So, we've reached a pretty special week here in Twice a Best Actress; the week of Luise Rainer, the very first actor period (in any category) to win two consecutive Oscars. The cool thing about this one is that most on the panel had not seen these performances yet, so we were looking at these from VERY fresh eyes (you know, all of us except Fritz, who has seen practically everything!).
Enough talking, let's get to discussing these two VERY different performances from an iconic actress.
Once again, our panel:
Andrew from The Films the Thing
Drew from A Fistful of Films
Fritz from Fritz and the Oscars
Josh from The Cinematic Spectacle
Kevin from Speaks in Movie Lines
Sati from Cinematic Corner
Luise Rainer, who became the first actor to ever score back-to-back Oscars, claims that winning Best Actress twice in a row so early in her career was not a curse. But the pressure to top her early success did get the best of "The Viennese Teardrop" (who had been touted as the next Garbo) and her brief career in Hollywood was over almost as soon as it started. She left behind her a cinematic legacy consisting almost entirely of the two films that won her the Oscars (she made a grand total of 13 films in her entire career), but history has not been kind to either performance, making the Academy's fleeting but intense love affair with the European actress seem that much more puzzling. Take the performance that she won her first Oscar for, Rainer portrays real-life French actress Anna Held, the first wife of titular producer and lavish Follies dreamer The Great Ziegfeld (played by William Powell). The Best Picture winner is an over-stuffed, overly-long, behemoth biopic, yet Rainer appears in about 40 minutes of its 3 hour running time and in that small amount of screen time does little more than constantly change her mind on a whim and throw temper tantrums. Her Anna is as light-weight and airy as the gossamer ruffled gown we first see her in on stage. Rainer is a fluttery diversion, enjoyable when she's on screen, but quickly forgotten whenever she's not. It's said that the scene that won her the Oscar is a phone call to Ziegfeld after they've divorced and she calls to congratulate him on his new marriage. Putting on a brave face and stifling her tears until the call has ended, Rainer plays the scene with heartfelt restraint, but the choice doesn't seem in keeping with the over-the-top character we've known throughout the rest of the film and comes off as more of a gimmicky showcase than genuine emotion. It's odd that Rainer wasn't placed in the Supporting category, which made its debut that year, and is more fitting for her limited screen time. Especially when that single phone call somehow won her Best Actress over Carole Lombard's ditzy perfection in My Man Godfrey.
My Grade: C-
For starters, this is not a Leading performance. We can go ahead and get that out of the way, and it seems that everyone else has come to this same observation. That being said, this is such a sublimely perfect performance, and such a full one at that, that it almost doesn’t matter. Sure, I would have loved Rainer to get a nomination in the correct category so that she could win there and Lombard could have won in Lead, but let’s not get too upset over that since what Rainer does here is just so splendid.
As the first wife to producer Ziegfeld, Rainer plays Anna Held with such range and such control of character. Touching every corner of this woman’s personality, Rainer crafts a complete portrait. We see her impatience, her ambition, her loyalty, her frailty, her heartbreak, her love…everything. She moves with such grace and charm and creates an unforgettable presence. Maybe that’s why she won the Lead Actress Oscar despite being a clear Supporting player in this film. You feel her throughout, even though she barely takes up a third of the film’s running time. Her presence lingers, and she continues to come back to us time and time again.
Yes, that phone call scene is just beautifully played, but for me it wouldn’t have had the same effect had she not crafted such a well-rounded portrait in the first place. Sure, this could be classified as a broad performance, thanks to all of the flourishes of personality that Rainer commands here, but it is in that broad portrayal that we see the real glimpsed of a real woman.
