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Arts & Life

Actress Luise Rainer Made Hollywood History — Then Walked Away

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Actress Luise Rainer, who won back-to-back Oscars, has died. She was 104. NPR's Jasmine Garsd reports on an actress who made Hollywood history and then chose to walk away.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Luise Rainer said she used one of her Oscar statuettes as a doorstop. Her relationship with the film industry was complicated. Rainer was born in 1910 in Dusseldorf, Germany. The actress was discovered as a teenager by theater director Max Reinhardt. Once the Nazis came to power, Rainer's family, who was Jewish, left Europe. They resettled in southern California in 1935. Rainer signed a contract with MGM. The studio saw her as the next Greta Garbo.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GREAT ZIEGFELD")

LUISE RAINER: (As Anna Held) Hello, Flo. Yes, here's Anna. I'm so happy for you today. I could not help but call on you and congratulate you.

GARSD: That's a famous scene from the 1936 musical drama "The Great Ziegfeld," for which she won her first Academy Award. The next year, she won another for her role in "The Good Earth," the film adaptation of Pearl S. Buck's novel.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GOOD EARTH")

RAINER: (As O-Lan) We can go back. We can go back to the land.

GARSD: Rainer was the first actress to win back-to-back Oscars. But with success came dissatisfaction about the movie business and the films MGM chose for her. Professor Emily Carman teaches film studies at Chapman University. She says when Rainer signed with MGM in the mid-1930s, it was a great studio for actresses.

EMILY CARMAN: If you were a talented actress, you wanted to be at MGM. If you think of Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow - this was the studio to be if you were a serious female actress.

GARSD: Carman says Rainer's disappointment had a lot to do with a shift in how MGM made movies once Louis B. Mayer took over.

CARMAN: His focus shifted to musicals and more of the genres like action film or biopics. His focus shifted to younger stars - and not just younger adults, like teen stars, like Judy Garland.

GARSD: In 1938, Rainer broke her contract with MGM. She moved to England and made sporadic appearances on film and television. Rainer was married twice. Her second husband, Robert Knittel, died in 1989 after 44 years together. They had one daughter. Luise Rainer died of pneumonia in London today. She was 104 years old. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.