in full Edith Norma Shearer
born August 10, 1900, Montreal,
died June 12, 1983, Woodland Hills, Calif., U.S.
American motion-picture actress
known for her glamour, charm, sophistication, and versatility.
Shearer was dubbed the “First Lady of the Screen” by MGM because
of her marriage to Hollywood producer Irving G. Thalberg.
Shearer, who had been a child
model, won a beauty contest at age 14. After her once-wealthy
family lost everything during World War I, Shearer’s ambitious
mother took Norma and her sister to New York City, hoping that
success in show business would restore the family fortunes.
Despite failing an audition for Florenz Ziegfeld’s
Follies—Ziegfeld said she was too short and had fat legs and a
cast in one eye—Shearer worked as a model and landed a few small
roles in New York-based movies. She was an extra in The Flapper
and D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East in 1920, although Griffith,
like Ziegfeld, saw no future for her as an actress. That same
year, Shearer landed her first feature role in The Stealers,
which caught the attention of talent scout and future MGM vice
president Irving Thalberg, who secured a five-year contract for
Shearer with the studio in 1923. Shearer and Thalberg were
married in 1927, after which Shearer had her pick of films,
parts, costars, and directors, and she used this advantage to
avoid being typecast. Like her husband, Shearer understood the
importance of packaging and publicity and demanded perfection in
every detail of her costumes, makeup, and scenes.
Neither the most beautiful nor
the most talented actress on the MGM lot, Shearer withstood her
share of criticism from those who felt she married into a
career. “A face unclouded by thought,” was playwright Lillian
Hellman’s assessment of Shearer’s screen presence, while the
writer Anita Loos remarked, “It is to Irving’s credit that, by
expert showmanship and a judicious choice of camera angles, he
made a beauty and a star out of Mrs. Thalberg.” Nevertheless,
audiences were charmed by Shearer’s ability to convey a playful
sexuality while maintaining her characteristic poise and
refinement. She was adept at playing dramatic, comic, romantic,
and sometimes daring roles; in one of her most popular films, He
Who Gets Slapped (1924), she played a circus rider opposite Lon
Chaney. She made a smooth transition to talkies in The Trial of
Mary Dugan (1929). In 1931 she starred with Clark Gable in A
Free Soul and played opposite Robert Montgomery in the screen
adaptation of Noël Coward’s Private Lives. She essayed
biographical roles with her portrayals of Elizabeth Barrett in
The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934) and the title role in
Marie Antoinette (1938). At age 36 she played 13-year-old Juliet
opposite Leslie Howard in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1936).
Perhaps her best role was that of the central figure in George
Cukor’s all-woman vehicle, the star-studded The Women (1939).
Although Shearer had a modest
impact as an actress, she received six Academy Award nominations
in the span of her career, winning a best actress Oscar for her
work in The Divorcee (1930) as a wife who seeks revenge on her
unfaithful husband by divorcing him and then courting the
affections of two other men. Produced before 1934, when the
repressive Production Code was enforced, this lacklustre
melodrama is most notable for its frank depiction of sex and
marriage. The leading role, which had been turned down by Greta
Garbo, was about to be offered to Joan Crawford when Shearer
reportedly asked Thalberg for the role.