Double Oscar Winning Actress Luise Rainer Dies at 104

Luise Rainer Dead at 104
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Luise Rainer, who won back-to-back Oscars in the 1930s, has died at the age of 104. Until her death, she was the oldest living Oscar winner. Rainer died of pneumonia Tuesday at her London home, according to daughter Francesca.

Rainer won her twin best actress Oscars for 1936 biopic “The Great Ziegfeld,” drawing the nod despite a fairly small role as impresario Florenz Ziegfeld’s first wife, and 1937’s “The Good Earth,” an adaptation of the novel by Pearl S. Buck in which the heavily, if charmingly, accented Austrian-German actress played a humble Chinese peasant.

The high expectations generated by her Oscar achievements did not, however lead to much further success in Hollywood. Some say the death of her producer at MGM, Irving Thalberg, as well as bad advice from her husband, the playwright Clifford Odets, contributed to the precipitous decline in her career.

Her first movie was “Escapade,” with William Powell. The film was a remake of one of Rainer’s Austrian films, but she received the part only after Myrna Loy gave up the role.

Rainer had impressed Powell on “Escapade”; he told a newspaper reporter, “She is an extremely sensitive organism and has a great comprehension of human nature. She has judgment and an abiding understanding which make it possible for her to portray human emotion poignantly and truly.”

Her next film was “The Great Ziegfield,” for which she reunited with Powell. She wowed audiences and the Motion Picture Academy particularly with a single highly emotional scene in the film in which she was on the phone with Powell’s Ziegfeld, seeking to cheerfully congratulate him on his new marriage but failing in the attempt; for this scene she was dubbed “the Viennese teardrop.”

In her next pic, “The Good Earth,” she played the humble, submissive wife of Paul Muni’s character, and the sheer contrast to her part in “The Great Ziegfield” impressed many; she picked up a second best actress Oscar. Thalberg had insisted that she play the part while MGM’s Louis B. Mayer had been against it, and Thalberg died before production on the film was complete.

Rainer made five more films for MGM, in 1937 and 1938, including “Big City,” in which she was strangely cast as the wife of cab driver Spencer Tracy. Only one of the five was a hit, the Oscar-winning musical biopic “The Great Waltz,” in which she played the wife of Johann Strauss.

Rainer struggled for more money and meatier parts at MGM, but Mayer was increasingly unsympathetic, though the actress — despite her accent — was among those nominally considered for the part of Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind” (she did not receive a screen test).

At Paramount in 1942 she did a screen test for “For Whom the Bell Tolls” but the part went to Ingrid Bergman. In 1943 she appeared in the Par war film “Hostages” with William Bendix and Paul Lukas. It was her last bigscreen appearance until 1997 Dostoevsky adaptation “The Gambler.”

She appeared onstage in England and then in J.M. Barrie’s “A Kiss for Cinderella” on Broadway in 1942. Bertolt Brecht wrote a play in which Rainer was to star but they had a falling out.

In 1947 she toured the U.S. in a production of Maxwell Anderson’s “Joan of Lorraine”; Rainer played Joan of Arc several times over the course of her career.

During the late 1940s and 1950s she did some television work in the U.S. and U.K., including appearances on “Schlitz Playhouse” and “Lux Video Theatre”; much later, in 1983, she made the seemingly obligatory appearance on “The Love Boat.”

Federico Fellini almost lured her back for a bigscreen appearance in 1960’s “La dolce vita” — she traveled to Rome for the part but pulled out before shooting.

Born in Dusseldorf, Germany, and raised in Hamburg and Vienna, she auditioned for the Dumont Theater in Dusseldorf at age 16 and subsequently studied with acting teacher Max Reinhardt, becoming part of his Vienna acting ensemble and gaining recognition for stage work in Berlin.

She appeared in George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan,” “Measure for Measure” and Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author” and then in several German-language films. MGM talent scout Phil Berg discovered her in 1934, believing she might appeal to Greta Garbo’s audience. Arriving in Hollywood the next year with a three-year MGM contract in hand, Rainer worked to improve her English before beginning her American career with “Escapade.”

In 2010 the actress appeared at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, where she was interviewed by Robert Osbourne. The British Film Institute also hosted her at a tribute to the actress in that year, her centenary.

Rainer and Odets were divorced in 1940. She married the publisher Robert Knittel in 1945; they remained together until his death in 1989.

In addition to her daughter Francesca, she is survived by two granddaughters and two great-grandchildren.

Leo Barraclough contributed to this report.

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  1. “The Oscar is not a curse. The curse comes that once you’ve won the Oscar, they think you can do anything.”

