Luise Rainer Knittle

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Luise Rainer

Birthplace: Düsseldorf, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany
Death: December 30, 2014 (104)
London, United Kingdom
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Heinrich Rainer and Emilie Emmy Rainer
Wife of Robert Knittel
Ex-wife of Clifford Odets
Mother of Private
Sister of Rudolf Rainer; Robert Rainer and Fritz Rainer

Occupation: Actress
Managed by: Randy Schoenberg
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Luise Rainer Knittle

Luise Rainer (born 12 January 1910) is a retired German-born Austrian and American film actress. She was the first actor to win multiple Academy Awards and the first person to win them consecutively. She was discovered by American studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer talent scouts while acting on stage in Austria and Germany and after appearing in Austrian films. She is currently the oldest living Academy Award winner and is among the few surviving leading ladies from the 1930s. Luise currently resides in the United Kingdom Her training began in Germany from the age of 16 by leading Austrian stage director Max Reinhardt. After a few years, she became recognized as a "distinguished Berlin stage actress", acting with Reinhardt's Vienna theater ensemble. Critics "raved" about her stage and film acting quality, leading MGM to sign her to a three-year contract and bring her to Hollywood in 1935. A number of filmmakers anticipated she might become another Greta Garbo, MGM's leading female star.

Her first American role was in the film Escapade (1935), which was soon followed with a relatively small part in the musical biopic The Great Ziegfeld (1936). Despite her limited appearances in the film, she "so impressed audiences" that she won the Oscar for Best Actress. For her dramatic telephone scene in the film, she was later dubbed "the Viennese teardrop". In her next role, producer Irving Thalberg was convinced, despite the studio's disagreement, that she could play the part of a poor uncomely Chinese farm wife in The Good Earth, based on Pearl Buck's novel about hardship in China. The subdued character she played was such a dramatic contrast to her previous, vivacious character, that she won another Academy Award.

However, she would later remark that by winning two consecutive Oscars, "nothing worse could have happened to me,"[citation needed] as audience expectations from then on would be too high to fulfill. She was then given parts in a string of unimportant movies, leading MGM and Rainer to become disappointed, and she ended her brief three-year career in films, soon returning to Europe. Adding to her rapid decline, some feel, was the "poor career advice" given her by then husband, playwright Clifford Odets along with the unexpected death, at age 37, of her producer, Irving Thalberg, whom she greatly admired. Some film historians consider her the "most extreme case of an Oscar victim in Hollywood mythology". She currently lives in London.

Early life and career

The daughter of Heinz and Emmy (née Koenigsberger) Rainer, Luise was born in Düsseldorf, Germany and raised in Hamburg, Germany, and later in Vienna, Austria. She once told a reporter: "I was born into a world of destruction. The Vienna of my childhood was one of starvation, poverty and revolution." Her father was a businessman who settled in Europe after spending most of his childhood in Texas, where he was sent at the age of six as an orphan. (Rainer has stated that because of her father, she is an American citizen "by birth".) Rainer's family was upper-class and Jewish. A number of leading film references list her birthplace as Vienna.

Biographer Margaret Brenman-Gibson writes that Rainer was a premature baby, born two months early. She had two brothers. Rainer describes her father as being "possessive" and "tempestuous", but whose affections and concern centered on her. Rainer seemed to him as "eternally absent-minded" and "very different". Rainer remembers his "tyrannical possessiveness", and was saddened to see her mother, "a beautiful pianist, and a woman of warmth and intelligence and deeply in love with her husband, suffering similarly". Although generally shy at home, Luise was "immensely athletic" in school, becoming a champion runner and an "intrepid" mountain-climber. As well as expending her energy in athletics, Rainer stated, "I became an actress only because I had quickly to find some vent for the emotion that inside of me went around and around, never stopping." It was her father's wish that she attend a good finishing school and "marry the right man", she remembers. However, her "rebellious" nature made her appear to be more a "tomboy," while at the same time, "happy to be alone", she feared she was "developing her mother's inferiority complex".

She was only six when she decided to be part of the entertainment world, and recalls being inspired by watching a circus act: "I thought that a man on the wire was marvelous, in his spangles and tights. I wanted to run away and marry him but I never had an opportunity. I am sure, though, that the experience first disclosed to me the entertainment world. For years I longed to be able to walk on a tight wire, too."