My Grade: A+
It’s always hard for me to be objective when it comes to personal favorites. If you look at my blog, you know that Luise Rainer is like its godmother and the highest honor I can give to a performance is “5 Luises”. I really don’t know why and how this happened, I certainly don’t consider her the greatest actress of all time or anything but there is something about her that just makes me love her. She’s such a unique presence, strangely bubbly and vibrant but also earthy and serious even if she is an actress who is incredibly hard to cast because her whole acting style can be as appropriate for a role as it can be completely off-putting. Thankfully, her two Oscar-winning roles showed all that is right about her. The Great Ziegfeld is one of this prestigious bios that did its best to not just be big but enormous – from singing to dancing to costumes, The Great Ziegfeld does it best to appeal to audiences of its time and give them to chance to take a look at the world of Florence Ziegfeld that most of them never imagined would be possible. But beyond all the (often empty) glitter is a true treasure that steals all the spotlight around it – the work of Luise Rainer as Ziegfeld’s first wife Anna Held. Sure, today she would easily be placed in the supporting category since she is maybe only 50 minutes in this 3-hour movie but we are her to talk about the performance itself and it is easy to see why Luise Rainer’s work became so talked-about in 1936 and why almost everyone left the movie only talking about her. Herr Anna Held is a true diva, a star of the stage but filled with insecurity about the man she loves and his fidelity. The screenplay never offers any true depth or complexity to the role but Luise Rainer brings so much live and grace to the part – she is absolutely hilarious in many moments that could have been annoying, throwing Ziegfeld out of her dressing room and asking him back right away, wanting to go to France only to change her mind one second later and hysterically complaining about milk baths that she is supposed to be taking every day. She plays the part with insecurity of a little girl but is always honest in her feeling – the whole movie comes to live when she is on the screen and she effortlessly switches from comedy to drama in one second. And her famous telephone scene also lives up to all the hype, congratulating Ziegfeld on his new marriage while her heart is breaking. Certainly no one expected Anna Held to be anything more than some comic relief in The Great Ziegfeld but Luise Rainer took this part and turned it into something unforgettable. I am probably a little bit too generous with my grade but as I said, sometimes it is hard to be objective.
My Grade: A
Rainer won her first Best Actress Oscar for playing Anna Held, a French singer who signs with Ziegfeld. She appeared in the lengthy Best Picture winner that year, and, despite her performance being more of a supporting role, it merits the attention it received. The role requires Rainer to explore many emotions, which she effortlessly demonstrates in the telephone scene alone. Though she isn't the focus of the film, she's the brightest spot in it. Supporting performances often garner lead nominations at the Oscars (and vice versa), but this one is worthy of a little category fraud.
Did Rainer deserve to win?
I haven't seen all of the nominees, but Carole Lombard is brilliant in My Man Godfrey. She'd be my choice, though Rainer's win is hardly unjustified.
My Grade: A-
I feel sorry for Luise Rainer. She signed on at MGM, owned a couple pictures, then pretty much vanished. At 104 years old, she's still alive somewhere. The Oscars, it seems, have cursed her. She is quoted once as saying (on the topic of her Oscar success), "Nothing worse could have happened to me." The first actor, male or female, to win two Leading Role Oscars, consecutively or otherwise, and, as it turned out, they were for nothing. Too bad really. I loved both of these performances.
As Anna Held in Robert Z. Leonard's sprawling biopic "The Great Ziegfeld," Luise Rainer is truly the show stealer. The movie itself is so grandiose, show-offy, classic in its set pieces and costumes and performances. Rainer fits right in here. She is absolutely beautiful. Like most actresses of her time, the greatness is all in her face, mostly her eyes. This will be the reason she wins and wins in "The Good Earth" the following year. The delivery of her lines from the first meeting with Flo Ziegfeld is always right on point, rapid fire. She is funny and loudly melodramatic at the same time. She has this spoiled, little girl indecision and a childlike quality about her. Her performance, at once, reminded me of Dianne Wiest's Helen Sinclair in Woody Allen's "Bullets Over Broadway" (1994) crossed with Maria de Medeiros' Fabienne in Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" (also 1994)…she and de Medeiros even resemble one another.
Let's call a spade a spade, though. Anna Held is a supporting character. She takes up only a small fraction of this film's way-too-long three-hour running time. Yet, she is so solid, so charming in every scene she is in that I can't help but relate to the Academy that year. It is a truly worthy performance, one I'm glad I took the time to witness. I really liked her.
The Scene That Won It: That telephone scene. Real acting going on there. That smile breaking through those tears.
My Grade: B+
At first it was a challenge to get into the film, which by the way won Best Movie, but once Rainer shows up she completely reinvigorates the film. She plays turbulent singer and she is just wonderful - she is very turbulent and changes her mind constantly, but she is never annoying. She brings such charm and vigor to the role, along with innocence and naivety which never comes off as phony or tiresome. There is the recurring motif of her throwing Ziegfeld out and then inviting him back in which is just hilarious.
Rainer is not much in the second part of the movie but that is where her most famous scene is - when she calls Zeigfeld, then her ex-husband, to congratulate him on his second wedding. It's a very good scene, but it did feels a bit weird how the entire story arc of her character was handled - she witnesses the kiss between her husband and other woman and then we only see her after the marriage collapses even though she says she still loves him. A good performance but I'm not sure it was worthy of an Oscar.
