The German-born star of The Great Ziegfeld and The Good Earth, Luise Rainer, died Tuesday at her home in London. She was 104. The Associated Press reports that Rainer’s daughter Francesca Knittel-Bowyer said the Oscar winner succumbed to pneumonia. Rainer won consecutive Oscars for both 1936’s The Great Ziegfeld and 1937’s The Good Earth, becoming the first actor ever to do so.
Rainer was born in 1910 and was discovered by MGM in the mid-30s after appearing in some German and Austrian films. Her first Hollywood role was in 1935’s Escapade with William Powell. The next year, she appeared again opposite Powell, and Myrna Loy, in Robert Z. Leonard’s The Great Ziegfeld. A relatively small role, it nevertheless earned her the Best Actress Oscar, notably for a scene in which she tearfully congratulates her ex-husband on his new marriage. Dubbed “the Viennese Teardrop,” she went on to play O-Lan in the adaptation of Pearl S Buck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Good Earth. She again won the Best Actress Academy Award for her performance.
Those back-to-back wins — a phenomoenon only ever repeated by Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Jason Robards and Tom Hanks — were said by the actress to be the worst thing that could have happened to her. In a 1999 interview, she told The AP, “When I got two Oscars, they thought, ‘Oh, they can throw me into anything.'” Her other films included The Toy Wife and The Great Waltz in 1938, but she ultimately clashed with MGM and broke her contract, moving to New York with her then-husband, the playwright Clifford Odets.
Rainer later appeared in 1943’s Hostages and eventually spent much of her life in England. She made occasional television appearances, including in a 1984 episode of The Love Boat. Her last film role was in 1997’s The Gambler with Michael Gambon and Dominic West. Her daughter told the AP today, “She was bigger than life and can charm the birds out of the trees. If you saw her, you’d never forget her.”