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Luise Rainer, 1st to win consecutive Oscars, dies at 104

Luise Rainer, the luminous 1930s actress who won two consecutive Oscars but whose Hollywood film career was shattered when she went toe-to-toe with Louis B. Mayer, and lost, has died. She was 104.

Rainer died of pneumonia yesterday at her home in London, her daughter, Francesca Knittel-Bowyer, told The Associated Press.

Rainer's meteoric rise and rapid descent has mystified movie fans for decades. It was almost impossible to believe that -- after winning an Academy Award for her wrenching performance in "The Great Ziegfeld" in 1936, and then following it up with a triumphal turn as O-Lan in "The Good Earth" a year later -- Rainer was not on her way to being one of Hollywood's most enduring film stars.

Yet Rainer, who was only 28 when she won her second Academy Award, felt stifled by the frivolous roles that movie mogul Mayer forced upon her, especially after her Oscars. After one final, bitter confrontation with Mayer in which she said he made the classic studio system threat -- "We made you, and we're going to kill you" -- the German-born actress fled Hollywood as well as her troubled marriage to left-wing playwright Clifford Odets.

After that, as film writer David Thomson put it, Rainer's career crumpled so completely that the two Oscar statuettes she took home "might have been voodoo dolls."

In the ensuing decades, Rainer acted here and there on stage or for TV or in a film -- her last was a character role in Karoly Makk's "The Gambler" (released in Los Angeles in 1999), for which she was widely praised. But she mostly lived a quiet life in Europe married to British publisher Robert Knittel, with whom she had a daughter. Knittel died in 1989.

Rainer returned to Hollywood for the 2003 and 1998 Academy Awards shows honoring previous Oscar winners and in 2010 for the TCM Classic Film Festival. Her beautiful, heart-shaped face was all smiles for the cameras, but her wounds had not healed.

"I hated Hollywood," Rainer said in an interview in 2001. "That's why I turned my back on it." She went on: "When I got two Oscars, they thought, 'Oh, they can throw me into anything.' I was a machine, practically, a tool in a big, big factory, and I could not do anything."

She wanted to be Madame Curie, "but Mayer forbade me." She wanted to be Maria in "For Whom the Bell Tolls," but Ingrid Bergman got the role. She was under contract to MGM and Mayer forced her to do his bidding.

"People talk about the '30s and the '40s as a great time, but it was also the glamour-puss time," she told the Guardian newspaper in 1997. "I was never really that. Louis B. Mayer's motto was, 'Give me a good looker and I'll make her an actress,' which to me was an insult to my profession."

Her oft-repeated account of her last meeting with Mayer is the stuff of Hollywood legend.

"Louis B. sent for me and said, 'I understand that you want to leave us?' I said, 'Yes, Mr. Mayer, my source is dried out,' " she said. "He looked at me and he said, 'What do you need a source for? Don't you have a director?' "

"What could I say? He looked at me for a long time, and then he said, 'You know what?' " -- after which he delivered his you'll-never-work-in-Hollywood-again threat. She managed a dignified reply and left.

Mayer was true to his word.

Rainer was born Jan. 12, 1910, in Düsseldorf, Germany -- that she was Viennese was just another Hollywood fiction created by Mayer, who was Jewish and wanted nothing to do with Hitler's Germany. Her father was a well-to-do businessman and her mother was a pianist.

Only four others have won consecutive Academy Awards for acting: Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Jason Robards and Tom Hanks.

Once Hollywood and her first marriage were over, Rainer moved to New York, then back to Europe. She became involved in trying to get her parents -- her mother was Jewish -- out of harm's way during the war. Her father, who had lived in Texas as a child and became a U.S. citizen, stubbornly refused to leave Hamburg and was for a time imprisoned as an enemy of the Third Reich. He was later released after his daughter went to the U.S. ambassador in France for help.

In 1945, Rainer married Knittel. After Knittel died, she maintained an active life in London, dining with friends, taking long walks, and painting. Despite a full life, however, Rainer came to understand what she had lost by walking away from Hollywood.

In a 1987 interview with The Times' Charles Champlin, Rainer said, "I've always felt guilty about not having continued to work. I should have made 50 more pictures."

Besides her daughter, Rainer is survived by two grandchildren.

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