My Grade: B-
When casting The Good Earth, a film set in China, revolving around the lives of Chinese farmers and very much about the customs, rituals, and beliefs of the country's people, naturally the first choice would be to go with all Eastern Europeans, right? But such was the thinking of Hollywood in the 1930's where minorities were hardly ever cast except as servants or background and interracial marriages weren't allowed to be portrayed on screen thanks to the Hays Code. So instead of casting Anna May Wong, Hollywood's only Chinese movie star, because she couldn't be seen married on film to the white Paul Muni (playing the Chinese Wang Lung), the solution was to cast white actors in Yellow Face instead of casting an all Chinese cast (which had been author Pearl S. Buck's wish). I know I can't be mad at Luise Rainer for playing the part of O-Lan, it was a different time and her portrayal is natural and real, never feeling like a stereotype or parody. But there's still something unsettling about seeing her European features (thankfully Rainer refused to wear the eye prosthetics to give the actor's "Asian" eyes) and hearing her Austrian/German accent ("Vee vill nut zell zee land.") portraying O-Lan. In complete contrast to her flashy turn the year before, Rainer gives a quiet and effective performance, disappearing into herself as she plays a meek yet determined woman. Showing the strength that even the most mild-mannered person can possess, Rainer gives O-Lan a steely gaze behind her downcast eyes. But in 1937's fantastic Best Actress line-up, which includes one of my all-time favorites, Barbara Stanwyck, in her personal favorite role and Irene Dunne in probably her best performance (both went their entire careers without Best Actress wins), I would've given the Oscar to a legend that also never won, in what was her best shot at the award, Greta Garbo in Camille.
My Grade: B-
There were points within The Good Earth where Rainer reminded me so much of Maria Falconetti’s performance in La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc. Her eyes just carried so much internal weight, giving us a harrowing glimpse at a woman losing everything.
Sadly, there wasn’t anything else here.
Instead of creating a complete performance and a complete character (which is something I felt she did the year before in half the screen time), Rainer’s performance feels horribly one-note. There is no depth here, for me, no real layers in this character. Instead, Rainer burrows into our skin with those eyes for two hours and leaves me wishing that I had any idea of who O-Lan really was. This isn’t to say that her brooding isn’t effective, or even necessary in most parts. This is, as a whole, a rather tragic story, and there are many reasons for Rainer to play up the misery, but there were also many opportunities for Rainer to show some shades to this woman, and I never felt like she took those.
She does get props for steering away from creating a caricature, which is what everyone else in this somewhat insulting film actually did, but she comes up short of Falconetti greatness because she failed to deliver a woman that felt lived in and real. Instead, she felt less like a character and more like a singular emotion; a description of what a real character feels and not a portrayal of a real character FEELING.
Winning over Dunne…just no.
My Grade: C
Luise Rainer became the first person ever to win two Oscars for acting when she won her second Best Actress award in a row for The Good Earth. The fact that she went from playing a French stage star to a devoted and silent Chinese wife certainly impressed Academy members and could easily be a testament to her versatility – but this is only half-true. Somehow, both Anna Held and O-lan benefitted from Luise Rainer’s talents but after that, she basically disappeared again because nobody knew what to do with her and what kind of role a ‘Luise Rainer role’ would be. She gave another great performance in The Great Waltz but was almost embarrassing in The Toy Wife when every study tried to create its own Scarlett O’Hara. She was charming again in The Emperor’s Candlesticks and did some good work in Big City but couldn’t create any excitement in Dramatic School. To sum it up, none of her post-Oscar work really lived up to the early promises of her career and I, too, can understand why it was so hard to find the right parts for her and why audiences quickly lost their interest. But even though, she could create overwhelming moments on the screen when everything fell into the right place – and if that was the case with The Great Ziegfeld, it was even more the case with The Good Earth. After having been hysterical, intense, charming and uneasy as Anna Held, Luise Rainer reduced all these qualities of her acting style and became totally withdrawn, silent, earthy and strong as O-lan, a quiet and obedient wife who only lives for the sake of her family. And all of this was combined into a truly epic achievement, a revelation of expressiveness, of subtle emotions and quiet spirit. It’s a performance that is so different, so inimitable and exists on a completely different level of excellence and inner strength. Luise Rainer symbolizes this eternal question where this inner strength comes from, she is a prime example for a woman who seems to use her physical and spiritual energy and completely applies it to her work as an actress. She always appears as if she uses every bit of strength she possesses for her performances, as if acting is both exhausting and fulfilling for her. And by reducing her extrovert acting style and concentrating on the strength and exhaustion of her work she created one of the most fascinating characters in movie history, a woman who seems to have a never-ending source of strength inside of her that allows her to keep going, keep working and keep living despite appearing so weak and helpless. Her face can express so many emotions at the same time while keeping up the façade of a woman who tries not to express any emotions at all – it’s a performance that can compete with the great works from the silent era simply because it exists in so many non-speaking moments that nonetheless reveal all we need to know. Overall, the whole performance could have been a complete disaster – the obvious miscasting of European actors and the passive nature of the part might have ended in a boring, inappropriate or at worst unbelievable performance but Luise Rainer quite simply delivered one of the most astonishing performances in movie history.