At age 16 she chose to follow her dream to become an actress. Under the pretext of visiting her mother, she traveled to Düsseldorf and registered at the Dumont Theater, having prearranged an audition the same day. She later began studying acting with Max Reinhardt, and by the time she was 18 there was already an "army of critics" who felt that she had "unusual" talent for a young actress. She became a "distinguished Berlin stage actress" acting with Reinhardt's Vienna theater ensemble. She made her first appearance on the stage at the Dumont Theater in 1928, followed by appearances at various theaters in Jacques Deval's play Mademoiselle, Kingsley's Men in White, George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan, Measure for Measure, and Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author.

She later appeared in several German language films before being discovered in 1934 by MGM talent scout Phil Berg while performing in Six Characters in Search of an Author, who felt that she might appeal to the same audience as Greta Garbo, then one of their most successful performers. Initially, Rainer had no interest in films, saying in a 1935 interview: "I never wanted to film. I was only for the theater. Then I saw A Farewell to Arms and right away I wanted to film. It was so beautiful."

Rainer summered with her husband Clifford Odets, Harold Clurman and Elia Kazan, among others, at the Pine Brook Country Club located in the countryside of Nichols, Connecticut which was the summer rehearsal headquarters of the Group Theatre (New York) during the 1930s and 1940s.


Early roles

Publicity photo

After making a few films in Austria, for which "critics raved", she was offered a three-year contract with MGM and came to Hollywood in 1935 as a hopeful new star. According to biographer Charles Higham, both MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer and story editor Samuel Marx had seen footage of Rainer before she came to Hollywood, and both felt she had the looks, charm, and especially a "certain tender vulnerability" that Mayer admired in female stars. Because of her weak command of English, Mayer assigned actress Constance Collier to train her in correct speech and dramatic modulation, and Rainer's English improved rapidly. Upon arriving in Hollywood, Rainer spent eight weeks at the studio without being offered a job. Her first film role in Hollywood was in Escapade (1935), which was a remake of one of her Austrian films. She received the part after Myrna Loy gave up the role. By the time Rainer was cast, half of the film was already shot. During the film's first preview, Rainer ran out of the cinema and later said about the event: "On the screen, I looked so big and full of face, it was awful." Following the film's release, Rainer received a lot of publicity and was often acclaimed the 'Elisabeth Bergner of light comedy' by the press. She was hailed as 'Hollywood's next sensation' and had to do several interviews.

From the beginning of her Hollywood career, she stated she did not like the stardom or giving interviews, explaining: "Stars are not important, only what they do as a part of their work is important. Artists need quiet in which to grow. It seems Hollywood does not like to give them this quiet. Stardom is bad because Hollywood makes too much of it, there is too much 'bowing down' before stars. Stardom is weight pressing down over the head — and one must grow upward or not at all."

The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

The Great Ziegfeld Rainer was next assigned to play the real-life character Anna Held in the musical biography The Great Ziegfeld, a part she obtained in August 1935. The film reunited her with actor William Powell, with whom she also co-starred in Escapade. Powell was very impressed with Rainer and previously arranged her equal billing for Escapade. He described his impressions of her: "She is one of the most natural persons I have ever known. Moreover, she is generous, patient and possesses a magnificent sense of humor. She is an extremely sensitive organism and has a great comprehension of human nature. She has judgment and an abiding understanding which make it possible for her to portray human emotion poignantly and truly. Definitely a creative artist, she comprehends life and its significance. Everything she does has been subjected to painstaking analysis. She thinks over every shade of emotion to make it ring true. In Europe she is a great stage star. She deserves to be a star. Unmistakably she had all the qualities."

Higham notes that the film's producer, Irving Thalberg, decided that "only she could play" the part. However, Rainer states that Mayer "did not want me to do the film, and said 'Anna Held is out of it before the film is halfway through. You are a star now and can't do it!'" Shortly after shooting began in late 1935, doubts of Rainer's ability to pull off the Anna Held role emerged in the press. She was criticized for not resembling the Polish-born stage performer, on which Leonard commented that any resemblance would have made the film less believable due to the expected constant comparison. The director admitted that "the main reason" Rainer was cast was her eyes, claiming that they "are just as large, just as lustrous, and contain the same tantalizing quality of pseudo naughtiness."

