Luise Rainer, the first thespian to win back-to-back Oscars, was born on January 12, 1910 in Dusseldorf, Germany into a prosperous Jewish family. She took to the stage, and plied her craft on the boards in Germany. As a young actress, she was discovered by the legendary theater director Max Reinhardt and became part of his company in Vienna, Austria. "I was supposed to be very gifted, and he heard about me. He wanted me to be part of his theater," Rainer recounted in a 1997 interview. She joined Reinhardt's theatrical company in Vienna and spent years developing as an actress under his tutelage. As part of Reinhardt's company, Rainer became a popular stage actress in Berlin and Vienna in the early 1930s. Rainer was a natural talent for Reinhardt's type of staging, which required an impressionistic acting style.
Rainer, who made her screen debut as a teenager and appeared in three other German-language films in the early '30s, terminated her European career when the Austrian Adolf Hitler consolidated his power in Germany. With his vicious anti-Semitism, his imposition of a police state in Germany, and his desire for an anschluss between Austria and "Der Vaterland," Hitler was a threat to European Jewry. Rainer had been spotted by a talent scout, who offered her a seven-year contract with the American studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The 25-year-old Rainer took the deal and emigrated to the United States.
She made her American debut in the movie Escapade (1935), replacing Myrna Loy, who was originally slated for the part. It was her luck to have William Powell as her co-star in her first Hollywood film, as he mentored her, teaching her how to act in front of the camera. Powell, whom Rainer remembers as "a dear man" and "a very fine person," lobbied M.G.M. boss Louis B. Mayer, reportedly telling him, "You've got to star this girl or I'll look like an idiot.'"
During the making of "Escapade," Rainer met, and fell in love with, the left-wing playwright Clifford Odets, then at the height of his fame. They were married in 1937. It was not a happy union. M.G.M. cast Rainer in support of Powell in the title role of the The Great Ziegfeld (1936), its spectacular bio-epic featuring musical numbers that recreated his "Follies" shows on Broadway. As Anna Held, Ziegfeld's common-law wife, Rainer excelled in the musical numbers, but it is for her telephone scene that she is most remembered for. "The Great Ziegfeld" was a big hit and went on to win the Academy Award as Best Picture of 1936. Rainer received her first of two successive Best Actress Oscars for playing Held. The award was highly controversial at the time as she was a relative unknown and it was only her first nomination, but also because her role was so short and relatively minor that it better qualified for a supporting nomination. (While 1936 was the first year that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences honored supporting players, her studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, listed her as a lead player, then got out its block vote for her.) Compounding the controversy was the fact that Rainer beat out such better known and more respected actresses as Carole Lombard (her sole Oscar nomination) in My Man Godfrey (1936), previous Best Actress winner Norma Shearer (her fifth nomination) in Romeo and Juliet (1936), and Irene Dunne (her second of five unsuccessful nominations) in Theodora Goes Wild (1936). Some of the bitchery was directed towards Louis B. Mayer, whom non-M.G.M. Academy members resented for his ability to manipulate Academy votes. Other critics of her first Oscar win claimed it was the result of voters being unduly impressed with the great budget ($2 million) of "The Great Ziegfeld" rather than great acting. Most observers agree that Rainer won her Oscar as the result of her moving and poignant performance in just one, single scene in the picture, the famous telephone scene in which the broken-hearted Held congratulates Ziegfeld over the telephone on his upcoming marriage to Billie Burke while trying to retain her composure and her dignity. During the scene, the camera is entirely focused on Rainer, and she delivers a tour-de-force performance. Seventy years later, it remains one of the most famous scenes in movie history. With another actress playing Held, the scene could have been mawkish, but Rainer brought the pathos of the scene out and onto film. She based her interpretation of the scene on Jean Cocteau's play "La Voix Humaine." "Cocteau's play is just a telephone conversation about a woman who has lost her beloved to another woman," Rainer remembered. "That is the comparison. As it fit into the Ziegfeld story, that's how I wrote it. It's a daily happening, not just in Cocteau." In an interview held 60 years after the film's release, Rainer was dismissive of the performance. "I was never proud of anything," she said. "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."
Rainer would allay any back-biting from Hollywood's bovines over her first Oscar with her performance as O-Lan in M.G.M. producer Irving Thalberg's spectacular adaptation of Pearl S. Buck's "The Good Earth, the former Boy Wonder's final picture before his untimely death. The role won Rainer her second Best Actress Award. The success of The Good Earth (1937) was rooted in its realism, and its realism was enhanced by Rainer's acting opposite the legendary Paul Muni as her husband. When Thalberg cast Muni in the role of Wang Lung, he had to abandon any thought of casting the Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong as O-Lan as the Hays Office would not allow the hint of miscegenation, even between an actual Chinese woman and a Caucuasian actor in yellow-face drag. So, Thalberg gave Rainer the part, and she made O-Lan her own. She refused to wear a heavy makeup, and her elfin look helped her to assay a Chinese woman with results far superior to those of Myrna Loy in her Oriental vamp phase or Katharine Hepburn in Dragon Seed (1944). In the late '90s, Rainer praised her director, Sidney Franklin, as "wonderful," and explained that she used an acting technique similar to "The Method" being pioneered by her husband's Group Theatre comrades back in New York. "I worked from inside out," she said. "It's not for me, putting on a face, or putting on makeup, or making masquerade. It has to come from inside out. I knew what I wanted to do and he let me do it." The win made Rainer the first two-time Oscar winner in an acting category and the first to win consecutive acting awards (Spencer Tracy, her distaff honoree for Captains Courageous (1937) would follow her as a consecutive acting Oscar winner the next year, and Walter Brennan, the first winner of a Best Supporting Actor Oscar the year Rainer won