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.