As Thalberg expected, she nonetheless succeeded in acting the role, which required "coquettishness, wide-eyed charm, and vulnerability." Biographer Charles Affron writes that Rainer "so impressed audiences with one highly emotional scene" that she won an Academy Award for Best Actress. In the scene, her character as Anna Held is speaking to her ex-husband Florenz Ziegfeld over the telephone, attempting to congratulate him on his new marriage: "The camera records her agitation; Ziegfeld hears a voice that hovers between false gaiety and despair; when she hangs up she dissolves into tears."

On the evening of the Academy Award ceremonies, Rainer remained at home, not expecting to win any award. When Mayer then learned she won the award, he sent MGM publicity head Howard Strickling racing to her home to get her. When she finally arrived, master of ceremonies George Jessel, during the commotion, made the mistake of introducing Rainer, which Bette Davis had been scheduled to do. She was also awarded the New York Film Critics' Award for the role.

The Good Earth (1937)

With Paul Muni in The Good Earth Her next film was The Good Earth (1937), in which she co-starred with Paul Muni. She was first rated the most likely choice for the female lead in the film adaption back in September 1935, and was cast two months later in November. The role was completely opposite her Anna Held character, where she now portrayed a humble Chinese peasant. For the part, she acted utterly subservient to her husband, perpetually huddled in submission, and barely spoke a word of dialogue during the entire film. The extreme contrast in the role with her last one partly contributed to her winning another Oscar for Best Actress. She became the first actress to win two consecutive Oscars, a feat not matched until Katharine Hepburn's two Oscar wins thirty years later. Film historian Andrew Sarris states that her "comparative muteness was reckoned as an astounding tour de force after her hysterically chattering telephone scene in The Great Ziegfeld". Rainer later recalled that studio head Louis B. Mayer did not approve of the film being produced or her part in it: "He was horrified at Irving Thalberg's insistence for me to play O-lan, the poor uncomely little Chinese peasant. I myself, with the meager dialogue given to me, feared to be a hilarious bore." Rainer remembers Mayer's comments to Thalberg: "She has to be a dismal-looking slave and grow old; but Luise is a young girl; we just have made her glamorous — what are you doing?" She considers the part as one of the "greatest achievements" in her career, stating that she was allowed to express "realism," even refusing to "wear the rubber mask "Chinese look" suggested by the make-up department", allowing her to act "genuine, honest, and down-to-earth". There were a number of serious problems during production, however. George W. Hill, a leading director at the time, was chosen to direct the film, and spent several months in China filming backgrounds and atmospheric scenes of farmlands around the Great Wall and in Peking. Soon after he returned, Hill committed suicide, and the film was postponed until Sidney Franklin took over directing. Then, before the film was completed, the film's producer, Irving Thalberg, died suddenly at the age of 37. Rainer commented years later, "His dying was a terrible shock to us. He was young and ever so able. Had it not been that he died, I think I may have stayed much longer in films." Rainer described winning the two Oscars as the "worst possible thing" to befall her career. In a 1938 interview, Rainer exclaimed that being awarded twice made her "work all the harder now to prove the Academy was right." The critic James Agate admired Rainer's performance in The Good Earth and described it as "an exquisite rendering", however she was criticised in reviews by Picturegoer. Max Breen was among those critics indignant that Greta Garbo's performance in Camille had been overlooked in favor of Rainer.

With Paulette Goddard in Dramatic School (1938) In late 1936, MGM conceived a script called Maiden Voyage especially for Rainer. The project was shelved and eventually released as Bridal Suite in 1939, starring Annabella as 'Luise'. Another 1936 film project never realized that Rainer was involved in was Adventure for Three, which would have co-starred William Powell. In 1938, she played Johann Strauss's long-suffering wife Poldi in the successful Oscar-winning MGM musical biopic The Great Waltz, her last big hit.

Her four other films for MGM, The Emperor's Candlesticks (1937), Big City (1937) with Spencer Tracy, The Toy Wife (1938) and Dramatic School (1938), were ill-advised and not well received, though Rainer continued to receive praise. The Emperor's Candlesticks, in which Rainer was cast in November 1936, reunited Rainer with Powell for the final time. For the film, she wore a red wig and received costumes designed by Adrian, who claimed that Rainer, by the end of 1937, would become one of most influential people in fashion of Hollywood. On set, she received star treatment, having her own dressing room, diction teacher, secretary, wardrobe woman, hairdresser and make-up artist. The Emperor's Candlesticks was Rainer's first film for which she received criticism, it being claimed that she did not improve in her acting technique.

