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Forgotten German film diva Luise Rainer turns 100

DPA/The Local · 12 Jan 2010, 18:41

Published: 12 Jan 2010 18:41 GMT+01:00

She astonished Albert Einstein, aided Ernest Hemingway during the Spanish Civil War, and helped Berthold Brecht escape from Nazi Germany to America. Federico Fellini begged her on his knees to come back to the set of “La Dolce Vita,” and she was the first actress to win two consecutive Oscars.

But even so, the now largely unknown star says modestly: “I haven't accomplished anything in life.”

Born in Düsseldorf on January 12, 1910 to a wealthy businessman father and a mother of Jewish heritage, Germany's forgotten film diva would have had a very different life had she listened to her parents. At 16, her father forbid her from becoming an actress. But pretending to visit an aunt, she travelled to Berlin, where she auditioned for Max Reinhardt at Deutsches Theater. However, she became nervous and forgot her lines. He sent her home.

Rainer finally got her first role at the Düsseldorf's Schauspielhaus and eventually she came to work for Max Reinhardt at the Wiener Theater. An American film agent discovered her onstage there and got her to sign with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

The Viennese Teardrop

In Hollywood, Luise Rainer shared a house with Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer. Her big break came in 1936 with her role in the hit musical “The Great Ziegfeld.” She won an Oscar for her role as Anna Held, the divorced wife of a Broadway producer, making her the first and only German actress to gain this distinction. But the studio covered up her heritage during the Nazi era and marketed her as an Austrian. For her highly emotional film performances, the press nicknamed her “The Viennese Teardrop.”

One year later she won the Oscar again for her role as a Chinese peasant in the film adaptation of Pearl Buck’s novel, “The Good Earth” making her the first person to win back-to-back Academy Awards for best acting.

But Rainer’s stardom began to fade soon after. She wore trousers in public and went without makeup. Her open defiance of the rules of conduct for stars soon made her unpopular with studio executives. Because her first husband, scriptwriter Clifford Odets, was a known communist, she was believed to be too political as well. She also complained the roles that she was offered weren’t challenging enough.

Rainer wasn’t even thirty by the time she had turned her back on Hollywood.

“It was always only about money, money, money,” she said. "But I wanted to play good roles. I always wanted to improve, always learn."

After several Jewish relatives from her mother’s side of the family were sent to die in concentration camps, Rainer became involved in the fight against Hitler. According to public broadcaster ARD, she helped Albert Einstein bring Jewish refuges to the United States. She also visited Allied troops in Africa. After the war’s end, she returned to Europe with her second husband, the English publisher Robert Knittel and their child. She then split her time living in London and Switzerland.

Begged by Fellini

From a career perspective the post-war era was a time of missed opportunity for Rainer. She refused a role in Tennessee Williams “The Glass Menagerie,” which went on to be a huge success on Broadway. In 1959, Federico Fellini wanted her for his film "La Dolce Vita.” But when she found out that she was expected to share a bedroom scene with Marcello Mastroianni, she walked off the set. Fellini followed her to her taxi and begged her to come back.

Story continues below…

"Just as my husband and I were about to get in the taxi on our way to the airport, Fellini appeared wearing a gigantic hat, went down on his knees and said, ‘Luisa, Luisa, you’re not allowed to leave me.’ We went back to England anyway,” Rainer told ARD.

After that, with the exception of a few small television appearances, Luise Rainer all but disappeared from the screen. She devoted herself to her family, travelled extensively, and tried her hand at painting. Only after the death of her second husband in 1989 did she appear before cameras again.

A role in a film adaptation of Dostoevsky’s novel, “The Gambler” marked her film comeback at the age of 86. In 2003 she was an honoured guest at the Oscar Awards in Los Angeles. She now lives quietly out of the public eye in London.

DPA/The Local (news@thelocal.de)

Your comments about this article

08:54 January 13, 2010 by wood artist
She was indeed great. I find it ironic that Hollywood "cleaned up" her background, making her seem more acceptable by saying she was "Austrian" given Hitler's background. Ah, the ignorance of the American public.

We are left to wonder what else she could have done had things been different.

wa
01:19 January 14, 2010 by Rosenu
Thanks to Turner Classic Movies in U.S. for enabling us to see once again and thoroughly enjoy films with this wondrous star! The pathos, truth, beauty that shines through her acting will always be with us. I just wish she had made more films. Thanks, dear Lady, for your heartfelt gifts to all mankind. May you always be blessed with fine health, joy and love!
17:53 January 14, 2010 by lordwilliams629
Wood artist your comment is very condradictory, see I'm not saying it was right or wrong for hollywood to change her background, at the time when many people hated germans because of the war, I would only have to guess that it was more of a marketing move, right or wrong.

But when you talk about the ignorance of americans i'm taken back, when you consider the pure ignorance of the german people at that time. Was it not germans that out of ignorance took 6 million inocent men, women and children and then murderd them. And if i'm not mistaken many germans claimed they new nothing about it, I call that pure ignorance. And then you have the nerve to wonder what else she could have done had things been differnt. I can answer part of that, she could have done alot had she not to deal with a bunch of ignorant germans who condemed her jewish background. So why don't you take a break and put your ignorance in a jar, or are you just to arrogant.
19:59 August 29, 2011 by Jack Kerouac
haha! are you going to answer that clever rebuttal, wood artist? I think he's bested you in intelligent commentary! ;) wow, talk about grapsing at straws...get over your negativity, lordwilliams.
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