  2. spence says:

    & although a gifted actress, personally I thought the tragic Carole Lombard, “My Man Godfrey” (l936-Columbia)-(her sole nom.) & Garbo in ’37’s “Camille” (MGM)-(won NYFCC) truly deserved to win *”The Golden Boy”

    • spence says:

      & for those that want more info/for the record>*Tracy won for 1937’s “Captains Courageous” (MGM) & then for ’38’s “Boys Town” (MGM)

      • spence says:

        Officially the oldest *Oscar winning Best Actor & Best Actress stars are now>*Sidney Poitier-(l927-) & *Olivia de Havilland-(l9l6-) TCM’s Robert 0sborne says he speaks w/her each & every Sunday still from her home in Paris

  3. spence says:

    & as most true cinephiles are already aware she started that then *AMPAS record by being the very first performer to win 2nd consecutive *Oscars even over>*”the Great: Spencer Tracy” (l900-l967)
    of whom took home 2 for 1937 & 38 respectively
    although her 1936 role was actually a supporting turn if you see *”The Great Ziegeld” (MGM)

    (AMPAS/TRIVIA: & the other performers to date that have since achieved that same honor> *Kate Hepburn for 1967 & 68 / *Jason Robards for ’76 & 77 / *Tom Hanks for 1993 & 94)

    Also, MGM immediately teamed both *Tracy & her in “The Dream Factory’s” 1938 “The Big City” (**1/2 fair at best)

    & for any fans, not only of hers’ but of “Hollywoods Golden Age”-(circa 1925-60)

    check out 1992’s superb 6hr docu “M-G-M: When the Lion Roars” She’s interviewed on it, as well as TCM’s likely repeat of the above mentioned “Annual Film Festival’ she was only 100 then!


  4. Alex Krenwinkle says:

    Although Rainer would later dismiss “The Toy Wife,” as the sort of trifle that made her want to flee Hollywood, it’s a wonderful treat to watch. Certainly playing the superficial and frivolous Frou Frou was her biggest stretch from her own personality, and that includes O-Lan of “The Good Earth.” It seems almost absurd to imagine Rainer as a Southern belle, or even considered for Scarlett O’Hara in the upcoming “Gone With the Wind,” but she had this ability, as she herself would say, to approach acting “from the inside out,” feel what the character was feeling, and ultimately become that character. Whatever I have seen her in- and some of her films were substandard (“Dramatic School” for example)- Luise Rainer was always believable. It has always been a matter of conjecture- did Luise torpedo her own career, or did Louis B. Mayer wreck it? I’d venture it was both. But either way, it has been an unfortunate loss for those of us who admired her both personally and professionally.

  5. cadavra says:

    The tone of this article implies that Rainer was the architect of her own downfall. In fact, she fought with Mayer for better roles, and when he intimated that he might be more accommodating if she slept with him, she courageously told him where to go. She left Hollywood on her own terms, and good for her, even though we moviegoers were ultimately deprived of many fine performances.

    • spence says:

      cadavra is correct in that around ’41 L.B. Mayer-(l885-l957) & to even quote her, he told her pt blank “*Rainer, we made ya’ & were gonna’ break ya” unquote & according to her she then left
      Wonder if she coulda’ handled comedy though?

  6. Danny says:

    Ok, with all the praise I’m reading here about this gorgeous thespian, I am going online to view a couple of her movies.

    What a wondrous digital age we live in, that anything we desire to learn of or revisit, can be done in seconds. Mrs. Rainer’s impressive cinema credits are forever archived on chips and clouds for future generations to discover!

  7. Ken says:

    One of the few remaining links to the golden age of Hollywood has left us at the astonishing age of 104. Ms. Rainer’s sensitive perf as “o-Lin” in the epic THE GGOD EARTH remains a touching tour de force (the same cannot be said for Paul Muni’s ludicrous portrayal of her husband). One has always wondered what Anna May Wong could’ve brought to the role…but Rainer was sublime.

  8. MAK says:

    Ms. Rainer was not in MASQUERADE IN VIENNA, the film which was remade as ESCAPADE. Her role was played by Paula Wessley and the William Powell role by Anton Walbrook in that 1934 film released in Europe as simply MASKERADE. And it’s quite a show..

  9. M. F. Sibley says:

    Luise Rainer’s performance in “The Good Earth” has never failed to move me. Each time I have watched it, the delicacy and yet stern determination of her character, O-Lan, is emitted entirely through her eyes, as would have been done by the best silent film stars. Her final scene, with the pearl earrings, leaves me in tears each and every time. I only wish Ms. Rainer had done more films. She was an outstanding credit to the ones she has left us. God’s speed on your newest adventure!

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