Ms. Rainer’s Oscars were not only multiple, they were won back-to-back. She won the award for Best Actress in 1935 for the bio-pic “The Great Ziegfeld,” in which she played French singer Anna Held, one of Florenz Ziegfeld’s biggest stars (as well as his common-law wife). She then turned around and won the Oscar again in 1936 for her performance as O-Lan, a Chinese farmer’s wife, in the film adaptation of Pearl Buck’s novel, “The Good Earth.”
Despite this phenomenal early success, by 1938, her film career in Hollywood was over. In later years, she blamed her good fortune for her subsequent misfortune, saying audience expectations of her talent were thereafter set impossibly high. “Nothing worse could have happened to me,” she said.
Her films following “The Good Earth,” all in 1937 and 1938, were “The Emperor’s Candlesticks,” “Big City,” “The Toy Wife,” “The Great Waltz” and “Dramatic School.” Soon after, she returned to her native Germany. She made a final film, “Hostages,” in 1943. She made her Broadway debut in 1942 in A Kiss for Cinderella. The revival of the James M. Barrie play did not last long. Ms. Rainer returned to Broadway in 1950 in a revival of Ibsen’s The Lady From the Sea.
Film largely behind her, she returned to the stage, performing in Behold the Bride in Manchester in 1939, and later London. She played the lead in Shaw’s Saint Joan at the Belasco Theatre in Washington, D.C., in 1940, a production directed by famed German director Erwin Piscator. In latter years, she took roles on the television series “Combat!” and “The Love Boat.”
Luise Rainer was born Jan. 12, 1910, in Dusseldorf, Germany, and raised in Hamburg and Vienna, the daughter of an upper-class, Jewish family. A self-admitted tomboy, she was athletic as a youth, running races and climbing mountains. At the age of 16, without her parents consent, she began studying acting with Max Reinhardt. By the age of 18, she was developing a name as an actress. Early stage appearances included productions of Men in White, Saint Joan, Measure for Measure and Six Characters in Search of an Author. Subsequently, she began to appear in German and Austrian films. After MGM talent scout Phil Berg spotted her in the Pirandello play, she was offered a three-year contract and flown to California. Her first film, in 1935, was “Escapade,” a remake of one of her Austrian films.
Her Oscar win in “The Great Ziegfeld” was largely thought to have been based on a single scene, a fraught telephone conversation in which a despairing Anna Held congratulated Ziegfeld on his new marriage. Critics admired the way she ping-ponged between emotional extremes during the exchange, in which we hear nothing of what Ziegfeld says. The scene ends with Held dissolving into tears.
To add further drama to her victory, Luise Rainer was not even on hand to receive her Oscar, having been discouraged from attending the ceremony by her then-husband, playwright Clifford Odets. MGM, in a panic, sent publicity director Howard Strickling to go and fetch her. Her marriage to Odets was an unhappy one, and the two filed for divorce in 1938, a year after marrying. The divorce was final in 1940. Her second husband was Robert Knittel, a New York publisher she married in 1945. They had one child, Francesca.
Throughout her career, Ms. Rainer had disliked the celebrity aspect of film acting and had bucked Hollywood protocol. In 1989, she gave her Oscar for “The Good Earth” to some moving men who helped her relocate from Switzerland to London. She had been using it for years as a doorstop.