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Luise Rainer, Biography: Awards

Luise Rainer was the first actress to win back-to-back Academy Awards.

Luise Rainer, photographed her with her Oscar.
Notice that she wore no make-up, her hair isn't
coiffured, and she was wearing a rather shabby
Luise Rainer made a record-setting win after scooping the Academy Award for Best Actress twice in a row. An article in Internet Movie Database best depicts Rainer's performance as well as her successive wins for two of the best films of the 1930's, The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and The Good Earth (1937). 

As Anna Held, Ziegfeld's common-law wife, Rainer excelled in the musical numbers, but it is for her telephone scene that she is most remembered for. The Great Ziegfeld was a big hit and went on to win the Academy Award as Best Picture of 1936. Rainer received her first of two successive Best Actress Oscars for playing Held.

Luise Rainer as Anna Held in The Great Ziegfeld (1936).

The Great Ziegfeld movie poster.

Anna Held opposite the love of her love, the great Florenz
Ziegfeld (played by William Powell).

The award was highly controversial at the time as she was a relative unknown and it was only her first nomination, but also because her role was so short and relatively minor that it better qualified for a supporting nomination. (While 1936 was the first year that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences honored supporting players, her studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, listed her as a lead player, then got out its block vote for her.) Compounding the controversy was the fact that Rainer beat out such better known and more respected actresses as Carole Lombard (her sole Oscar nomination) in My Man Godfrey (1936), previous Best Actress winner Norma Shearer (her fifth nomination) in Romeo and Juliet (1936), and Irene Dunne (her second of five unsuccessful nominations) in Theodora Goes Wild (1936).

Some of the bitchery was directed towards Louis B. Mayer, whom non-M.G.M. Academy members resented for his ability to manipulate Academy votes. Other critics of her first Oscar win claimed it was the result of voters being unduly impressed with the great budget ($2 million) of "The Great Ziegfeld" rather than great acting.

Most observers agree that Rainer won her Oscar as the result of her moving and poignant performance in just one, single scene in the picture, the famous telephone scene in which the broken-hearted Held congratulates Ziegfeld over the telephone on his upcoming marriage to Billie Burke while trying to retain her composure and her dignity. During the scene, the camera is entirely focused on Rainer, and she delivers a tour-de-force performance. Seventy years later, it remains one of the most famous scenes in movie history. With another actress playing Held, the scene could have been mawkish, but Rainer brought the pathos of the scene out and onto film.

She based her interpretation of the scene on Jean Cocteau's play "La Voix Humaine." "Cocteau's play is just a telephone conversation about a woman who has lost her beloved to another woman," Rainer remembered.

'That is the comparison. As it fit into the Ziegfeld story, that's how I wrote it. It's a daily happening, not just in Cocteau.'”

Luise Rainer as the illiterate Chinese farmer O-Lan in
The Good Earth (1937) another Oscar winning role.

Of her performance, she said in an interview 60 years after the film's release, Rainer was dismissive of performance. “I was never proud of anything," she said. "I just did it like everything else. To do a film - let me explain to you - it's like having a baby. You labor, you labor, you labor, and then you have it. And then it grows up and it grows away from you. But to be proud of giving birth to a baby? Proud? No, every cow can do that."

Come the awards night, Luise Rainer did not attend the ceremony, so once Mayer learned that she had won best actress, he immediately summoned MGM publicist Howard Strickling to fetch her. She made a commotion when she arrived so master of ceremonies George Jessel mistakenly announced her win, which should have been done by Bette Davis.

Of her second Oscar-winning role, Rainer described the performance as something that she worked “inside out.”

“It's not for me, putting on a face, or putting on makeup, or making masquerade. It has to come from inside out. I knew what I wanted to do and he let me do it," she said. The win made Rainer the first two-time Oscar winner in an acting category and the first to win consecutive acting awards.

Rainer summed up her Oscar wins as the “worst” possible thing to happen on her career. In a 1938 interview, Rainer exclaimed that being awarded twice made her "work all the harder now to prove the Academy was right." The critic James Agate admired Rainer's performance in The Good Earth and described it as "an exquisite rendering", however she was criticised in reviews by Picturegoer. Max Breen was among those critics indignant that Greta Garbo's performance in Camille had been overlooked in favor of Rainer.

After 1938, Rainer had totally totally shown no interest for Hollywood. Her 1943 performance in Hostages was her last, until she made a little comeback in 1997.

But despite the short span of her career, Rainer made an imprint in the cinematic history of Hollywood. In the league of Garbo and Deana Durbin, she was one of the very few people to turn its back to an industry that a lot of people turn their whole life to. She was iconic for portraying—and fighting to play—unglamorous but meaty roles, and her achievement as a back-to-back Oscar winner is something not every actress is given the honor to savor.


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