Luise Rainer: Oldest Living Academy Award Winner + the 'Oscar Curse'

by Andre Soares
Luise Rainer oldest living Oscar winnerLuise Rainer: Oldest living Oscar winner.

Luise Rainer: Oldest Living Oscar winner turns 103 today

Luise Rainer, the recipient of two back-to-back Best Actress Oscars in the mid-1930s, 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.

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: Revisiting 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.]

[“Luise Rainer: Oldest living Oscar Winner Turns 103” continues on the next page. See link below.]

Luise Rainer Oscar Curse The Great WaltzLuise Rainer The Great Waltz.

Luise Rainer: Second Best Actress Oscar and the 'Oscar Curse'

The following year, Luise Rainer was back on the Academy Awards' roster, this time for playing a Chinese peasant in Sidney Franklin's blockbuster The Good Earth. Some have since complained that Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong should been cast as the female lead in what turned out to be one of the studio's costliest productions up to that time. I agree that Wong would have been a good choice (though not necessarily from a box office standpoint), but I'm glad that Rainer got to play Paul Muni's long-suffering wife O-Lan. Hers is a beautifully understated performance; one that fully deserved her second Best Actress Oscar. (Image: Luise Rainer in Julien Duvivier's The Great Waltz.)

There is nothing in Luise Rainer's O-Lan that comes across as an ethnic caricature. Also absent are any acting mannerisms that could have reminded audiences of, say, Elisabeth Bergner or the British-born Lilian Harvey, two stars of German-language films whose “cute” (though highly effective) acting style clearly influenced Rainer's. (For the record, the other 1937 Oscar nominees were Irene Dunne for The Awful Truth, Greta Garbo for Camille, Janet Gaynor for A Star Is Born, and Barbara Stanwyck for Stella Dallas. And don't forget that that year Hollywood extras voted for the winners in the acting – and a couple of other – categories.)

'Oscar Curse' nonsense

Luise Rainer picked up her second Oscar on March 10, 1938, thus becoming the first woman to win two consecutive Academy Awards, and the first performer to win two Academy Awards, period.* Before the year was over, however, so was Rainer's Hollywood career. And hence, the beginning of the “Oscar Curse” nonsense.

There had been trouble at the studio, as Rainer, who had been fighting for higher wages, felt Louis B. Mayer had been offering her subpar material, e.g., Dorothy Arzner's The Bride Wore Red. (Joan Crawford took over the role in the eventual critical and box office disappointment.) Compounding matters, Rainer was unhappy with her husband of one year, playwright Clifford Odets, and sued for divorce in mid-1938. (Held up pending a possible reconciliation, the divorce was finalized in 1940, the year Rainer's MGM contract was allowed to expire.)

Much to Mayer's outrage, Rainer – who had three 1938 releases: The Toy Wife, Dramatic School, and the mammoth The Great Waltz – left for New York and Europe, where she joined Ernest Hemingway in getting aid for child victims of the Spanish Civil War. That same year, Rainer became an American citizen and pledged her support to Democrat president Franklin D. Roosevelt. (See also: Luise Rainer reminisces about Greta Garbo, Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway.)

Luise Rainer returns to Hollywood

Luise Rainer would return to Hollywood filmmaking only one more time, for the now largely forgotten (and hard to find) 1943 World War II drama Hostages, directed by Frank Tuttle at Paramount, and featuring Arturo de Córdova, William Bendix, and Paul Lukas. At the time, Rainer told the press: “It's certainly not an Academy Award part, and thank goodness, my bosses don't expect me to win an award with it. […] No, this is something unspectacular, but I hope a step back in the right direction.”

Also at Paramount, Rainer (along with Vera Zorina) was considered for the role of Maria in Sam Wood's film version of Hemingway's Spanish Civil War-set From Whom the Bell Tolls. Ingrid Bergman was eventually cast in the critical and box office hit, that earned Bergman her first Best Actress Oscar nomination.

* In early 1939, both Bette Davis and Spencer Tracy followed suit. Davis' Oscar for William Wyler's period melodrama Jezebel was her second; she had previously won three years earlier for Alfred E. Green's melo Dangerous. Spencer Tracy won his second Best Actor Oscar for playing a tough-talking priest in Norman Taurog's Boys Town; the previous year, Tracy had won for his Portuguese (!) fisherman in Victor Fleming's Captains Courageous.

Luise Rainer The Great Waltz photo: MGM publicity still.