1930s publicity photo Even though reviews were favourable of Rainer's performance in Big City, reviewers agreed that the actress was miscast in a 'modern role' and looked "too exotic" as Tracy's wife. Despite the criticism and announcements of leaving Hollywood, Rainer renewed her contract for seven years shortly after the film's release.

Most critics agreed Rainer was "at her most appealing" in The Toy Wife, in which she was cast in April 1938. The final MGM film Rainer made was Dramatic School, in which she was cast in May 1938. Rainer refused to be stereotyped or to knuckle under to the studio system and studio head Mayer was unsympathetic to her demands for serious roles. Furthermore, she began to fight for a higher salary and she was reported as being difficult and temperamental. Thereby, she missed out on several roles, including the female lead in the Edward G. Robinson gangster film The Last Gangster (1937), in which another Viennese actress, Rose Stradner, replaced her. Speaking of Mayer decades later, Rainer recalled, "He said, 'We made you and we are going to destroy you.' Well, he tried his best."

Departure from Hollywood

Rainer made her final film appearance for MGM in 1938 and abandoned the film industry. In a 1983 interview, the actress told how she went to Louis B. Mayer's office and said to him: "Mr Mayer, I must stop making films. My source has dried up. I work from the inside out, and there is nothing inside to give." Following this altercation, she traveled to Europe, where she helped get aid to children who were victims of the Spanish Civil War.[38] Nevertheless, she was not released from her contract and by 1940, she was still bound to make one more film for the studio.

Disenchanted with Hollywood, where she later said it was impossible to have an intellectual conversation,she moved to New York City in 1940 to live with her husband, playwright Clifford Odets, whom she had married in 1937. Rainer had never made it a secret that she felt terrible as Odets' wife, and exclaimed in a 1938 interview: "All the acting I've done on the stage or screen has been nothing compared to the acting I did in New York, when I tried to make everyone think I was happy – and my heart was breaking." She filed for divorce in mid-1938, but proceedings were delayed "to next October" when Odets fled to England. The divorce was finalized on 14 May 1940. Rainer and Odets summered at Pine Brook Country Club in Nichols, Connecticut, where numerous other members of the Group Theatre (New York) also spent their summers, both acting and writing.

Despite the negativity, Rainer was one of the actresses considered for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939), but the idea was not well-received, and she was not given a screen test. In a later interview, Rainer commented about her disappearance from the movie industry: I was very young. There were a lot of things I was unprepared for. I was too honest, I talked serious instead of with my eyelashes and Hollywood thought I was cuckoo. I worked in seven big pictures in three years. I have to be inspired to give a good performance. I complained to a studio executive that the source was dried up. The executive told me, 'Why worry about the source. Let the director worry about that.' I didn't run away from anybody in Hollywood. I ran away from myself.

Later life and career

Rainer in an Argentinean magazine, 1937 While in Europe, Rainer studied medicine and explained she loved being accepted as "just another student", rather than as the screen actress. She returned to the stage and made her first appearance at the Palace Theatre, Manchester on 1 May 1939 as Françoise in Jacques Deval's play Behold the Bride, and her first London appearance at the Shaftesbury Theatre on 23 May 1939 in the same part. Returning to America, she made her first appearance on the New York stage at the Music Box Theatre in May 1942 as Miss Thing in J. M. Barrie's A Kiss for Cinderella.

In World War II, she signed a visa affidavit to get Bertolt Brecht out of Germany because she "loved his poetry". In return, he wrote the role of Grusha Vashnadze in his 1944 play The Caucasian Chalk Circle for Rainer. However they had a disagreement and she never played it.

She made one more film appearance in Hostages in 1943 and abandoned film making in 1944 after marrying publisher Robert Knittel. She initially did not plan on returning to the screen, but explained her comeback in 1943 by saying: "All the professor and the other students cared about was whether I could answer the questions, not whether I could come to class looking glamorous. But after that brief return to the stage, I began to realize that all the doors which had been opened to me in Europe, and all the work I had been able to accomplish for refugee children, was due to the fact that people knew me from my screen work. I began to feel a sense of responsibility to a job which I had started and never finished. When I also felt, after that experience at Dennis, that perhaps I did have talent after all, and that my too-sudden stardom was not just a matter of happy accident, I decided to go back."

