Edith Norma Shearer (August 10, 1902 – June 12, 1983) was a Canadian actress who was active on film from 1919 through 1942. Shearer often played spunky, sexually liberated ingénues. She appeared in adaptations of Noël Coward, Eugene O’Neill, and William Shakespeare, and was the first five-time Academy Award acting nominee, winning Best Actress for The Divorcee (1930).
Reviewing Shearer’s work, Mick LaSalle called her “the exemplar of sophisticated 1930s womanhood … exploring love and sex with an honesty that would be considered frank by modern standards”. He described her as a feminist pioneer, “the first American film actress to make it chic and acceptable to be single and not a virgin on screen”.
She won a beauty contest at age fourteen. In 1920 her mother, Edith Shearer, took Norma and her sister Athole Shearer (Mrs. Howard Hawks) to New York. Ziegfeld rejected her for his “Follies,” but she got work as an extra in several movies. She spent much money on eye doctor’s services trying to correct her cross-eyed stare caused by a muscle weakness. Irving Thalberg had seen her early acting efforts and, when he joined Louis B. Mayer in 1923, gave her a five year contract. He thought she should retire after their marriage, but she wanted bigger parts. In 1927, she insisted on firing the director Viktor Tourjansky because he was unsure of her cross-eyed stare. Her first talkie was in The Trial of Mary Dugan (1929); four movies later, she won an Oscar in The Divorcee (1930). She intentionally cut down film exposure during the 1930s, relying on major roles in Thalberg’s prestige projects: The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934) and Romeo and Juliet (1936) (her fifth Oscar nomination). Thalberg died of a second heart attack in September, 1936, at age 37. Norma wanted to retire, but MGM more-or-less forced her into a six-picture contract. David O. Selznick offered her the part of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939), but public objection to her cross-eyed stare killed the deal. She starred in The Women (1939), turned down the starring role in Mrs. Miniver (1942), and retired in 1942. Later that year she married Sun Valley ski instructor Martin Arrouge, eleven years younger than she (he waived community property rights). From then on, she shunned the limelight; she was in very poor health the last decade of her life.
Shearer’s fame declined after her retirement in 1942. She was rediscovered in the late 1950s, when her films were sold to television, and in the 1970s, when her films enjoyed theatrical revivals. By the time of her death in 1983, she was best known for her “noble” roles in Marie Antoinette and The Women.
A Shearer revival began in 1988, when Turner Network Television began broadcasting the entire Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film library. In 1994, Turner Classic Movies began showcasing her films, most of which had not been seen since the reconstitution of the Production Code in 1934. Shearer’s work was seen anew, and the critical focus shifted from her “noble” roles to her pre-Code roles.
Even for a pampered star, her output in the sound era is strikingly meager. And yet this was part of her undeniable aura – that she did not make movies lightly and frivolously, but with great care, sincerity and conviction.
Shearer’s work gained more attention in the 1990s through the publication of a series of books. The first was a biography by Gavin Lambert. Next came Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood by Mick LaSalle, film critic at the San Francisco Chronicle. Mark A. Vieira published three books on subjects closely related to Shearer: a biography of her husband, producer Irving Thalberg; and two biographies of photographer George Hurrell. Shearer was noted not only for the control she exercised over her work, but also for her patronage of Hurrell and Adrian, and for discovering actress Janet Leigh and actor-producer Robert Evans.
For her contribution to the motion-picture industry, Shearer has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 6636 Hollywood Boulevard. On June 30, 2008, Canada Post issued a postage stamp in its “Canadians in Hollywood” series to honour Norma Shearer, along with others for Raymond Burr, Marie Dressler, and Chief Dan George.
Shearer and Thalberg are reportedly the models for Stella and Miles, the hosts of the Hollywood party in the short story “Crazy Sunday” (1932) by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Most of Shearer’s MGM films are broadcast on Turner Classic Movies, and many of them are also available on DVD from Warner Home Video. In 2008, she was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame. In 2015, a number of Shearer films became available in high-definition format, authored by Warner Home Video, in most cases, from the nitrate camera negatives: A Free Soul, Romeo and Juliet, Marie Antoinette, and The Women.