Luise Rainer Ramon Novarro TV series CombatLuise Rainer and Ramon Novarro in Combat.

Luise Rainer: Stage and television work, from Chekhov to 'The Love Boat'

After World War II, Luise Rainer starred in several plays on the American stage, e.g., Maxwell Anderson's Joan of Lorraine, Anton Chekhov's The Seagull. She was also featured in a handful of television series, including the Combat! episode “Finest Hour,” delivering a superb performance* opposite fellow veteran Ramon Novarro. Almost inevitably, a couple of decades later Rainer would land a guest spot – in a double role – on The Love Boat. (Image: Luise Rainer, Ramon Novarro Combat!.)

More recently, Rainer was featured in a small role in Károly Makk's 1997 movie The Gambler, a little-seen British-made drama starring Michael Gambon as Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Luise Rainer: The movies that weren't

According to the Luise Rainer website, throughout the decades Rainer's name was at some point or other attached to various film projects that either never came to fruition, or that were eventually made with other performers. Those include the Ronald Colman vehicle The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo (1935, Joan Bennett); Lewis Milestone's The General Died at Dawn (1936, Madeleine Carroll was cast opposite Gary Cooper); Richard Thorpe's Double Wedding (1937, replaced either by Myrna Loy – which would have been ironic – or by Florence Rice, playing opposite William Powell); the Edward G. Robinson crime drama The Last Gangster (1937, Rosa Stradner); and the minor romantic comedy Bridal Suite (1939, Annabella).

Also: Julien Duvivier's The Phantom Wagon / La charrette fantôme (1939, probably in the Marie Bell role); Mervyn LeRoy's Madame Curie (a role Rainer truly wanted; the film was ultimately made at MGM in 1943, starring eventual Best Actress nominee Greer Garson); Henry King's blockbuster The Song of Bernadette (1943, if the lead role, Best Actress Oscar winner Jennifer Jones); and China Sky (1945, either Ruth Warrick or Ellen Drew, playing Caucasians). Probably as a result of The Good Earth, Rainer was also considered for the part of a Chinese peasant in Dragon Seed (1944, Katharine Hepburn at MGM) and, if for the lead role, the part of an Eurasian doctor in Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955, Oscar-nominated Jennifer Jones).

Luise Rainer in Out of Africa?

Luise Rainer was also eager to play Karen Blixen a.k.a. Isak Dinesen in a movie version of Blixen's 1937 autobiographical book Out of Africa, but Louis B. Mayer turned her down. Out of Africa would reach the screen nearly half a century later, by way of Sydney Pollack's Oscar-winning adaptation starring Meryl Streep as Blixen/Dinesen and Robert Redford as her doomed lover. More recently, Rainer was reportedly considered for the widely panned Warren Beatty / Annette Bening remake of Love Affair. Katharine Hepburn landed the role. (Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly had Luise Rainer considered for a supporting role in the 1985 Out of Africa.)

But the most lamentable losses (for film history) are probably Rainer's potential roles in two unidentified projects of the early '50s – one by Vittorio De Sica, the other by Carol Reed – and a supporting role in Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita. Rainer would also have been an interesting choice for James Cameron's Titanic, though in that case Leonardo DiCaprio would have frozen to death so as to rescue a German / Austrian-accented Kate Winslet.

Luise Rainer and her 'collapsed' Oscar

In 1944, Luise Rainer married UK-based publisher Robert Knittel. The marriage lasted until Knittel's death in 1989. She currently lives in London, in the apartment building that was once the residence of another two-time Oscar winner, Vivien Leigh (Gone with the Wind, 1939; A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951).

Back in 1983, when Luise Rainer returned to Los Angeles to present the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, she had one of her Oscar statuettes replaced. “Actually, it wasn't broken at all,” Rainer told The Hollywood Reporter at the time. “I think it got so tired just standing there, holding that sword all those years, it just collapsed.”

* For my Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise, I interviewed actor Kurt Kreuger, who plays a Nazi in “Finest Hour.” According to Kreuger, Luise Rainer tried to direct both her fellow actors and “Finest Hour” director Don Tait. Making matters worse, Novarro was suffering from severe attacks of pleurisy that made filming his scenes a Herculean task. The final result for the two lead actors, however, was remarkably effective.

Luise Rainer “broken Oscar” quote via Damien Bona and Mason Wiley's Inside Oscar.

Luise Rainer, Ramon Novarro Combat! image via the Rainer website.

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