Saturday, February 18, 2006


Alright, who was she sleeping with?

By Edward Copeland
Last night, I finally caught up with 1937's The Good Earth. Setting aside the fact that it is an overlong bore and is more evidence of old Hollywood's tendency to have non-Asian actors play Asians, I am more befuddled than ever by the fact that Luise Rainer is a two-time Oscar winner.

Few multiple Oscar winners have perfect records, i.e. they won each time they were nominated. Vivien Leigh deservingly did it. Hilary Swank has now joined their ranks. Helen Hayes also pulled off the same trick. (Any others escape me at the moment, but I'm sure Josh R will chime in if I've missed somebody). To see that Rainer is in this rarefied company for what was essentially a supporting role in The Great Ziegfeld and her less-than-stellar work in The Good Earth is bizarre — especially since she managed the feat in two straight years.

In 1936, her only competitor I haven't seen is Gladys George in Valiant Is the Word for Carrie, so I can't stack Rainer up against her — but look at the rest of the field she beat.

Irene Dunne in one of her very best performances in Theodora Goes Wild — and Dunne never won an Oscar.

The sublime Carole Lombard in the classic My Man Godfrey.

Norma Shearer in Romeo and Juliet. (OK — Shearer was way too old to be Juliet and I've always been lukewarm on her in general, but she's a damn sight better than Rainer).

Then, in 1937 the field she beat is even more stunning.

Dunne loses to her again, this time for The Awful Truth. (I guess this makes her the 1930s's Annette Bening to Rainer's Hilary Swank)

Greta Garbo coughs up one of her most famous performances in Camille. She never won an Oscar either.

Janet Gaynor excels in A Star Is Born, which is still my favorite version of the story. Gaynor at least already had an Oscar for best actress (the first one as a matter of fact).

The amazing Barbara Stanwyck — another Oscar shutout — in Stella Dallas. Though the movie is way too melodramatic and it's not among my favorite Stanwyck performances, it still was a helluva lot better than Rainer's Chinese peasant.

Oscar is and has always been a mysterious wench.

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I'm chiming in.

Sally Field went two for two with her twin Best Actress wins for Norma Rae and Places in the Heart.

Jason Robards was two for two with his back-to-back wins for All the President's Men and Julia, but would later see his batting average drop with a loss for Melvin and Howard.

Walter Brennan did him one better by converting on all of his first three nominations, for Come and Get It, Kentucky and The Westerner. The Academy broke his unblemished streak the following year, when his bid for a fourth Best Supporting Actor win for Sergeant York came up short.
I knew I forgot someone. It was Sally. I discounted the others since they did have non-winning nominations.
Getting back to Rainer:

The award for The Good Earth is definitely a little more reasonable than the one for The Great Ziegfeld, since, as you observe, the latter can hardly be called a lead. I thought Rainer managed alright in the Pearl S. Buck adaptation, but you could hardly call the performance memorable - mainly due to the fact that the role of O-Lan doesn't allow for much range of expression beyond the dazed look of a martyr -she suffers nobly and quietly from start to finish. But she's serviceably meek and downtrodden, and consequently more believable than she was in The Great Ziegfeld. I don't think anyone could really buy into the assertion that her Anna Held was ever fascinating, exotic or enchanting enough to become the toast of the New York musical stage. Maybe if Dietrich had played the part...

Spare a thought not only for the losing nominees in 1936 and 37, but also for some of the great lead performances that were passed over so that Rainer could make the Oscar cut:

In 1936, there was Jean Arthur in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Paulette Goddard in Modern Times and Jean Harlow in Libeled Lady.

In 1937, there's Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn in Stage Door, Jean Arthur again in Easy Living and Carole Lombard in Nothing Sacred.

Any of them might have easilly taken Rainer's place, and would have made more deserving winners.
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