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Last Updated:  Tuesday, 18 March, 2003, 00:55 GMT
Oscar veteran's golden memories
Luise Rainer in 2003
Luise Rainer won best actress Oscars in 1937 and 38
On day two of BBC News Online's Oscar countdown, 93-year-old actress and double-Oscar winner Luise Rainer talks about her memories of the early Academy Awards.

If proof was needed of how the cult of celebrity exploded in the 20th century, it is the Oscars' transformation from industry event to one of the biggest shows on earth.

This year's extravaganza will be very different from the events attended by the first leading star to win two Oscars, Luise Rainer, who won best actress in 1937 and 1938.

The German-born star picked up her first award at the ninth Academy Award ceremony and, now 93, said the prizes did not have a global appeal then.

"No-one in Europe had never heard of it. I didn't know what it was," she tells a BBC One documentary, 75 Years of the Academy Awards, to be broadcast on Tuesday.

It wasn't yet glamorised the way it is today, you know - it was... different
Luise Rainer
"I didn't know what it was, the Academy Award. It didn't mean anything to me."

Rainer became the first musical actress to win an Oscar after impressing in 1936's The Great Ziegfeld, the Chicago of its day, which was made when she was 26.

Fresh from the European stage, she said she was more concerned with improving as an actress than winning an award she had never heard of.

"I wanted to become not only a great actress, but I wanted to give out the very much that was within me. And that's how it all happened," she said.

"It was not the thing that I strived for because, you see, today Academy Award is - Oh God! the thing everyone longs for."

She said she "wasn't the typical Hollywood beauty" and was never glamorous, but she stood out as the French revue star in The Great Ziegfeld.

One scene in which she was on the telephone with her estranged husband, written by Rainer herself, stood out so much that it was credited with winning her the Oscar.

Luise Rainer with first husband Clifford Odets in 1938
Rainer's second Oscar acceptance was delayed by a row with her husband
A Hollywood phrase about giving an Oscar-winning performance on the telephone is thought to originate from this scene.

Rainer remembered the 1937 ceremony as "not as elaborate as it is now".

"It wasn't yet glamorised the way it is today, you know. It was... different," she said.

Although she won in 1937, she only just arrived in time at the ceremony the following year because she did not even know it was taking place.

The results were announced at 8pm on 10 March 1938, with Rainer named best actress for The Good Earth, but the ceremony started later at 11pm.

But she did not know anything about it until she telephoned her maid on her way back from a function with her husband, playwright Clifford Odets, to pick up any important messages.

"My maid immediately was very, very excited and she said, 'Do you know the newspapers are all calling - are you boycotting the Academy Award?'" Rainer said.

"I didn't even know it was on. And it was that evening. So we raced back in the car."


But when they arrived home to change for the ceremony, the couple found an unexpected obstacle. A huge mattress sent as a present by Odets' father was blocking the door.

"They were trying to hammer it through the front door and they couldn't get through. And I had to get dressed very fast. It was a catastrophe," she said.

It was a great affair, it was extraordinary supposedly - but I didn't realise it then
Luise Rainer on the 1938 Academy Awards
And when they finally left the house, she was left in tears by a row with Odets, meaning they had to drive around the ceremony venue several times so she could regain her composure.

"Finally I went in and just in time to get the Academy Award.

"It was a great affair, it was extraordinary supposedly. But I didn't realise it then."

Rather than helping her career, her double Oscar success meant she was offered poor films that needed a star to give them a boost.

And because she was tied into a contract with MGM, she had no choice in which movies she made.

Luise Rainer in 1976
She came out of retirement for occasional film and TV projects
She grew so frustrated that she famously walked out on the contract, despite being told by studio head Louis B Mayer: "We made you and we can kill you".

The experience gave her "an aversion to films" and the move effectively ended her acting career.

She has been tempted out of retirement for occasional film and TV work, most recently appearing in Michael Gambon in 1997's movie The Gambler.

And she will return to Hollywood for this year's anniversary, even though she finds today's ceremonies "terribly long".

But she does keep up with current films and wants Jack Nicholson to be victorious.

"He's such a terribly nice fellow, do you know - sort of full of life.

"But good films are also unfortunately far and apart."

  • Film 2003's 75 Years of the Academy Awards documentary will be broadcast on Tuesday at 2235 on BBC One (2305 on BBC One Scotland).

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