“She hovered somewhere between the realest of realities and the most blatant of impersonations.”
During her marriage to MGM head of production Irving Thalberg in the early 1930s, Norma Shearer was known as the Queen of the MGM lot, but she fell into some obscurity after retiring in 1942; always conscious of her looks, she rarely appeared in public after she reached the age of 40. In recent years, Shearer has become the object of a small but very devoted cult following which views her as a sort of stylish underdog, and she remains a lightning rod of critical controversy. Shearer is and was violently loathed by many film writers. Pauline Kael declared her acting “dreadful.” David Thomson called her “fluttery, chilly and more nearly vacant than any other goddess.” Even her co-stars were a little bewildered by her eminence; before they filmed Marie Antoinette (1938), Robert Morley cluelessly asked her, “How did you become a movie star?” Shearer wasn’t insulted, but tickled. “Because I wanted to!” she exclaimed.
That reaction to Morley’s question displays the delight of her self-determination, and it explains both her stardom and her problematic place in the movie star firmament. In the early nineties, Gavin Lambert’s eloquent biography of Shearer began a more positive reassessment of her work, as did the excavation of her sexy Pre-Code dramas, like The Divorcee (1930), which won her an Oscar, and A Free Soul (1931). Still, there are many inclined to snicker at Shearer. James Wolcott recently cracked that she “often did suggest a noble brand of coconut milk,” and the critic Michael Atkinson damningly grouped Shearer with Paul Muni as an example of the most outdated thirties acting. I cringed when I read Atkinson’s fairly accurate dismissal, for I’ve been secretly fond of Shearer for years. Perhaps the writer David Noh put it best when he called her his “guilty pleasure goddess.” To start to put such persistent derision into perspective, I thought it was time to go point by point through Shearer’s available filmography and find out just what all the fuss is about.
Shearer was born in Canada in 1902, and she was blessed with a flamboyant, helpful mother and cursed with a mad sister, Athole, who later married Howard Hawks. From an early age, Shearer was calculating just what it would take to make a career for herself as an actress, and she had a lot of physical problems to overcome: heavy legs, a lumpy figure, and eyes so small and blue that they barely registered at all in front of a black and white camera. Her biggest problem, though, was a cast in her left eye, and it was this serious drawback that made for consistent rejection in her early years; everyone from D. W. Griffith to Florenz Ziegfeld told her she would never make it. Hurt but undaunted, Shearer went to an eye specialist, Dr. William Bates, who gave her some eye-strengthening exercises. Gradually, she learned to focus her gaze on one thing at a time in order to keep her eyes under control, though they would sometimes go out of whack if she didn’t have time to re-focus them.
In her first film, the Olive Thomas vehicle The Flapper (1920), Shearer and her sister Athole, who looks a lot like her, are basically extras in group scenes at a school. We first see these schoolgirls sitting like bumps on a log, but one of them is gesticulating, “reacting,” and wildly signaling, “Look at me! Look at me!” This gesticulator is Shearer, of course, and The Flapper served as a first glimpse of her charisma, her ability to command the camera. “She made herself beautiful,” said an early childhood friend, and it’s true: she could obliterate her physical shortcomings with careful movements and angular postures, and she knew when to flash her best asset, a classically molded left profile.
Since her eyes were such a problem, Shearer learned to act with her whole body, but this led to other problems, unfortunately. Lambert reports that Shearer was enthralled by the theater actresses she saw in the early twenties, and surely some of her bad habits stem from that exposure to old-fashioned gestural acting on stage. In A Clouded Name (1923), Shearer’s emotional reactions are utterly mechanical, as if she’s thinking, “Now I raise my hands to my forehead to show my distress.” In this, and in many of her later films, Shearer is “indicating” emotions, and her style was forever marked by the crude pantomime favored in her early, independent silent films.
A full picture of Shearer’s extensive work in the silent era is hard to sketch because there are so few of her silent movies readily available for viewing, but the handful that are in circulation emphasize both her strengths and weaknesses. In her first big MGM film, Victor Seastrom’s ultra-masochistic He Who Gets Slapped (1924), Shearer is nearly radioactive with star power as a circus horseback rider, entering a room with unforced joie de vie and a tilted head, as if to say, “Ta da! Here I am! Look at me!” She’s slightly cross-eyed in her love scenes with John Gilbert, but it’s a charming defect, like Kay Francis’ lisp. Shearer always expresses an exhibitionist’s joy at being looked at, but she’s also enough of an actress to nail the light cruelty of the moment when she playfully slaps away Lon Chaney’s love for her. Shearer was at her best in frankly unsympathetic moments like this, and at her worst when she was being synthetically noble.
She made six silent films with Monta Bell, who was smitten with her, but she had already set her sights on Irving Thalberg, who used her only as an available date (she called herself “Irving’s spare tire” for a while). In the best of the Bell films, Lady of the Night (1925), Shearer does surprisingly small, detailed character work in a challenging dual role as rich girl/poor girl. When Bell fades out from genteel Norma to street-tough Norma, it really does seem like two different girls, and the film is the first one to showcase her range, which was never as wide as she and Thalberg would have liked to believe, but which wasn’t puny, either. Lady of the Night is most interesting today, however, because it marked one of the first film appearances of Shearer’s MGM rival and nemesis, Joan Crawford, who doubled for her in over-the-shoulder shots when both Shearer characters were on screen.
