RIP Luise Rainer

Day 250 of Colourisation Project – January 12

Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.

Born this day, 12 January, 1910, Luise Rainer, a German-born film actress was the first person to win multiple Academy Awards and the first person to win them consecutively, for her roles in The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and The Good Earth. (1937)

Only four other actors have managed the feat of winning back-to-back Oscars; Tom Hanks, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, and Jason Robards.

Luise Rainer

Publicity Still – Luise Rainer 1943 – Coloured by Loredana Crupi

Standing on the threshold of greatness, Rainer had created cinematic history and then turned her back on Hollywood. Some Hollywood observers consider Rainer to have fallen under Hollywood’s mythological curse of Oscar.

Rainer was not a conventional star; she refused to accept the values of Hollywood and to subscribe to the contrived Hollywood glamour image. She regarded Hollywood itself as dysfunctional, shallow, materialistic and politically naive, particularly in its apathy towards the rise of fascism in Europe. In an interview for The Guardian newspaper in 1997 she said,

“People talk about the ’30s and the ’40s as a great time, but it was also the glamour-puss time. I was never really that. Louis B. Mayer’s motto was, ‘Give me a good looker and I’ll make her an actress,’ which to me was an insult to my profession.”

Wanting to play more substantial roles, she found herself clashing with studio boss, Louis B. Mayer over not only her roles but her salary.

Rainer was never a high earner in Hollywood. When negotiating a salary increase with Mayer, he allegedly said to her, “Why don’t you sit on my lap when we’re discussing your contract, the way the other girls do?” to which she told him to throw her contract in the bin. Mayer stormed back with, “We made you and we’re going to kill your career.”

“Mr Mayer, I was already a star on the stage before I came here. Besides, God made me, not you!”

Rainer broke her contract with MGM in 1938 over what she called a lack of artistic freedom. Her stay in Hollywood was short-lived. Her last major film was Hostages in 1943, after which she settled in London with her second husband, publisher Robert Knittel.

Ironically, Rainer won her best actress award in The Good Earth playing the long-suffering Chinese peasant O-Lan despite neither looking, nor sounding Chinese.  She still had a strong German accent!  The part was largely nonspeaking and relied on the expressiveness of her Caucasian eyes. Rainer said she simply went on instinct.

Though Anna May Wong a third-generation Chinese American had been suggested for the role of O-Lan, the Hays Code anti-miscegenation rules required the role to be played by a white actress. Rainer was certainly right about the shallowness of Hollywood. But this was really more an indictment on American culture and the inherent racism of the time.

MGM offered Wong the role of Lotus, but she refused, stating, “You’re asking me – with Chinese blood – to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters.” Many of the characters were made to look Asian with aid of make-up techniques developed by innovative American make-up artist, Jack Dawn and used for the first time in this film. Some of the supporting cast however, did include Chinese American actors.

Nobel Prize winning author, Pearl Buck, wasn’t too happy either. Author of the best-seller, The Good Earth, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize, intended the film to be cast with all Chinese or Chinese-American actors.

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When Rainer reached her 100th birthday she claimed that, “the secret of a long life is to never trust a doctor.”

Luise Rainer passed away only last month on December 30, 2014 in London from pneumonia just two weeks shy of her 105th birthday.

NOTE: With Rainer’s death, the oldest surviving Academy Award acting winner (not honorary winners) is two-time winner Olivia de Havilland, who turned 98 in July 2014.

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“I was never proud of anything. I just did it like everything else. To do a film – let me explain to you – it’s like having a baby. You labor, you labor, you labor, and then you have it. And then it grows up and it grows away from you. But to be proud of giving birth to a baby? Proud? No, every cow can do that.”       –   Luise Rainer

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