Rainer, Luise (1910—)

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Rainer, Luise (1910—)

Austrian actress . Born on January 12, 1910 (some sources cite 1909), in Vienna, Austria; married Clifford Odets (a playwright), in 1937 (divorced 1940); married Robert Knittel (a publisher), in 1953 (died 1989); no children.

Selected filmography:

(in Austria and Germany) Ja der Himmel uber Wien (1930), Sehnsucht 202 (1932), Heute kommt's drauf an (1933); (in U.S.) Escapade (1935), The Great Ziegfeld (1936), The Good Earth (1937), The Emperor's Candlesticks (1937), Big City (1937), The Toy Wife (1938), The Great Waltz (1938), Dramatic School (1938), Hostages (1943), The Best of Everything (1983), The Gambler (1997).

Arriving in Hollywood from Austria in 1935 and heralded as the new Greta Garbo , Luise Rainer immediately distinguished herself by winning back-to-back Academy Awards as Best Actress for her work in The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and The Good Earth (1937). Over the next several years, however, Rainer fell victim to the studio star system, and by 1939 her career was pretty much over. Years later, the actress reflected on her brief years in Hollywood. "They owned me completely," she said of the studio. "I was a tool in a big mechanical factory."

Rainer made her stage debut in Austria at age 16 and was a student of the world-renowned German actor-director Max Reinhardt. After establishing herself on the stage and in films in Austria and Germany, she was discovered by an American talent scout and brought to Hollywood. Her American film debut in Escapade (1935), with William Powell, was unremarkable, although studio head Louis B. Mayer felt she had great potential as a romantic star. He cast her with Powell again in The Great Ziegfeld (1936), as the impresario's temperamental first wife Anna Held . Rainer's most memorable scene, which is believed to have cinched the Oscar for her, comes at the end of the movie, when she fights back tears as she phones Ziegfeld to congratulate him on his second marriage to actress Billie Burke . Ironically, this scene was almost cut; Mayer thought the film was too long. In addition to winning the Academy Award that year, Rainer also took home the New York Critics' Best Actress Award.

Irving Thalberg, the head of production at MGM, went over Mayer's head to cast Rainer as the saintly peasant wife O-Lan in the highly respected screen version of Pearl S. Buck 's bestseller The Good Earth (1937). The film was overwhelmingly praised by the critics, although not all of them agreed that Rainer's performance was of Oscar quality. While James Agate called it "an exquisite rendering of what my clever Austrian actress imagines a Chinese peasant woman to be like," others were less diplomatic. "Can it be that the Academy has been dazzled by her stage fame," wrote Max Breen, "or is there really something in her two very limited performances, not perhaps apparent to ordinary mortals, which has transcended anything done in those two years by the great Garbo herself?"

While at the height of what would be fleeting fame, Rainer married playwright Clifford Odets, whom she had met and dated while she was making The Good Earth. Reportedly, the bridegroom spent his wedding night working on a screenplay, setting the tone for the tumultuous years that followed. "He screamed at me and then didn't talk for a week. It was very, very difficult," Rainer said about the relationship, "but Odets was a very special and immensely gifted human being, and I loved him." Odets was more guarded about his feelings. "Luise Rainer was one of the several persons in my life who prepared me for life," he wrote in his journal. "Our brief time together was necessary for both of us."

Although Rainer hoped to develop her skill as an actress, Louis B. Mayer never gave her the opportunity. Following The Good Earth, he cast her in five forgettable films, including The Emperor's Candlesticks (1937), again with Powell, The Big City (1937), with Spencer Tracy, and The Toy Wife (1938), with Melvyn Douglas. In 1938, following Dramatic School, and amid rumors of impending retirement, Rainer took a leave of absence to patch up her failing marriage. During that time, the studio dropped her contract.

After her divorce from Odets in 1940, Rainer made a less-than-memorable Broadway debut in A Kiss for Cinderella, followed by a tour in Joan of Lorraine by Maxwell Anderson. In 1943,

Paramount signed her for Hostages, with William Bendix, but the film did not trigger a hoped-for comeback. In 1951, Rainer married English publisher Robert Knittel and settled in London, abandoning her career ambitions. Aside from a few television roles, she did not reemerge on screen until 1983, when she appeared in The Best of Everything. Her featured role as a flamboyant Russian dowager in The Gambler (1997), for which the 89-year-old Rainer came out of retirement, sparked renewed interest in the actress, who was quick to point out to reporters that she looked much younger in person than in her film makeup. A review of the film in The New York Times described Rainer as having "the magnetic presence of an ancient grande dame with an elfin sense of mischief." The actress took umbrage with the word "ancient."

At the time, Rainer revealed that she was working on her memoirs ("Unfinished Symphony") and was also considering a movie based on a novel. "It's a book about saving Venice and saving beauty, about not making materialism the quintessence of existence," she said. "You know, some very beautiful things get lost and forgotten, just as I got lost."

sources:

Gussow, Mel. "Revenge of a Studio Pawn: A Comeback, After 55 Years," in The New York Times. July 17, 1999.

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper-Collins, 1994.

Lamparski, Richard. Whatever Became of …? NY: Crown, 1967.

Shipman, David. The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1989.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts