on Jan. 12.

The instinctive actress captured back-to-back Academy Awards for The Great Ziegfeld in 1936 and The Good Earth in 1937, then shockingly turned her back on Hollywood.

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Rainer, who much later made a comeback of sorts on the ABC series The Love Boat, died Tuesday at her home in London, the AP and BBC quoted her only daughter, Francesca Knittel-Bowyer, as saying.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Knittel-Bowyer said that her mother "had a passion that could turn the tides."

"She poured her whole being into everything she did, from her talent to her life," she said. "I loved her deeply, and the memories we shared will follow me in my heart and mind like my own shadow."

With Rainer's death, the oldest surviving Academy Award acting winner (not honorary winners) is two-time winner Olivia de Havilland, who turned 98 in July 2014.

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Following her then-unprecedented back-to-back Oscar wins for playing Florenz Ziegfeld’s discarded wife Anna in the dramatic musical The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and portraying Chinese peasant farm wife O-Lan opposite Paul Muni in the 1937 movie adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth (1937), Rainer became increasingly dissatisfied with the business.

Rainer had to be ordered by MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer to attend the Academy Awards ceremony to accept her second Oscar. After much coaxing, she showed up several hours late with her hair in a mess, then stunned reporters by claiming that she hated being “molded” by Hollywood.

Disgruntled with the films that MGM had selected for her in an attempt to cash in on her Oscar notoriety, she became more and more reclusive. Although she was initially touted as a Greta Garbo or Katharine Hepburn-type personality for her solitary nature and “comfortable” attire, it soon became clear that her behavior was clearly not a publicity pose or meant to endear her to her fans.

In 1937, Rainer wed troubled American playwright Clifford Odets, who encouraged her to concentrate on the stage. Their marriage soon became stormy, and the couple moved to New York and divorced after three years. (When Rainer developed a friendship with Albert Einstein, Odets was said to be so jealous that he savaged a photograph of Einstein with a pair of scissors.)

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Rainer broke her contract with MGM in 1938 over what she called a lack of artistic freedom. Her last major film was 1943's Hostages before she left her Hollywood career behind, eventually settling in London with her second husband, publisher and England native Robert Knittel. He died in 1989.

“For my second and third pictures I won Academy Awards. Nothing worse could have happened to me,” Rainer once lamented.

"When I got two Oscars, they thought, 'Oh, they can throw me into anything,' " she said in a 1999 interview with the AP. "I was a machine, practically -- a tool in a big, big factory, and I could not do anything. And so I left. I just went away. I fled. Yes, I fled."

Somewhat surprisingly, Rainer returned in 1998 as a guest on the 70th Academy Awards telecast, which brought back former Oscar winners.

After her move to England, Rainer did appear occasionally on U.S. television, including on The Chevrolet Tele-Theatre in 1948, Lux Video Theatre in 1950 and Combat! in 1962, where she played a countess. It took another two decades before she showed up again on TV, when producer Aaron Spelling coaxed her into appearing in a 1983 episode of The Love Boat.

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Three years later, she performed in a Swiss telefilm titled A Dancer, and in 1997, at age 86, she had a 10-minute scene in a version of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler.

During the period of her most productivity, where she displayed almost naive charms, Rainer was cast as brilliant but troubled characters in such films as The Emperor’s Candlesticks (1937), Big City (1937) opposite Spencer Tracy, The Toy Wife (1938), The Great Waltz (1938), Dramatic School (1938) -- her final film for MGM – and Hostages (1943).

Federico Fellini gave her for a part in La Dolce Vita (1960), but she got tired of waiting for him to film her scene and quit.

She was born Jan. 12, 1910, in Dusseldorf, Germany. A Jew, she astonished impresario Max Reinhardt with a terrific audition when she was 16, and he cast her in several of his vaunted stage productions. Rainer also performed in four films and toured throughout Europe in Luigi Pirandello’s absurdist work Six Characters in Search of an Author, where she was reportedly “discovered” by an MGM talent scout and labeled “The Next Garbo.”

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With the rise of the Nazis, Rainer’s family emigrated from Europe to Southern California in 1935, bringing her beloved Scottish terrier, Johnny, along. She signed with MGM, which cast her immediately in the romantic comedy Escapade (1935) opposite William Powell as a last-minute replacement for Myrna Loy.

Rainer’s first Oscar win was controversial, as her time on the screen was short, but her victory was cemented by her famous scene in the biopic in which her brokenhearted character stoically congratulates Ziegfeld (Powell) over the telephone on his upcoming marriage to actress Billie Burke (played by Loy). The film was named best picture as well.

To play O-Lan in The Good Earth -- the final film made by MGM’s boy wonder studio head Irving Thalberg, who died before the drama was completed -- Rainer said she simply went on instinct; she barely spoke during the film and didn’t really look Chinese.

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“My acting was from the inside out,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “I don't believe in anything artificial. I don’t believe in makeup. It has to come from you like a child you give birth to. That is how you act.”

After her Oscar triumphs, MGM forced her into roles she considered unworthy, she told the Telegraph newspaper in October 2009 as she approached her 100th birthday.

“All kinds of nonsense … I didn’t want to do it, and I walked out,” she recalled. “Mayer said, ‘That girl is a Frankenstein, she’s going to ruin our whole firm.’ He said, ‘We made you and we are going to destroy you.’ … Well, he tried his best.”

In 2010, on the year of her centenary, the British Film Institute held a tribute to Rainer at London's National Film Theater, where she was interviewed by Richard Stirling.

The only other actress to win back-to-back Oscars was Hepburn in 1967 and 1968 for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and A Lion in Winter. Tracy, Jason Robards and Tom Hanks are the lone male actors to accomplish the feat.

Twitter: @mikebarnes4

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