Trained for the theatre by the famed stage director Max Reinhardt, Rainer became a respected member of his Vienna theatre ensemble while still in her teens, but her hoped-for career on stage was radically rerouted when an M-G-M talent scout spotted her on stage in Austria and shipped her off to Hollywood to star in "Escapade."
She scored her unprecedented wins as the glamorous Anna Held in 1936's "The Great Ziegfeld" and the dirt-poor Chinese wife O-Lan in 1937's "The Good Earth." (The latter bested Garbo's Camille.)
"For my second and third pictures, I won Academy Awards," she famously said. "Nothing worse could have happened to me."
Setting too high a mark for herself, she dragged herself through five undistinguished films in a row, balked at the mediocrity of her assignments, butted heads with studio boss Louis B. Mayer and, in a day when such things were just not done, left Hollywood forever. She is usually cited as the classic victim of "the Oscar curse."
Her exit was easy, being the wife of Clifford Odets, a hit playwright striking out in Hollywood. When he went East to the greener pastures of Broadway, she went with him, and their marriage unraveled there. Returning to England, she married British publisher Robert Knittel and in 1939 resumed stage-acting in earnest — this time, in English.
Her first English role was Francoise in Jacques Deval's Behold the Bride, first in Manchester and then in London. She starred twice on Broadway — in James M. Barrie's A Kiss for Cinderella in 1942 and Henrik Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea in 1950 — and appeared Off-Broadway, notably in Ethan Frome.
It has been said that her most important contribution to theatre was made off-stage: She signed a visa affidavit that got playwright Bertolt Brecht out of Nazi Germany. (She "loved his poetry."). Grateful, he wrote the role of Grusha Vashnadze in The Caucasian Chalk Circle for her, but they had a falling-out and she never did it.
Today, Rainer lives in London's Belgrave Square in an apartment in the same building that was once inhabited by another two-time Oscar winner, Vivien Leigh.
— Harry Haun