Luise Rainer, who won two consecutive acting Oscars in the 1930s before retiring before she was even 30 years old, just turned 104. Credit: Getty Images Luise Rainer (seen here in 2010), who won two consecutive acting Oscars in the 1930s before retiring before she was even 30 years old, just turned 104.
Credit: Getty Images

Today marks the 104th birthday of Luise Rainer, the actress who won two consecutive Oscars in 1936 and 1937, then quit Hollywood in 1938.

Born in Dusseldorf, Germany, in 1910, Rainer was discovered by Hollywood talent scout Phil Berg in 1934. An actress of stage and occasionally screen, she was seen as a new Greta Garbo type. It still took her more than half a year after emigrating to Los Angeles to get a role, namely 1935’s “Escapade,” a remake of an Austrian film she herself had starred in.

Once she started working, her fame rose quickly. Her second Hollywood film was 1936’s “The Great Ziegfeld,” which not only won the Best Picture Oscar but also netted her first Best Actress trophy. She was then cast in the film of Pearl S. Buck’s “The Good Earth” as O-Lan, at a time when Asian characters were often played by Caucasian thespians. She again won a Best Actress Oscar, becoming the first actor to win consecutive trophies. (The second was Spencer Tracy, who scored in 1937 and 1938 for “Captains Courageous” and “Boy’s Town,” respectively.)

 

But Oscar wins don’t always ensure triumph. Nobody, arguably, embodies this notion more significantly than Rainer. (Though Mira Sorvino comes close.) With the pressure of two wins under her belt, she found herself taking on roles beneath her talents. By 1938, she informed Louis B. Mayer she stop acting forever. Instead she used her fame for good, journeying to Europe to aid the victims of the Spanish Civil War. She also entered into a disastrous marriage with the playwright Clifford Odets.

Despite her premature retirement, she didn’t entirely quit acting. She was one of the many named to audition for Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind,” but she never got so far as a screen test. Only a few years after she left it, she attempted to reconcile with Hollywood, nearly playing the role that went to Ingrid Bergman in 1943’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Instead she wound up in “Hostages,” a WWII thriller that would prove her last studio picture.

Throughout her life she has done some TV, including an episode of “Combat!” in 1965 and even “The Love Boat” in 1983. Federico Fellini nearly had her do a cameo in 1960’s “La Dolce Vita,” but she pulled out, rumor has it due to a demanded sex scene or the coarseness of the dialogue. As of now, her final screen credit was in 1997’s “The Gambler,” a European production featuring Michael Gambon, Polly Walker and Dominic West.

Even at 104, Rainer isn’t cinema’s oldest legend. The Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira turned 105 in December.

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