Actress Luise Rainer, first back-to-back Oscar winner, dies at 104

AP file photoIn this July 29

AP file photoIn this July 29

Luise Rainer, a star of cinema's golden era who won back-to-back Oscars but then walked away from a glittering Hollywood career, has died. She was 104.

Rainer, whose roles ranged from the 1930s German stage to TV's “The Love Boat,” died Tuesday at her home in London from pneumonia, said her only daughter, Francesca Knittel-Bowyer.

“She was bigger than life and can charm the birds out of the trees,” Knittel-Bowyer said. “If you saw her, you'd never forget her.”

Rainer gained Hollywood immortality by becoming the first person to win acting Oscars in consecutive years, taking best actress prizes for the 1936 film “The Great Ziegfeld” and “The Good Earth” in 1937. Only four other actors have won back-to-back Oscars: Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Jason Robards and Tom Hanks.

The two trophies marked the peak of Rainer's career, which declined so rapidly that many considered her an early victim of “the curse of the Oscars.” She fought with her studio over control of her career, fled Hollywood and suffered through a brief, unhappy marriage to playwright Clifford Odets.

Years later, Rainer recalled how she had just had a fight with Odets when she got word that she had won her second Oscar. In those days, winners were announced hours before the ceremony began.

“I hadn't even dreamed of getting another Academy Award, and there I was unhappy in my private life and miserable,” she told The Associated Press in 1999. “I remember Odets drove me three times around the Biltmore, where the Oscars were given out, because I was so full of tears.”

Rainer she spent most of her later life in England, with occasional film and TV appearances.

Rainer was born Jan. 12, 1910, in Austria, according to the reference book “Who's Who,” although some sources give her birthplace as Duesseldorf, Germany. After her divorce from Odets, she married publisher Robert Knittel, who died in 1989. She's survived by her daughter and two granddaughters.

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