Luise Rainer dies at 104; 1930s star had meteoric rise and fall in Hollywood

Luise Rainer, actress who won back-to-back Oscars, dies at age 104 at her London home

With her soulful eyes, luminous beauty and an emotional intensity that melted hearts, Luise Rainer was well on her way to becoming a queen of Hollywood after only a handful of movies in the 1930s.

Her wrenching performance in "The Great Ziegfeld" (1936) — memorable for the telephone scene in which her character smiles through tears to congratulate ex-husband Flo Ziegfeld on his remarriage — brought Rainer's first Academy Award. The next year, as a Chinese peasant in the Pearl Buck saga "The Good Earth" (1937), she won again, becoming at 28 the first actor to win back-to-back Oscars.

But Rainer was not a conventional star. She refused to wear glamorous clothes or makeup. She disparaged Hollywood people, preferring the company of George Gershwin, Thomas Mann, Frank Lloyd Wright, Albert Einstein and other intellectuals and artists. And she clashed with studio boss Louis B. Mayer over her roles. She wanted to play substantial women, like Madame Curie. He put her in "The Toy Wife" (1938).

"We made you, and we're going to kill you," he warned the German-born actress after a particularly bitter confrontation. He quickly made good on his threat, ruining her career so completely that, as film historian David Thomson later wrote, her two Oscar statuettes "might have been voodoo dolls."

Rainer, whose meteoric rise and rapid descent mystified movie fans for decades, died of pneumonia Tuesday at her home in London, said her daughter, Francesca Knittel Bowyer. She was 104.

She made only a half-dozen more movies before turning her back on Hollywood — and leaving her troubled marriage to left-wing playwright Clifford Odets. She appeared only occasionally on stage and in television and film over the next decades.

In her final movie role, she played a grandmother in Karoly Makk's "The Gambler" (1997), based on the Dostoevsky novel, for which she was widely praised. But she mostly lived a quiet life in Europe with British publisher Robert Knittel,whom she married in 1945. Knittel died in 1989.

Rainer returned to Hollywood for the 1998 and 2003 Academy Awards shows honoring previous Oscar winners and in 2010 for the TCM Classic Film Festival. She was all smiles for the cameras, but her wounds had not healed.

"I hated Hollywood," Rainer said in an interview in 2001. "That's why I turned my back on it."

She wanted to be Madame Curie, "but Mayer forbade me." She wanted to be Maria in "For Whom the Bell Tolls," but Ingrid Bergman got the role.

"People talk about the '30s and the '40s as a great time, but it was also the glamour-puss time," she told the Guardian newspaper in 1997. "I was never really that. Louis B. Mayer's motto was, 'Give me a good looker and I'll make her an actress,' which to me was an insult to my profession."

Her oft-repeated account of her last meeting with Mayer is the stuff of Hollywood legend.

"Louis B. sent for me and said, 'I understand that you want to leave us?' I said, 'Yes, Mr. Mayer, my source is dried out,'" she said, explaining that she had run out of inspiration. "He looked at me and he said, 'What do you need a source for? Don't you have a director?'

"What could I say? He looked at me for a long time," and then he delivered his you'll-never-work-in-Hollywood-again threat. She managed a dignified reply and left.

Despite the brevity of her career, she earned a place in movie history as the first of only five actors — Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Jason Robards and Tom Hanks followed her — to win consecutive Oscars.

Rainer (pronounced rye-ner) was born Jan. 12, 1910, in Dusseldorf, Germany. Later descriptions of her as the "Viennese teardrop" were encouraged by Mayer, who was Jewish and wanted nothing to do with Hitler's Germany. Her father was a well-to-do businessman and her mother was a pianist.

In an echo of the role Mayer would later play in her life, her father dominated the family. He was infuriated by her decision to become an actress.

"He said, 'It is a low and vulgar profession,' " she recalled to Vanity Fair writer Marie Brenner in 1998. "I was thrown out of the house at age 16 or 17, and I had to live on apples and eggs!"

Luckily, she had enormous talent, which quickly earned her a place on the stage in Germany and then in Austria, where she joined the theater company of legendary German stage director Max Reinhardt. By the time she was 25 she had been spotted by an MGM talent scout and soon found herself in America signing a seven-year contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

She studied her English and walked her dog on the beach in Santa Monica. It was on one such walk that she ran into screenwriter Anita Loos, who told her that Myrna Loy was dropping out of "Escapade." Within a short time, the role in the 1935 film was Rainer's. It was the break the young actress needed.

Rainer's "Escapade" co-star William Powell was so impressed with her that he told Mayer, "You have to star that girl or I look like an idiot."

Rainer quickly became part of a Hollywood diadem that included Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Irene Dunne and Janet Gaynor. But she struggled to find roles that were worthy of her talent.

In one of Hollywood's more famous stories, Rainer wrote the teary telephone scene for "The Great Ziegfeld" but Mayer found it "dreary" and tried to cut it. It is widely believed that this scene clinched her first Oscar.

Mayer also opposed her playing O-Lan, the role in "The Good Earth" that brought Rainer's second Oscar.

"He thought it was terrible for a young girl in her 20s to play an old Chinese woman," Rainer said.

Instead of the meaty roles she craved, Mayer cast her in movies like 1938's "The Toy Wife," which film critic Leonard Maltin described as an "inconsequential confection."

Like her career, Rainer's 1937 marriage to Odets, whom she first met at the Brown Derby while dining with Gershwin and composer Harold Arlen, was also falling apart — doomed, perhaps, from the beginning.

Writing in one of her famous diaries, Anais Nin, Rainer's close friend for many years, described how on the morning after the actress married Odets, she ran toward him, intending to leap into his arms. "He drew away," Nin wrote, "and let her fall. He was frightened by her impetus."

"Thinking about it now," Rainer later reflected, "I realize that this was a symbol of our whole marriage. He was never there when I needed him, or when I longed for closeness."

Odets cheated on her and, she told Vanity Fair, reacted so coldly to the news she was pregnant that she had an abortion.

A nasty fight with Odets ruined the night of her second Oscar win. She was crying so hard that they had to circle the hotel several times before she could compose herself enough to receive her statuette.

"I was the most unhappy girl you could imagine," she recalled in the Washington Post in 1982. "The awards meant nothing because I considered the acting was just a gift. They made my life so difficult, so clamorous. And I was involved in this tragic, Strindbergian marriage. I couldn't handle it."

She divorced Odets in 1940.

Once Hollywood and her first marriage were over, Rainer moved to New York, then back to Europe.

She occasionally ventured back into acting. Before "The Gambler," she was pursued by Federico Fellini to take a part in "La Dolce Vita" in 1959, which some believe would have revived her career. But the Rome heat and Fellini's insistence on a sex scene with Marcello Mastroianni soured her on the project.

"In the end, I walked out," she said in a 1997 interview for The Times. "I'm a walker-outer."

In the early 1980s, Rainer memorized all 900 lines of "Enoch Arden," Tennyson's epic poem, which she performed in Europe and the United States, including at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall. After Knittel died, she maintained an active life in London, and spent her 90th birthday in 2000 "swimming in the Dead Sea, putting some life into it."

Yet she understood what she had lost by walking away from Hollywood.

"I've always felt guilty about not having continued to work. I should have made 50 more pictures," she told The Times in 1987.

"I feel like that song of Piaf. She dies and goes to heaven and St. Peter won't let her in. She says, 'Look at my hands,' and he looks and says, 'Come in.'

"He will look at me and say, 'You haven't even started. Go back.'"

Besides her daughter, Rainer is survived by two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Luther is a former Times staff writer. Times staff writer Elaine Woo contributed to this report.

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