31 Days of Oscar Blogathon: Luise Rainer’s Back-to-Back Oscar Wins

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After a long time away from this blog, I’m finally back with my first post of the year! Today I’ll be talking about legendary actress Luise Rainer and how becoming the first back-to-back Oscar winner changed the course of her life and career. I’d like to start by thanking the three lovely hosts of this blogathon, Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled, Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club and Aurora of Once Upon a Screen for hosting, and I wish this wonderful blogathon all the success possible! And so, without further ado, on with the post!

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Luise Rainer the year of her American film debut, c. 1935

If you have ever seen a film of Luise Rainer’s before, it probably won’t surprise you to hear that she got her first big break in Europe. In fact, she was discovered in Vienna by legendary theater director Max Reinhardt (who went on to direct A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935)) and garnered widespread acclaim as part of his theatre company before even turning eighteen. At first Rainer had no interest in films, but in after appearing in several German films in the early 1930s, she was seen performing in a play by MGM talent scout Phil Berg. Immediately he offered Rainer a three-year contract with high hopes that she would move to Hollywood and make a useful backup for finicky Swedish MGM player Greta Garbo. Rainer accepted the offer, and got her second lucky break as soon as she arrived in sunny California, as Myrna Loy had just dropped out of her newest Powell and Loy vehicle halfway through filimg and MGM was in dire need of a star. At the tender age of twenty-five she made her American debut in the film, titled Escapade (1935).

Costar William Powell served as a mentor to her on the picture, teaching her how to act in front of the camera. Rainer remembered him always as “a dear man” and “a very fine person”, and after the film’s completion Powell reportedly told MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, “You’ve got to star this girl or I’ll look like an idiot.” And star her he did, in what would be her first Oscar-winning performance and her second film with William Powell, The Great Ziegfeld (1936). It was a film that chronicled the life of entertainment mogul and founder of the Ziegfeld Follies, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., and also served as MGM’s attempt to ride on the coattails of other successful biographical pictures of the 1930s, like Mata Hari (1931), The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), and Cleopatra (1934). In it, Rainer portrayed Ziegfeld’s first wife, French actress and singer Anna Held. A lavish budget of just over $2 million was given to the picture, and in return it received raving critical and box office success, earning back its budget and almost a million more in total profits and nabbing seven Academy Award nominations, for Original Screenplay, Art and Dance Direction, Film Editing, Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Actress for Luise Rainer.

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Luise Rainer shown with her first Academy Award for The Great Ziegfeld (1936), shown with Paul Muni (left) and Frank Capra (right).

When Oscar night drew near, however, everyone believed that she would lose to one of her more experienced and respected competitors. That year, Carole Lombard received her first and only nomination for My Man Godfrey (1936), Norma Shearer recieved her fifth nomination for Romeo and Juliet (1936), and Irene Dunne received her second of five unsuccessful nominations for Theodora Goes Wild (1936). Even Luise Rainer herself remained at home, not expecting to win, but when Mayer learned that she had indeed won in what many consider to be a shocking upset, he hurriedly sent MGM publicity head Howard Strickling to her home to fetch her. After much commotion Rainer took home the golden man, and since that date many theories have been presented as to why. One states that MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer had more influence over the Academy than anyone else, and he believed that an Oscar for Rainer would give her some much needed publicity. Another believes that the Academy was blinded by the glitter and glamour of The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and wanted to award the film with as many accolades as possible. Most historians believe, however, that her heartfelt performance in what is now called the famous “telephone scene” earned her the Oscar, a scene in which the broken-hearted Held congratulates Ziegfeld over the telephone on his upcoming second marriage to Billie Burke in a prideful attempt to maintain her composure and her dignity.

Her performance in the film led her to recieve the coveted part of O-Lan in her next picture, The Good Earth (1937), an adaptation of the bestselling 1931 novel by Pearl S. Buck about the trials of Chinese farmer Wang Lung. O-Lan is a servant who becomes Wang Lung’s faithful and hardworking wife, and the two of them lead a life that brings both prosperity and destitution. The role required a stellar actress despite the character not having many lines, and Rainer nabbed the part after censors forbid the use of Asian actress Anna May Wong after hearing that white actor Paul Muni had already received the role of Wang Lung. Like many other films, the production of The Good Earth (1937) was riddled with complications as soon as Rainer was cast. Louis B. Mayer did not approve of such a realistic and plain picture for Luise Rainer, who he had just built up as a beautiful star. “He was horrified at Irving Thalberg’s insistence for me to play O-Lan, the poor uncomely little Chinese peasant,” she recalled in a later interview. “I myself, with the meager dialogue given to me, feared to be a hilarious bore.” Rainer also remembered hearing Mayer’s comments to Thalberg, producer of the film. “She has to be a dismal-looking slave and grow old; but Luise is a young girl; we just have made her glamorous — what are you doing?”

