LUISE RAINER: Hollywood's Centennarian

People, given the opportunity of becoming a star, would surely rush in and go get their share of popularity. But not Luise Rainer. Dubbed as the Hollywood’s “new Hepburn and next Garbo,” she was one of the very few people – including Hepburn and Garbo – who shunned stardom and balked at the conventional, even empty life that most of her contemporaries enjoyed, and eventually suffered from.

But despite her seemingly meteoric rise, and sudden disappearance from the limelight, Luise Rainer had her fair share of unforgettable performances and memorable films, which makes her an immortal actress, performer, and screen legend in her own right.

This Viennese import was from the stage. She was cast in a host of MGM extravaganza, gearing her up to become the studio’s next queen of the lot. However, Rainer, from the very start, eschewed Hollywood’s standards. She was born a rebel and she walked on the streets without makeup and wearing dirty, often unfashionable clothes.

But no one can deny her acting prowess. Her years on the stage eventually honed her craft and despite the rarity of good scripts, she was lucky enough to be cast as the long-suffering Anna Held opposite Tyrone Power’s Florence Ziegfeld in The Great Ziegfeld (1936). In the well-remembered telephone scene, where she congratulated Ziegfeld for his success in Broadway, Rainer gave a tour de force performance rich in emotion, despair, and loneliness that earned her her first Academy Award for Best Actress, beating the likes of Irene Dunne and Norma Shearer.

The following year, she appeared as the Chinese peasant, O’Lan, in Irving Thalberg’s last super-production before he succumbed to tuberculosis, The Good Earth (1937). She again won the Academy Award, becoming the first actress to win back-to-back Academy Awards, a record that only Katharine Hepburn was able to equal after her double triumph in 1967 and 1968.

But it seemed that Rainer could not hold on the momentum. The backlash after The Good Earth was inevitable. She yearned for meatier performances, which ended her with a clash with MGM’s big boss, Louis B. Mayer. With Thalberg already dead, no one in the studio and in Hollywood knew how to utilize her. Eventually, her bout with Mayer took its toll on her career as she was miscast in a series of lackluster roles that left her disillusioned more than ever. At the height of her discontent and during a heated argument with Mayer, she was able to say “I am 20, you are 60. By the time I am 40, the age of a successful actress, you’ll be dead!” With a crumbling marriage with playwright Clifford Odets, she found no reason to stay in Hollywood any longer. After 1938, she walked out from her contract and from then on, she only appeared in two more films, one in 1943 and another in 1997.

Rainer might have been derided by studio boss and contemporaries for being too stubborn and distant from what was considered convention. But compared to most actresses of here era, Rainer was an intellectual who thought in her own way and yearned for artistic and intellectual freedom, free from the dictation of the studios. And with her compelling performances in The Great Ziegfeld and The Good Earth, Rainer had left a legacy of being a true Hollywood rebel who didn’t bowed towards convention but did what she think was right. Celebrating her first century last month and living at a comfortable apartment in London, Rainer is the oldest competitive winner of an Oscar, the first back-to-back Academy Award winner, and, together with Shirley Temple, Maureen O’Hara, Olivia de Havilland, Joan Fontaine, Gloria Stewart, and Deanna Durbin, one of the last surviving legends of Hollywood’s most golden era.

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David said...

Only two comments. She did not play opposite Tyrone Power in "The Great Ziegfeld!" It was William Powell who played the title role.

Secondly in the telephone call scene she is congratulating Ziegfeld on his marriage to Billie Burke, not congratulating him on his Broadway Successes. This scene by the way is extraordinary - almost a master class in acting!!!

That is all.

Lara baxter said...

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