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Luise Rainer: Oldest Living Oscar Winner Turns 103

Luise Rainer oldest living Oscar winnerLuise Rainer: Oldest Living Oscar winner turns 103 today

Luise Rainer, the recipient of two back-to-back Best Actress Oscars in the mid-'30s, is the oldest living Academy Award winner in the acting categories. In fact, she is almost certainly the oldest living Oscar winner, period: Luise Rainer turned 103 today. (Photo: Oldest living Oscar winner Luise Rainer ca. 1936.)

A few days after the record-breaking feats of oldest Best Actress Oscar nominee Emmanuelle Riva (for Michael Haneke's Amour) and youngest Best Actress Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis (for Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild), Luise Rainer, whose last film appearance took place 15 years ago, has set another Oscar record by remaining an inhabitant of Planet Earth for one century plus three years. (See also: Luise Rainer holding one of her Oscars.)

Luise Rainer movies

Though not as well remembered as several of her contemporaries – e.g., Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford – Luise Rainer was a top Hollywood star in the mid-'30s.

Following a brief stint in German and Austrian movies (Sehnsucht 202, Madame hat Besuch, Heut' kommt's drauf an), and on stage with Max Reinhardt, the Dusseldorf-born (on Jan. 12, 1910, to a Jewish family), Vienna-raised Rainer came to Hollywood in 1935. She landed her first role as a replacement to a recalcitrant Myrna Loy in MGM's Escapade, a period romantic comedy with a Viennese setting, directed by Robert Z. Leonard and co-starring Loy's frequent on-screen partner William Powell.

A remake of Willi Forst's charming Austrian-made Masquerade in Vienna, the currently unavailable (apparently due to rights issues) Escapade was a solid success at the time, though, at least partly as a result of its moderately high production costs, less profitable than MGM would have hoped. For comparison's sake: Whereas Escapade brought in $143k (about $2.4 million today) in profits, Rendezvous, another William Powell vehicle featuring a Myrna Loy replacement – Rosalind Russell – earned the studio $219k (about $3.7 million today) in profits. (Note: Despite what Wikipedia says, Escapade was not a remake of a Luise Rainer Austrian-made movie. Paula Wessely played the female lead in the original.)

Now, even if MGM was disappointed with Escapade's global box office performance, the studio was determined to turn Luise Rainer into a major star. According to Hollywood lore, MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer saw Rainer as a potential threat to Greta Garbo, as the original had been around for about a decade and had been talking of retirement. That could possibly have been true, but if so, Luise Rainer's follow-up star vehicles were anything but Garbo-esque.

For instance, following Escapade, Rainer was cast as dewy-eyed stage actress Anna Held in the studio's biggest movie of 1936, the lavish musical The Great Ziegfeld. Once again, Rainer was directed by Robert Z. Leonard and had William Powell – as showman Florenz Ziegfeld – as her leading man. Rainer's role, however, was subordinate to that of MGM's returning prodigal daughter Myrna Loy. (See also: Luise Rainer in The Great Ziegfeld, The Great Waltz, Dramatic School.)

Luise Rainer: Two consecutive Best Actress Academy Awards

Of The Great Ziegfeld's extensive cast, Luise Rainer turned out to be the only performer nominated for an Academy Award. (William Powell was a Best Actor nominee that year as well, but for Gregory La Cava's Universal-made comedy My Man Godfrey.) Although her role in The Great Ziegfeld was technically a supporting one, Rainer was shortlisted in the Best Actress category and ended up beating competitors Gladys George (Valiant Is the Word for Carrie), Irene Dunne (Theodora Goes Wild), William Powell's ex-wife Carole Lombard (My Man Godfrey), and Queen of the MGM Lot Norma Shearer (Romeo and Juliet). [See also: More on The Great Ziegfeld.]

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