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 wi