Today is a very noteworthy event in film/Oscar history. Luise Rainer, who is the first person to win consecutive Oscars (1936's The Great Ziegfeld and 1937's The Good Earth) celebrates her 100th birthday. That's right: she was born January 12, 1910 and now is the oldest living Oscar winner as of this writing. I discovered this fact tonight, as Turner Classic Movies was running her movies. I knew she was 99, and I wondered one of two things: either she died or she celebrates her centenary. I'm happy for her it's the latter.
I've had my issues with Miss Rainer. I haven't seen her performance in The Good Earth (though the idea of a German playing a Chinese peasant still boggles the imagination) but did see her in The Great Ziegfeld. I thought her performance was "fluttery": very mannered and exaggerated, though I did think she was quite pretty as Anna Held, Florence Ziegfeld's first wife & star of his Follies. Still, this is not the time to go after an old woman who's reached a milestone few people have achieved--and I'm not talking about winning TWO Oscars, and BACK-TO-BACK no less. Only she, Spencer Tracy, Jason Robards, and Tom Hanks (as of today) have won their only Academy Awards in the same way.*
Curiously, she lost out her chance to appear in a genuine masterpiece when she was set to make a cameo in La Dolce Vita but withdrew before shooting her scene (she does appear briefly in a 'making-of' documentary as part of the special features on the DVD).
When she does pass, we will have lost a piece of cinema history. Think of the actors and actresses from the "Golden Age" that are still with us. There aren't that many. You have the feuding sisters Joan Fontaine & Olivia DeHavilland (both in their 90s and still not speaking to each other), Lauren Bacall, Doris Day, Kirk Douglas, Shirley Temple, Elizabeth Taylor. Soon, all will enter history, but will modern audiences still go to their films? They aren't going to Rainer's. In fact, if she's remembered today (outside of her birthday commemoration) it's only BECAUSE she won the two Oscars.
We should remember, she was a big star in her time. Audiences in the 1930s went to films to see Luise Rainer, and it was popular acclaim that had a role in awarding her the Academy Awards she has. Today, alas, her name isn't big on contemporary lips, and I venture to say when she appeared at the Academy Awards as part of the tribute to previous Oscar winners more than one person asked, "Luise WHO?" (very Sunset Boulevard) and/or "She's still ALIVE?" It might be unfair, but I use Miss Rainer as an example to any "star" working today: you may be big, big, big, but you can as quickly be forgotten by the general public. Fame is a by-product of your work, not the end result.
There is another lesson we should take from Luise Rainer. She has now lived for a Century. Think of how many stars and actors she's outlived: James Dean, Natalie Wood, Marilyn Monroe, Heath Ledger. Some of course died of natural causes, but some died amid tumult and chaos. It's not to take away from the talent of any of them, but they would be wise to follow her example of general moderation and of knowing when to say, 'No more, my work is done'.
Still, this is a time for celebration. Rick's Cafe Texan wishes a very Happy Birthday to Luise Rainer and congratulates her on celebrating 100 Years of Life. I hope they have been overall good and happy years and offers all the best for however long she has life.
*Katherine Hepburn also won back-to-back Oscars (1967's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and 1968's The Lion in Winter) but the second one was in a tie with Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl). Miss Hepburn had already won one Oscar before and would win another after. Miss Rainer won outright both times she received the Oscar.