Luise Rainer–the first actress to win consecutive Academy Awards–would have been 107 today. She died two years ago at her home in London at 104 years old. If you don’t know who she is, you’re about to, because her story is so fascinating–and shouldn’t be forgotten with the passing of time.
Rainer, the daughter of a middle-class Jewish family who escaped Nazi Germany, was born in Dusseldorf in 1910 and raised in Austria. By age 13, she was studying acting under the expertise of Max Reinhardt, Austria’s premier stage director at the time.
Her first big break happened in 1935 when she starred in her first Hollywood film, “Escapade.” Rainer ended up winning the Oscar for Best Actress in 1936 and 1937 for her roles in “The Great Ziegfeld” and “The Good Earth.” She was later dubbed “the Viennese teardrop” for her dramatic telephone scene in the “The Great Ziegfeld.”
However, her success became a point of contention and turmoil for her, as she later stated that winning two consecutive Oscars was the worst thing to ever happen to her, as it set expectations too high. Her brief three-year film career came to an end when she moved back to Europe (and was persuaded by her first husband to quit)–which has made some historians call her the “most extreme case of an Oscar victim in Hollywood mythology.” She didn’t make another film for another 54 years. This wasn’t because of a lack of offers either, as she claimed to have been offered a role in Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” for instance.
It wasn’t until 1997 when she was coaxed to come out of her informal retirement and starred in Karoly Makk’s “The Gambler,” based on a story by Dostoevsky. At age 85, the role seemed perfect for Rainer, as she played an older Russian aristocrat obsessed by gambling.
With her second husband, Robert Knittel, a publisher, Rainer became a mother to her only child, daughter Francesca Knittel-Bowyer, who has two children of her own.