There’s a riveting moment at the end of Lady of the Night when the two Shearer characters embrace in the back of a car: for a split second, we see Crawford sitting there as Shearer puts her arms around her. (In all honesty, Crawford has more naked need and screen presence in that one split second than Shearer has in the whole movie.) When Shearer married Thalberg, Crawford had extra fuel for the resentment that made her career, and she spewed many bitchy comments about Shearer for the rest of her life. What Shearer thought of Crawford is unknown, but I would guess she thought of her as little as possible. Still, these two need each other, on screen and off; one would be incomplete without the other to work against.
Shearer had to wait a long time to marry Thalberg, and Lambert makes it clear that it was a marriage based on careful thought and calculation on both sides rather than passion. Thalberg proposed to her after she had finished Ernst Lubitsch’s The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927), a sort of double reward after she had endured his doubts and a lot of run-of-the-mill programmers. She has her good moments in the Lubitsch film, especially in her first scenes, where she does seem like a sturdy German barmaid; she’s obviously doing exactly what Lubitsch told her to do, down to every last measured movement and smile. But Shearer’s bad habits creep in toward the end: hands to the forehead to show agitation, rapid head snaps to show resolve, and a silly, scrunched up face to indicate her sorrow in the last scene. It’s hard to tell now if anyone around at the time, either critics or directors or the film-going public, would see these elaborate mannerisms as empty poses, but there’s enough notice of how “forced” and “laborious” she could be in the reviews of the day to give us some honest reactions to what look like painful shortcomings now.
Shearer entered talkies with three things in her favor: she was married to Thalberg, her brother Douglas was in charge of sound at MGM, and she had an extremely expressive voice, a voice that could break charmingly at the top of its range or seize up in rough-sounding anger. She made a hit in a creaky stage adaptation of a courtroom melodrama, The Trial of Mary Dugan (1929), then tried high comedy with The Last of Mrs. Cheney (1929), in a role played on stage by Ina Claire. You have only to imagine Claire or a similar technician in the role to see that Shearer is hopelessly out of her depth; she seems uncertain and uncomfortable, as if she doesn’t know what she’s doing. The comedy doesn’t come off, and her “I’m sad — no — I must recover!” pantomime midway through the film is classically inept. Shearer seems to get the hang of the material in the last scene, but by that point Mrs. Cheney has become an exhausting curio. In The Hollywood Revue of 1929, Shearer appears in color for the first and only time, doing Romeo and Juliet and then a modern take-off with John Gilbert. He’s bad in their sketch, but she’s vocally precise, at least; in between their attempts at Shakespeare, Gilbert kids her about “Irving,” the unseen but ever-present hand directing her career.
In the first scenes of Their Own Desire (1930), Shearer seems to be thinking, “Smile! Smile! Smile! Joy of living! Whoopie!” as she goes about her modern playgirl role; she’s acquired one of her more annoying mannerisms, a squeaking laugh that erupts continually between and even during lines. (Shearer does an awful lot of laughing in her early talkies, but almost none of it sounds natural.) Her bad-acting disease always begins at her shoulders and moves all the way down her arms to her hands, which she keeps extending out into tense, “oh no!” claws, as Lillian Gish sometimes did in her lesser silent films; indicating “I’m upset,” she goes into fake little spasms that affect her head as well as her arms. Spotting these Shearer-isms might make a good drinking game: you could do a shot every time she overdoes it, and if you did that, you’d get blind drunk during Their Own Desire. Her eyes are in alignment for most of the film, but in one of the last scenes, during a long close-up where she’s supposed to have momentarily lost her mind, Shearer’s eyes slowly start to stare directly at her nose for a full Karen Black effect; the film was obviously a rush job, and she never let herself appear as cross-eyed as that again on screen.
Shearer begins her Oscar winner, The Divorcee (right), in a cuddly, tactile mode; the story goes that Thalberg didn’t think she could play the loose woman title role, so she went to George Hurrell and posed for an impressive series of hot mama stills, then delivered them to her surprised husband. His weak heart meant that her sexual energy had to go directly into her work, which explains the hyper, hectic quality she has in her series of Pre-Code adultery films. There are some Shearer-isms on display on The Divorcee: when she smashes a glass before going out for the evening, she does a head toss that any drag queen might envy, but this is an expert star performance.
Shearer is especially good in the silent scenes when she makes up her mind to sleep with Robert Montgomery’s playboy in retaliation for her husband’s infidelity; her look of expectant pleasure when she’s riding home with him in a cab is almost shocking in its candor and decadent accuracy. Sometimes Shearer is consciously campy in The Divorcee, as in her exaggerated hand flap after an admirer gives her an unexpected kiss on the dance floor, and she’s impressive when she tells off her husband in her low, “thrilling” voice: “From now on, you’re the only man my door is closed to!” You can always tell how far down the primrose path Shearer has traveled in these movies by the state of her coiffure; the more men she sleeps with, the frizzier it gets.
