Saturday, January 12, 2013

Happy Birthday, Luise Rainer!

Spencer Tracy did it.  Tom Hanks did it.  But actress Luise Rainer was the first.  She made Hollywood history as the first performer to win consecutive Academy Awards.  She won the Best Actress Oscar for 1936's The Great Ziegfeld.  She won her next Best Actress Oscar for 1937's The Good Earth.  Luise Rainer was a radiant new star.
Those were two very different roles played by the German-born actress under contract to Hollywood's powerful MGM Studios.  In one, she's the French musical revue star who becomes a Broadway sensation and the wife of the theatrical impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, famous for "Glorifying the American Girl."  In the other, she played a Chinese peasant wife and mother in the film adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize winning novel.

The gifted Daniel Day-Lewis seems to be on his way to making Hollywood history as the first man to win three Best Actor Academy Awards.  The two-time winner is nominated for his performance as the American president, Lincoln.  Oscar, the Hollywood golden boy, loves bio pics!  Think about it.  Adrien Brody, Helen Mirren, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Forrest Whitaker, Marion Cotillard, Cate Blanchett, Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth, Jamie Foxx, Sandra Bullock, Christian Bale all got their Oscars for playing real-life characters.  The last Academy Award victories of Sean Penn and Meryl Streep came for biographical dramas.  Vividly turning yourself into someone who really exists or existed seems a sure-fire way to grab an invite to Hollywood Prom Night.  This bio movie love started before Oscar's 10th birthday and the first actress to win him for a biopic was Luise Rainer.
Ziegfeld's success with Anna Held inspired him to create what made him a Broadway legend -- the Ziegfeld Follies.  William Powell starred as the showman in this biopic with lavish musical numbers that helped The Great Ziegfeld win the Best Picture Oscar.
The Good Earth, based on the Pearl S. Buck novel, has Rainer as the strong, loyal O-Lan in a family saga that takes us from her wedding day to her deathbed.  Paul Muni, himself a biopic Oscar winner, starred opposite her as the husband in this moving drama.
Luise Rainer was a very special guest at the 2010 TCM Film Festival in Hollywood.  She is the oldest living Oscar-winning actor.  Today, Luise Rainer is 103.
Rainer survived the studio executive that apparently made her Hollywood life more "clamorous" than glamorous.  The actress did not like the corporate "do as you're told" structure of the dream factory called MGM.  She was another German stage actor who'd fled Europe and headed to America when Hitler began his evil rise to power.  At MGM, she spoke her mind and sought more challenging material to play.  She was assigned what she called "frou-frou" roles after her historic wins. This may have been her punishment for standing up to studio head, Louis B. Mayer.  He reportedly called her "difficult to cast."  And she'd won two consecutive Best Actress Oscars.  She played a pampered, self-centered Southern belle in The Toy Wife co-starring Melvyn Douglas.
She re-teamed with William Powell for something called The Emperor's Candlesticks.
In The Great Waltz, she was the insecure wife of Viennese composer Johann Strauss II.
The Hollywood actress she was then married to Broadway playwright Clifford Odets.  He co-wrote the hard and highly quotable screenplay for 1957's Sweet Smell of Success.
In a biography on the late writer, she described being the first Mrs. Odets as "tragic."  He grew bitter, he was jealous of her Oscar-winning success, he was having an affair with Frances Farmer.  Farmer was the leading lady in his new play, Golden Boy.  The 1939 movie of his hit play starred Barbara Stanwyck and screen newcomer William Holden.
That Clifford Odets play is now in revival on Broadway until January 20th at the Belasco.
Rainer and Odets divorced.  Before Golden Boy, Farmer was a 1930s handful at Paramount where she starred opposite Bing Crosby, Fred MacMurray and Ray Milland.
She had her bouts with booze and cops after Paramount gave her the heave-ho.
Farmer's fame and hard times became the 1982 biopic, Frances, starring Jessica Lange.
Jessica Lange got a Best Actress Oscar nomination for that biopic performance.  By the time Luise Rainer started production as an aspiring young actress in 1938's Dramatic School, MGM had taken her film career out of the fast lane.  It was her last for the studio.
She left Clifford Odets and she left Hollywood.  She remarried, had a daughter, worked on Broadway and got involved with the war effort.  In Europe, a friendship with Ernest Hemingway inspired her to help Spanish refugee children. Rainer brought her daughter along in 1956 to promote  UNICEF's Child Health Day on United Nations Radio.
When today's babyboomers were kids, she appeared on one of ABC's best drama series of the 1960s.  Combat!, with Vic Morrow and Rick Jason, premiered in 1962.  The WWII series followed an American infantry squad fighting in the war across Europe.  Rainer appeared in one episode with another former MGM star.  Ramon Novarro, top leading man in the silent era and early 1930s, had starred as the first Ben-Hur (1925).  On Combat!, the Hollywood veterans dealt with German soldiers as a French couple, the Countess and Count De Roy.  This was in the show's 1965 episode, "Finest Hour."
Like several actors who'd been stars at MGM and other studios in Hollywood's Golden Age, she even did an episode of ABC's The Love Boat in the 1980s.  The actress has lived in London for many, many years.  If TCM repeats her interview with Robert Osborne from 2010's film festival, make a point to see that excellent chat.  She really did make 100 seem like the new 80.  The camera still loved to rest on her sweet face and soulful eyes. She was lovely, forthcoming and had much wisdom to share.  A lot of what she shared was very substantial for new actors.  And not-so-new actors.  She was charismatic.  The audience loved her.  Rainer outlived the studio system that threatened to make or break her.  She didn't need MGM stardom to be significant -- to have a fulfilling, happy life apparently.  I like that she returned to Hollywood on her own terms.
The MGM classics that put her in the history books are both on DVD.  One is The Great Ziegfeld. William Powell and Myrna Loy co-star in Oscar's pick for Best Picture of 1936.
The other is The Good Earth, produced by the creative, beloved and legendary Irving Thalberg.  This  top MGM studio exec died in 1936.  L.B. Mayer was jealous of him.  Mayer opposed making The Good Earth and casting Asian actors in lead roles.  The movie got made.  The Oscar nominee for Best Picture of 1937 is dedicated to Thalberg.
In a BBC Radio interview when she was 101, she told interviewer Colin Paterson how much she loved the movie The King's Speech and that she's a big fan of Erin Brockovich and Pretty Woman star Julia Roberts.  A great compliment, indeed, for Julia .  Come to think of it, she's another actor who won an Oscar for a biopic performance.  Academy Award winner Luise Rainer -- 103 years old today.  What a Hollywood survivor!

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