The first thespian to win back-to-back Oscars for her performances in The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and The Good Earth (1937).
My acting was from the inside out. 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. ~ Luise Rainer
The daughter of Heinrich and Emilie (née Königsberger) Rainer, known familiarly as “Heinz” (died 1956) and “Emmy” (died 1961), Luise Rainer was born on January 12, 1910, in Düsseldorf, Germany and raised in Hamburg and later in Vienna, Austria.
Rainer had two brothers and was a premature baby, born two months early. She describes her father as being “possessive” and “tempestuous”, but whose affections and concern were centered on her. Luise seemed to him as “eternally absent-minded” and “very different”. She remembers his “tyrannical possessiveness”, and was saddened to see her mother, “a beautiful pianist, and a woman of warmth and intelligence and deeply in love with her husband, suffering similarly”. Although generally shy at home, she was immensely athletic in school, becoming a champion runner and a fearless mountain climber. Rainer said she became an actress to help expend her physical and overly emotional energy. It was her father’s wish, however, that she attend a good finishing school and “marry the right man.” Rainer’s rebellious nature made her appear to be more of a “tomboy” and happy to be alone. She also feared she might develop what she saw as her mother’s “inferiority complex”.
She was only six when she decided to become part of the entertainment world. At age 16, Rainer chose to follow her dream to become an actress; under the pretext of visiting her mother, she traveled to Düsseldorf for a prearranged audition at the Dumont Theater.
Rainer later began studying acting with Max Reinhardt, and, by the time she was 18, there was already an “army of critics” who felt that she had unusual talent for a young actress. She soon became a distinguished Berlin stage actress as a member of Reinhardt’s Vienna theater ensemble. Her first stage appearance was at the Dumont Theater in 1928, followed by other appearances
In 1934, after appearing in several German language films, she was seen performing in the play Six Characters in Search of an Author by MGM talent scout Phil Berg, who offered her a three-year contract in Hollywood. He thought she would appeal to the same audience as Swedish MGM star Greta Garbo. Initially, Rainer had no interest in films.
Rainer moved to Hollywood in 1935 as a hopeful new star. Biographer Charles Higham notes that MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer and story editor Samuel Marx had seen footage of Rainer before she came to Hollywood, and both felt she had the looks, charm, and especially a “certain tender vulnerability” that Mayer admired in female stars. Because of her poor command of English, Mayer assigned actress Constance Collier to train her in correct speech and dramatic modulation, and Rainer’s English improved rapidly.
Her first film role in Hollywood was in Escapade (1935), a remake of one of her Austrian films, co-starring William Powell. She received the part after Myrna Loy gave up her role halfway through filming. Powell, impressed by Rainer’s acting skill, had given her equal billing in Escapade. After seeing the preview, Rainer ran out of the cinema displeased with how she appeared.
According to Higham, Irving Thalberg felt that only Rainer, of all the studio’s stars, could play the part as he saw it. But Rainer recalled that studio head Mayer did not want her playing the part, seeing it as too small.
As Thalberg expected, she successfully expressed the “coquettishness, wide-eyed charm, and vulnerability” required. Rainer “so impressed audiences with one highly emotional scene,” wrote biographer Charles Affron, that she received the Academy Award for Best Actress.
In one scene, for example, her character is speaking to her ex-husband Florenz Ziegfeld over the telephone, attempting to congratulate him on his new marriage: “The camera records her agitation; Ziegfeld hears a voice that hovers between false gaiety and despair; when she hangs up she dissolves into tears.”
On the evening of the Academy Award ceremonies, Rainer remained at home, not expecting to win. When Mayer learned she had won, he sent MGM publicity head Howard Strickling racing to her home to get her. When she finally arrived, master of ceremonies George Jessel, during the commotion, made the mistake of introducing Rainer, which Bette Davis had been scheduled to do.
Rainer’s next film was The Good Earth (1937), in which she co-starred with Paul Muni; she had been picked as the most likely choice for the female lead in September 1935. The role, however, was completely the opposite of her Anna Held character, as she was required to portray a humble Chinese peasant subservient to her husband and speaking little during the entire film. Her comparative muteness, stated historian Andrew Sarris, was an astounding tour de force after her hysterically chattering telephone scene in The Great Ziegfeld, and contributed to her winning her second Best Actress Oscar.
The award made her the first actress to win two consecutive Oscars, a feat not matched until Katharine Hepburn‘s two wins thirty years later. In later years, however, Rainer felt that winning the two Oscars so early may have been the “worst possible thing” to befall her career. She said that it made her work all the harder now to prove the Academy was right. In any case, some critics were indignant that Greta Garbo‘s performance in Camille had been overlooked in favor of Rainer.
In 1938, she played Johann Strauss’s long-suffering wife Poldi in the successful Oscar-winning MGM musical biopic The Great Waltz, her last big hit.
