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.
“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.