My Grade: A+
Rainer won her second Best Actress Oscar for playing O-Lan, a poor farmer's wife who faces great hardship in China. The biggest detractor to this great performance is that Rainer is a German Jew playing an Asian woman, which can be distracting. (I wonder what Chinese actress Ruan Lingyu, had she been alive, would've done with the role.) Still, Rainer manages to give a captivating performance, and she taps into the emotions she showed briefly in The Great Ziegfeld. This larger dramatic role really gives her a chance to shine. It couldn't be a more baity role for Oscar voters, yet she couldn't be better in it. The casting for the whole film seems a bit questionable, but Rainer still delivers a fantastic performance.
Did Rainer deserve to win?
She is more deserving of this win than her previous one. However, Irene Dunne shouldn't have been passed over for her delightful performance in The Awful Truth.
My Grade: A
Right after her success in "The Great Ziegfeld" (1936), MGM once again called on its newest go-to gal in Luise Rainer. This time, she is made up as a poor Chinese girl named O-Lan, who, early in the film, is married off to farmer, Wang Lung (Paul Muni). I had a hard time with this movie. Despite its incredibly advanced (for the time) cinematography and editing, it failed to ever fully grasp my attention. That said, Luise Rainer's performance is just great.
What I imagine the Academy voters noticed is how strikingly in contrast this performance is when compared to Anna Held. Anna is loud and vibrant. O-Lan is just the opposite…timid, reserved, pained. Like with Anna, though, O-Lan has this same girlish quality that Rainer just does so perfectly. Again, the performance is all in her face. And what a face! Her eyes are just immaculate. At the beginning of this movie, I felt like I was watching another Sally Field-esque turn a la "Places in the Heart." Not the case. This is a gut-wrenching piece of acting. She starts out seemingly weak and then becomes one of the stronger female leads I can think of. She is strong under the guise of being weak. The opposite of the latter Field winner.
She refuses to let her husband lose his land. She is not above teaching her children how to beg. She is not above taking what is not hers to help her family. She is not scared to fight through a crowd of revolting looters. I found this performance, as the movie rolled along, to have more of a Meryl Streep quality (for a more contemporary comparison). It is a transformative role (dark make-up work aside). She nailed it.
The Scene That Won It: Not one scene. Her unwavering mastery of this character in every scene is why she won.
My Grade: A-
First of all - what the hell with the ox scene? That was so disturbing. Nothing graphic happened in it but it was so unsettling. I hate when it is implied or shown that something happens to an animal and by the way that ox was a better actor than most human actors these days. The film was really heavy, plus there was the issue of racism with Caucasians playing the Chinese and so, so much sexism in this story. The past is really horrific when we compare it to the present - both in terms of actual history and the history of art - but did the women rights reached the point it should have by now? Absolutely not.
Her husband in that movie was such a dick.
Rainer is so good here - she nails all of her character's emotions - shyness, determination, fear, joy, weariness. The scene in which she asks for pearls is both lovely and heartbreaking. It's a very well deserved win, but as usual I didn't see other contenders. It was great seeing a movie from 30's that won Oscars that wasn't all sparkly and telling showbusiness related story with the loud, glamorous girl played be these actresses who would win Oscars. Rainer's performance here was the kind of work that doesn't feel outdated now - it's doesn't ultimately feel like something silly when after all those years you get distracted by the oddness of the way things were and the costumes and showy scenes. Instead it's a realistic story with a very touching, nuanced performance from Rainer.
My Grade: A
There is a number assigned to each letter grade that helps us give a score to each performance. The highest number (and A+) would be 20 points. An F would warrant 0 points (a D gives you 5). So these are the scores for each performance as well as a collective score (which will be used at the end to rank each individual actress).
Luise Rainer received a total of 86 points for her performance in The Great Ziegfeld.
Luise Rainer received a total of 91 points for her performance in The Good Earth.
This is a collective total of 177 points.
As a point of reference, the highest collective score you can attain is 240.
Rainer takes the top spot right now, taking a 7 point lead on Foster (who rests at a collective 170 points), but she didn't receive the highest number of individual points. Both Foster and Field have a higher performance score (99) for one of their works.
So this closes our discussion of Luise Rainer. Next Friday it's all about Jane Fonda! Did you know she had two Oscars? LOL, this should be fun.
Again, a big round of applause for the awesome bloggers sharing this series with me! You guys did some awesome work, as to be expected.