When Rainer returned to Hollywood, her contract at MGM had long expired and she had no agent. David Rose, head of Paramount Pictures, offered her to star in an English film shot on location, but war conditions prevented her from accepting the role. Instead, Rose suggested her in 1942 to take a screen test for the lead role in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), but Ingrid Bergman was cast. Rainer eventually settled on a role in Hostages (1943) and told the press about the role: "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." Rainer took her oath of allegiance to the United States in the 1940s, but she and Knittel would live in the UK and Switzerland, instead for most of their marriage. Robert Knittel died in 1989. They had one daughter, Francesca Knittel, now known as Francesca Knittel-Bowyer. She has 2 granddaughters Luisa and Nicole, and two great-grandchildren Luca and Hunter. Luise now lives in Eaton Square, London, in an apartment in the same building once inhabited by film star Vivien Leigh, also a two-time Oscar winner.

1936 publicity photo Federico Fellini enticed her to play the cameo role of "Dolores" in his 1960 Oscar-winning classic La Dolce Vita, to the point of her travelling to the Rome location, but she quit the production prior to shooting, a fact that has been attributed either to her resistance to an unwanted sex scene, or to her insistence on overseeing her own dialogue. The role was later cut from the eventual screenplay.[citation needed] She made sporadic television and stage appearances following her and her husband's move to Britain, appearing in an episode of the World War II television series Combat! in 1965. She took a dual role in a 1983 episode of The Love Boat. For the latter she received a standing ovation from the crew. She appeared in The Gambler (1997) in a small role, marking her film comeback at the age of 86. She made appearances at the 1998 and 2003 Academy Awards ceremonies as part of special retrospective tributes to past Oscar winners.

On 12 January 2010, Rainer celebrated her centenary in London. Actor Sir Ian McKellen was one of her guests. During that month, she was present at the British Film Institute tribute to her at the National Film Theatre, where she was interviewed by Richard Stirling before screenings of The Good Earth and The Great Waltz. She also appeared onstage at the National Theatre, where she was interviewed by Sir Christopher Frayling. In April 2010 she returned to Hollywood to present a TCM festival screening of The Good Earth.

Rainer in September 2011 receiving a star on the Boulevard der Stars Rainer has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6300 Hollywood Boulevard. On 24 February 2011, at age 101, she said in an interview to BBC Radio 4 that the Oscars were not as ostentatious as they are now. She also said that she saw the film The King's Speech and found it "marvellous".

On 5 September 2011, Rainer travelled to Berlin to receive a star on the "Boulevard der Stars". Her star was among the twenty first issued in 2011 and followed twenty that were issued in 2010. The star was issued as an exception and not without controversy.[49] Rainer had been forgotten when the Boulevard der Stars opened in 2010, despite being Germany's only Academy Award winning actress. In 2011 she was initially rejected by the jury (Senta Berger, Gero Gandert, Uwe Kammann, Dieter Kosslick & Hans Helmut Prinzler) despite being nominated.

A prolonged campaign started in October 2010, led by music executive Paul Baylay, who noticed Rainer's omission on the Boulevard. Baylay campaigned in Germany, lobbying press and politicians to support the campaign to have the actress and her work recognised. The campaign was supported by The Central Council of Jews. In August 2011, The Boulevard der Stars, finally relented acknowledging the Facebook, email and letter campaign led by Baylay was key in their decision to awarding an extra star in favour of Rainer.


The Emperor's Candesticks, 1937 Film credits Title Year Role Notes Sehnsucht 202 1932 Kitty Madame hat Besuch Heut' kommt's drauf an 1933 Marita Costa Escapade 1935 Leopoldine Dur The Great Ziegfeld 1936 Anna Held Academy Award for Best Actress

New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress The Good Earth 1937 O-Lan Academy Award for Best Actress The Emperor's Candlesticks Countess Olga Mironova Big City Anna Benton The Toy Wife 1938 Gilberte 'Frou Frou' Brigard The Great Waltz Poldi Vogelhuber Dramatic School Louise Mauban Hostages 1943 Milada Pressinger The Gambler 1997 Grandmother

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Luise Rainer Knittle's Timeline

January 12, 1910
Düsseldorf, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany
December 30, 2014
Age 104
London, United Kingdom