Nevertheless, Rainer considered the film and her part in it among her “greatest achievements”, stating that she was finally able to express realism, even refusing to wear the “rubber mask Chinese look” suggested by the makeup department, and she fondly remembered being allowed to act “genuine, honest, and down-to-earth”. Other serious problems arose when director George W. Hill, who had already spent several months on location in China filming esablishing and background scenes, committed suicide soon after returning to Hollywood. The filming was postponed until Sidney Franklin could take over as director. Months later, producer Irving Thalberg also died suddenly at the age of thirty-seven. Rainer commented years later, “His dying was a terrible shock to us. He was young and ever so able. Had it not been that he died, I think I may have stayed much longer in films.” The opening credits of The Good Earth (1937) include a dedication to Thalberg: “To the Memory of Irving Grant Thalberg — his last greatest achievement – we dedicate this picture.” His hard work and that of the rest of the cast and crew paid off, however, as the film received overwhelmingly positive reviews and was nominated for five Academy Awards, for Film Editing, Cinematography, Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Actress, giving Luise Rainer her second nomination in a row.

Luise Rainer Holding an Academy Award
Luise Rainer shown with her second Academy Award for The Good Earth (1937).

Again not much faith was put into Rainer’s ability to win the Oscar and her competition was very steep, as in 1937 Irene Dunne received her third nomination for The Awful Truth (1937), Greta Garbo received her second of three unsuccessful nominations for Camille (1937), Janet Gaynor received her second nomination for the original production of A Star is Born (1937), and Barbara Stanwyck received her first of four unsuccessful nominations for Stella Dallas (1937). Once more Luise Rainer surprised everyone by becoming the world’s first back-to-back winner of the Academy Award, male or female. The feat would not be duplicated again until 1968, when Katharine Hepburn won Best Actress for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) and The Lion in Winter (1968). This time Rainer made sure to attend the ceremony, appearing in person and accepting her Oscar for the world to see. Critics overwhelmingly did not agree with the decision, favoring Greta Garbo’s performance in Camille (1937) and still believing that she deserved the Oscar, and unfortunately for Rainer, the award proved to be the beginning of the end for her career in films.

Rainer went on to fulfill her contract with MGM, making three more pictures in 1937 alone. Her next (and most consider her last) hit was The Great Waltz (1938), another musical biographical film in which Rainer played the part of Poldi Vogelhuber, wife of Johann Strauss. The film was nominated for three Oscars and won one for best cinematography, but Luise Rainer did not receive another nomination. Later she became one of the many actresses considered for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939), and rallied unsuccessfully for the part of Belinda McDonald in Johnny Belinda (1948). The role eventually went to Jane Wyman and earned her her only Oscar for Best Actress. In 1938 Rainer left MGM, arriving at the office of studio head Louis B. Mayer and reportedly telling him, “Mr. Mayer, I must stop making films. My source has dried up. I work from the inside out, and there is nothing inside to give.”

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Luise Rainer in her later years, shown with both of her Academy Awards.

Despite her grievances, she was not released from her contract and was still bound to make one more film for the studio, which she did in 1943 with the film Hostages (1943). Rainer later said about her departure: “I was very young. There were a lot of things I was unprepared for. I was too honest, I talked serious instead of with my eyelashes and Hollywood thought I was cuckoo. I worked in seven big pictures in three years. I have to be inspired to give a good performance. I complained to a studio executive that the source was dried up. The executive told me, ‘Why worry about the source? Let the director worry about that.’ I didn’t run away from anybody in Hollywood. I ran away from myself.” She later attributed her the end of her career to her back-to-back Academy Awards, saying that “For my second and third pictures I won Academy Awards. Nothing worse could have happened to me. When I got two Oscars, they thought ‘Oh, they can throw me into anything’. I was a machine, practically a tool in a big, big factory, and I could not do anything. And so I left. I just went away. I fled. Yes, I fled.” Despite other offers in the meantime, Luise Rainer did not return to films until she was eighty-six years old, with one small role in The Gambler (1997), after which she did not work again.

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