If I were to ask you to name the only five actors who have won consecutive Academy Awards chances are you would be able to identify three of them fairly easily – Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn and Tom Hanks. If you were a real aficionado of the movie industry you might even know the identity of a fourth person- Jason Robards. Until a few days ago, virtually no one would have been able to identify the fifth person, who was also the first to do so. Her name was Luise Rainer, and she died a few days ago of pneumonia at the age of 104.
Rainer was not nearly as famous as the others with whom she shares that unique distinction. You might wonder why. Well, read on.
Rainer was born on January 12, 1910 in Dusseldorf, Germany. She was raised primarily in Vienna, Austria. She began acting at the age of 16 in Germany and Austria on both the stage and in films. She was discovered by an MGM talent scout who signed her to a three-year contract in 1935. At that time, it was common for the major studios to employ talent scouts who would scour theatres, clubs and other venues, regardless of how unlikely, for undiscovered talent. In an extreme case, Lana Turner was discovered by a talent scout while eating ice cream at Schwab’s Drug Store, because she had “the right look.”
Rainer was an immediate success. She won Oscars for her roles in “The Great Ziegfeld” in 1936 and “The Good Earth” in 1937. But, then she ran afoul of the “studio system” and, in particular, Louis B. Mayer. Briefly, under the studio system, which existed from 1927, when “talkies” became popular, to 1949, when a Supreme Court ruling ended such practices on anti-trust grounds, the major studios – MGM, Loews, Fox, Paramount and Warner Brothers – were able to sign stars to contracts and exert control over their careers. They did this by what is called “vertical integration.” The studios controlled the actors, produced the movies, and controlled their distribution through movie theatres that they owned or controlled. An actor under contract was required to take whatever roles the studio wanted. Being under contract provided security, but many performers who became successful found it stifling.
After her initial success, Rainer’s vision of her career’s direction differed radically from that of MGM’s. Most dissatisfied actors realized that while they were under contract the studio had control over their careers, not them, and they went along with the system. Not Rainer. In her opinion, the studio was offering her roles that were not substantial enough to suit her talents. Two of the roles she wanted were that of Maria in “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” which went to Ingrid Bergman, and Madame Curie, which went to Greer Garson. She got neither. This conflict came to a head in a famous meeting with Louis B. Mayer. MGM controlled Rainer’s destiny and Mayer was intransigent. He demanded that she fulfil the terms of her contract, which required she make one more movie for the studio under his terms. Depending on one’s point of view Rainer either quit or was blackballed. The end result was that her career in Hollywood was over at the age of 28.
Some movie historians consider her case to be one of the most extreme examples of actor victimization. Rainer returned to Europe where she married and raised one daughter. Except for infrequent appearances in minor roles, she lived a quiet life away from the movie business. She only returned to Hollywood twice, for the Academy Award shows in 1998 and 2003.
Obviously, Rainer had substantial talent. It would have been interesting to see what her career might have been like. If Rainer had any regrets she expressed them in a 1987 interview when she said “I’ve always felt guilty about not having continued to work. I should have made 50 more pictures.”