Luise Rainer turns 102 today, January 12. She is the oldest living Academy Award winner in the acting categories, having won two consecutive Best Actress Oscars for The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and The Good Earth (1937).
Because of both her longevity and the fact that Turner Classic Movies regularly shows nearly all of her films, the Dusseldorf-born (some sources say Vienna) Rainer is probably better known today than at any time since the 1940s, when she last starred in a Hollywood production: Frank Tuttle’s now-forgotten Paramount resistance drama Hostages (1943).
Before this ongoing revival, Rainer was best remembered as the two-time Oscar winner with a four-year film career (1935-1938), while her acting was generally dismissed as several notches below subpar. In fact, to many she served as one of the prime reminders of the unworthiness of the Academy Awards.
As the oft-told story goes, when Raymond Chandler got himself all worked up about his Oscar prospects in the mid-’40s (for co-writing the Oscar nominated screenplays for Double Indemnity and The Blue Dahlia), his wife told him not to take those things so seriously: “After all, Luise Rainer won it twice.”
I’m not going to argue with those who believe that Rainer’s win for Sidney Franklin’s 1937 epic melodrama The Good Earth over Greta Garbo’s performance in George Cukor’s Camille was either shameless robbery or downright idiocy. After all, I agree that Garbo is indeed great in Camille. (Though my pick that year would have been Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth.) Having said that, I’ll add that in my view Rainer fully deserved to win the Oscar for her long-suffering Chinese peasant – however politically incorrect to have an European play a Chinese character, and even though Rainer’s role was basically a supporting one. As far as I’m concerned, her performance is even more memorable than the locust attack.
Now, Rainer wouldn’t have been my personal choice for best actress of 1936 at least in part because hers is a supporting performance in Robert Z. Leonard’s Best Picture Oscar winner The Great Ziegfeld. Instead, my vote would have gone to Carole Lombard for My Man Godfrey. Yet, Rainer’s Anna Held, talking on the phone with William Powell’s Florenz Ziegfeld as he’s about to get remarried to Myrna Loy’s Billie Burke, remains one of the most indelible moments in film history. Watch that faint smile and those big brown eyes shining as tears roll down her face. You may love it, you may hate it, you may cry, you may cringe – but you won’t forget it. I never have. (See below.)
And that’s the effect Luise Rainer’s performances have had on me. I even thoroughly enjoyed Robert B. Sinclair’s much-derided Dramatic School (1938) thanks to Rainer’s performance as an aspiring stage actress who places her career above romance without feeling sorry or guilty about her choice. In everything I’ve seen her in – from The Great Ziegfeld to The Great Waltz, from The Good Earth to the Combat! episode “Finest Hour” in the mid-’60s – I’ve always found the on-screen Luise Rainer an honest, warm, unaffected, and immensely touching performer.
Luise Rainer currently lives in London.