Her four other films for MGM, The Emperor’s Candlesticks (1937), Big City (1937) with Spencer Tracy, The Toy Wife, (1938) and Dramatic School (1938), were ill-advised and not well received, though Rainer continued to receive praise. The Emperor’s Candlesticks, in which Rainer was cast in November 1936, reunited Rainer with Powell for the final time. For the film, she wore a red wig and wore costumes designed by Adrian, who claimed that Rainer, by the end of 1937, would become one of Hollywood’s most influential people in fashion. On set, she received star treatment, having her own dressing room, diction teacher, secretary, wardrobe woman, hairdresser, and makeup artist. The Emperor’s Candlesticks was Rainer’s first film for which she received criticism, it being claimed that she did not improve in her acting technique.
Even though reviews were favorable of Rainer’s performance in Big City, reviewers agreed that she was miscast in a ‘modern role’ and looked “too exotic” as Tracy’s wife. Despite the criticism and announcements of leaving Hollywood, Rainer renewed her contract for seven years shortly after the film’s release.
Most critics agreed Rainer was at her most appealing in The Toy Wife. The final MGM film Rainer made was Dramatic School. At the time she was cast in the film, her box office popularity had declined considerably, and she was one of the many well-known stars—along with MGM colleagues Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and Norma Shearer, and Katharine Hepburn, Mae West, Fred Astaire, Kay Francis and others—dubbed “Box Office Poison” by the Independent Theatre Owners of America.
Rainer refused to be stereotyped or to knuckle under to the studio system, and studio head Mayer was unsympathetic to her demands for serious roles. Furthermore, she began to fight for a higher salary, and was reported as being difficult and temperamental. As a result, she missed out on several roles, including the female lead in the Edward G. Robinson gangster film The Last Gangster (1937), losing out to another Viennese actress, Rose Stradner.
Disenchanted with Hollywood, where she later said it was impossible to have an intellectual conversation, she moved to New York City in 1940 to live with playwright Clifford Odets, whom she had married in 1937.
She filed for divorce in mid-1938, but proceedings were delayed “to next October” when Odets went to England. The divorce was finalized on May 14, 1940.
Despite the negativity, Rainer was one of the actresses considered for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939), but the idea was not well-received, and she was not given a screen test. She also was unable to persuade MGM bosses to cast her in “Johnny Belinda,” based on a 1940 play about a deaf-mute rape victim.
While in Europe, Rainer studied medicine and explained she loved being accepted as just another student, rather than as a screen actress. She returned to the stage and made her first appearance at the Palace Theatre, Manchester, on May 1, 1939, as Françoise in Jacques Deval’s play Behold the Bride; she played the same part in her London debut at the Shaftesbury Theatre on May 23, 1939. Returning to America, she played the leading part in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan on March 10, 1940, at the Belasco Theatre in Washington, D.C. under the direction of German emigrant director Erwin Piscator. She made her first appearance on the New York stage at the Music Box Theatre in May 1942 as Miss Thing in J. M. Barrie’s A Kiss for Cinderella.
When Rainer returned to Hollywood, her contract at MGM had long expired and she had no agent. David Rose, head of Paramount Pictures, offered her a starring role in an English film shot on location, but war conditions prevented her from accepting the role. Instead, Rose suggested in 1942 that she make a screen test for the lead role in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), but Ingrid Bergman was cast. Rainer eventually settled on a role in Hostages (1943). Following her appearance in Hostages abandoned film making in 1944 after marrying publisher Robert Knittel.
She made sporadic television and stage appearances following her and her husband’s move to Britain.
She appeared in The Gambler (1997) in a small role, marking her film comeback at the age of 86. She made appearances at the 1998 and 2003 Academy Awards ceremonies as part of special retrospective tributes to past Oscar winners.
Rainer took her oath of allegiance to the United States in the 1940s, but she and Knittel lived in the UK and Switzerland for most of their marriage. Robert Knittel died in 1989. Luise resided in Eaton Square, London, in an apartment in the same building once inhabited by film star Vivien Leigh, also a two-time Oscar winner. The couple had one daughter, Francesca Knittel, now known as Francesca Knittel-Bowyer. Rainer had two granddaughters, Luisa and Nicole, and two great-grandchildren, Luca and Hunter.
On January 12, 2010, Rainer celebrated her centenary in London. Actor Sir Ian McKellen was one of her guests. During that month, she was present at the British Film Institute tribute to her at the National Film Theatre, where she was interviewed by Richard Stirling before screenings of The Good Earth and The Great Waltz. She also appeared onstage at the National Theatre, where she was interviewed by Sir Christopher Frayling. In April 2010, she returned to Hollywood to present a TCM festival screening of The Good Earth, accompanied by an interview with host Robert Osborne.
Rainer died on December 30, 2014, in London at the age of 104 from pneumonia. She was thirteen days shy of her 105th birthday.