The rapid rise and sudden decline of actress Luise Rainer has been Hollywood legend since she left the movie business in the late 1930s. Enormously gifted and undeniable luminous, Rainer shot to the top by becoming the first actress to ever win two Oscars for Best Actress, only to make a small string of mediocre films that led to her self-imposed exile once losing all desire to perform onscreen. While her career has been viewed as something of a cautionary tale, Rainer nonetheless has remained a source of endless fascination.
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After making her Hollywood debut in Escapade
(1935), which turned the actress into a reluctant overnight star, Rainer was catapulted to international fame with her performance in The Great Ziegfeld
. A three-hour musical
extravaganza, the film starred William Powell as the titular theater impresario, Florenz Ziegfeld, who starts off a penniless, but charming music professor looking to make his bones in show business. It’s not until he manages to convince a beautiful French stage star named Anna Held (Rainer) that he becomes the namesake of the famed Ziegfeld Follies. While Powell and co-star Myrna Loy were the big names in the picture, it was Rainer who stole the show as the luminous Held. Despite some historical inaccuracies, The Great Ziegfeld
won an Oscar for Best Picture
while earning Rainer first of two consecutive Best Actress
In sharp contrast to Anna Held in The Great Ziegfeld
, Rainer earned her second Academy Award for playing a humble Chinese peasant in MGM’s adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s years-spanning novel The Good Earth
. Partly directed by Victor Fleming
and starring Paul Muni as Wang Lung, a Chinese farmer who marries Rainer’s long-suffering O-Lan, the film followed the struggles of the poor couple who try in vain to build a life together. Despite living in abject poverty that forces them to beg and even steal, Wang Lung and O-Lan eventually find some degree of success, only to lose everything to Mother Nature. Rainer’s tragic performance was undoubtedly the year’s best, but in hindsight – according to the actress at least – her two Oscar wins were the worst possible thing to happen to her career.
In the same year she won her second Oscar for Best Actress, Rainer began her short, but fast decline that ended with her returning to Europe in the late 1930s. Here she starred opposite Spencer Tracy
in this implausible drama about a foreign woman (Rainer) who is deported and forced into hiding after being branded a scapegoat for a gangland bombing. Because she’s the wife of a trouble-causing taxi driver (Tracy) unafraid to take on the big cab companies, she finds herself being blamed for a litany of woes despite her obvious innocence. If it weren’t for the elevating performances by Rainer and Tracy, Big City
would have been long lost in the dustbin of cinema history.
A biographical film
based on the life of classical composer Johan Strauss II (Fernard Gravet), The Great Waltz
was one of the last movies Rainer made in Hollywood. Here she played Poldi Vogelhuber, long-suffering wife to the philandering Strauss, who engages in a long affair with an opera singer (Milza Korjus). While Strauss carries on with the other woman, Rainer’s Vogelhuber does little more than sit home and sulk. Despite his extramarital activities, she stands by her man and even manages to win him back ever briefly before his reception by Kaiser Franz Josef. Rainer was fine in her rather limited role, but by this point the actress had used up all her desire to act and left MGM before her contract was up.