Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Obituary: Luise Rainer

Luise Rainer, the woman who pulled the plug on her movie career after winning consecutive "Best Actress" awards in 1936-1937, has died. She was one of the very last stars of Hollywood's Golden Age and was the oldest living Oscar winner when she died yesterday. She was just a few days short of her 105th birthday, an impressive achievement all by itself. She was one of the longest-lived people in show business history.

Rainer won her Oscars for her performances as Flo Ziegfeld's first wife in The Great Ziegfeld (1936), and for her role opposite Paul Muni in 1937's The Good Earth. Both of those films, produced by MGM, were popular with the public.

Rainer's role in Ziegfeld was comparatively small by standards at the time to even qualify for "best actress," but the Academy liked her performance, especially the scene where she talked tearfully on the phone, to honor her with the award. In The Good Earth, based on Pearl Buck's novel set in China, she played a Chinese woman, casting of which was common back in those days because there weren't that many Asian actors at the time. (Today, of course, Chinese or Chinese-American actors would play the Chinese characters.) However, it is still a very good film even through 21st century lenses. The best part of this film is near the end, when the farmers are attacked by a plague of locusts. Unlike today, where a scene would get all kinds of phony special effects, MGM actually imported thousands of real-life grasshoppers to play the role of the locusts. The effect was MORE than convincing, let me tell you.

Luise Rainer should have gone on to bigger and better things, but then something really odd happened. She decided she'd had enough of being presented with lousy scripts and up and quit Hollywood. She butted heads with MGM boss Louis B. Mayer, something that wasn't hard to do, but she wasn't going to let him push her around. He made threats he was going to "ruin" her, but she retaliated by walking away from it all. She was still in her late twenties when she pulled a Kevorkian on her career.

Rainer was married to playwright Clifford Odets (who at one point had an affair with actress Frances Farmer), but she also pulled the plug on that relationship. She married publisher Robert Knittel, with this marriage lasting until his death in 1989.

She got the last laugh. She led a very full life, with many great friends, but as noted in the linked article, she didn't feel like she had enough of a long life to do everything she wanted to do.

Her daughter is quoted saying this about her mother:

"Mummy had the fragility of an orchid, the energy of a hummingbird, the tenacity of a hunter. She could change calm waters into a raging storm with a look and the lift of a finger," Bowyer told CNN in an email. "My heart is a hole without her, but that hole will definitely be filled with incredible memories, sweet, salty and funny. I want her memory to linger with those who knew her and be given to those who did not."

She should have written a volume of memoirs.

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