The first actress to win two consecutive Academy Awards for Best Actress, Luise Rainer was admired for her extremely vivid and emotional acting style. She was known for her expressive physical gestures, her sensitive eyes, and her demonstrative hand movements. After a handful of successful performances, Rainer fell out of fashion with movie studios and virtually vanished from Hollywood films.
After making a few films in Germany in 1935, Rainer made her first Hollywood film, Escapade, starring William Powell. Because of her accent and European demeanor, she was compared to Greta Garbo, who was then one of the most popular stars in Hollywood. In 1936 she appeared opposite Powell again in The Great Ziegfeld. Her skillful and flamboyant portrayal of Ziegfeld’s first wife, French actress Anna Held, earned her the first of her two Best Actress Oscars. She was just twenty-six years old.
The very next year, Rainer beat out Anna May Wong for the role of O-lan, the Chinese peasant at the center of The Good Earth, a film adapted from Pearl S. Buck’s novel. In contrast to the part of Anna Held, O-lan was defined by her humility and her silent submission to her husband’s will. Rainer had few lines in the film, and she rarely looked directly at the camera. Because of its difference from her earlier roles, Rainer’s O-lan was widely praised as evidence of her strength and range as a dramatic actress. In 1937 she was chosen over Greta Garbo to receive the Academy Award for Best Actress.
Rainer made a few more films, all of which were unremarkable. After a few years, she broke her studio contract and retired from Hollywood film. Though she later made guest appearances on popular television shows and in made-for-TV movies, she was largely forgotten by Hollywood and the general public.
According to Hollywood superstition, Rainer was a victim of the so-called Oscar Curse; it was with Rainer, in fact, that the myth that Oscar success might actually signal the end of one’s career originated. “The Oscar is not a curse,” Rainer has said, “the curse is that once you have an Oscar they think you can do anything.”1 Her film career ended, Rainer speculates, not because she was no longer offered parts but because Hollywood thought she could salvage otherwise bad scripts and studios no longer offered her quality roles.
She remained the only winner of back-to-back Oscars until Katherine Hepburn won the award in 1967 and 1968.