The Oscar for The Divorcee was overly generous, as Oscars usually are, but it must have given Shearer a boost of confidence. Pregnant with her first child, she squeezed in one more movie, Let Us Be Gay (1930), and suddenly she is in total control of her effects and even pulls off the high comedy acting that she couldn’t style just the year before in Mrs. Cheney. She begins the film as a frump, wearing hair papers, dumpy robes, glasses and almost no make-up; to her credit, Shearer is completely dowdy in these first scenes, not “dowdy” as other actresses would have been. When her husband betrays her and she gets upset, Shearer finally touches real, messy emotion, without any poses or mechanical hand gestures, and she deploys one of her best vocal assets, an upsetting sort of weeping noise that comes out in a choked decrescendo of sound. After this betrayal, she reemerges as a stylish woman who crows about how much she enjoys sex without strings, and only gives in to convention, unconvincingly, in the last ten seconds of the film.
After the birth of Irving Thalberg Jr., Shearer returned in another sex vehicle, Strangers May Kiss (1931). She’s at her most mannered in Strangers, “laughing” constantly, putting her pointed finger to her chin for a “cute” effect, but she was much improved in the first hour of A Free Soul (1931), her most uninhibited portrayal of hungry sexuality. Dressed in clinging white satin, Shearer toys with her fiancée, Leslie Howard, playing a polo player named Dwight Winthrop (!), but she’s primally stirred by Clark Gable’s gangster, Ace Wilfong (!!), who runs a gambling house and indulges in a bit of “white slavery” on the side. You can see why A Free Soul was the movie that made Gable a star, and the sexual current that flows between him and Shearer is still potently suggestive.
As a twelve year-old, I vividly remember seeing A Free Soul on Ted Turner’s TNT channel and being impressed, for the first time, with the idea of sex for its own sake, which Shearer expresses with total abandon, lounging around Wilfong’s passion pit apartment in a half-open robe, sinking back on pillows and commanding, “C’mon . . . put ’em around me,” to beckon her dangerous lover. There’s a class basis to the hot tensions in A Free Soul, a sense that a well-bred upper-class girl is dying to experience the rougher, more animalistic side of sex. Gable shoves her down on a couch when she starts to high-hat him, growling, “Sit down and take it and like it!”
The daring thing about A Free Soul is that it presents a life of nothing but constant, mean sex as an option, and it’s the thought of that option that gives the film its unusual charge, even when Shearer-isms begin to rear their ever-tilted head in the last half hour, including a not-to-be-believed “astonished” reaction, complete with popping eyes and hand to mouth, when she finds her father (Lionel Barrymore) stone drunk on the ground; it’s as if Shearer is waiting for a silent film title to come on, so she keeps holding and holding and holding this completely ridiculous face. When her hands go to her head here, they become fists, which lets us know that there are actually gradations to her bad-acting spasms.
From this uneven sex drama, Shearer moved to Private Lives (1931) the first of her “great lady of the stage” vehicles, all derived from successful plays and chosen by culture-conscious Thalberg to display his wife’s skill. She became increasingly trapped by these stage-to-screeners, but the heartless cocktail mix of this screen Private Lives holds up remarkably well: it’s probably Shearer’s finest, most well-rounded performance, and it’s the only film that you can show to the uninitiated without fear of the dread Shearer-isms. She comes close to those habitual barren poses in some silent reactions before her terrace repartee with Robert Montgomery, but for once, she isn’t indicating; what she’s doing is a little broad, but there is real emotion under it.
As Amanda, Shearer is sexy, worldly and believably difficult, and she plays with a high-strung verve that does full justice to Noel Coward’s great play. Her particular triumph here is the long fight scene with Montgomery, where she flings herself into physical brawling with terrifically petty intensity, coming to a climax with a long, possessed scream, followed by another, smaller scream of total, childlike frustration when she can’t get a door open. Thalberg had recorded a performance of the play with Coward and Gertrude Lawrence for Shearer to watch, and that may account for some of the sophisticated, controlled energy of her performance.
After Coward’s classic, Thalberg placed Shearer in Eugene O’Neill’s mammoth, Freudian Strange Interlude (1932), cutting its five-hour running time down to two hours. Again, Shearer seems inspired by such first-rate material, and she has precisely the right slightly disturbed sexuality for the role of the neurotic Nina Leeds; she fashions an elegant sort of wantonness, and even some perverse humor, as Nina dominates the men in her life from youth to old age. Shearer clicked with the ruthlessness of Coward’s Amanda, and she clicks decisively in Strange Interlude with Nina’s mordant perversity.
On stage, O’Neill had his characters directly address the audience with their secret thoughts. For the film, Thalberg switches this to persistent, stream-of-consciousness voice-overs, which would seem like a perilous invitation to pose and indicate, but Shearer totally invests herself in the role emotionally, maybe because she was stung by its specter of inherited mental illness, which ran in her own family. At her wit’s end with an annoying husband who doesn’t know he isn’t the father of their child, Shearer is fantastically scathing when she cries, “Oh heaven grant that I may someday tell this fool the truth!”
Unfortunately, just when Shearer seemed to have bridged the chasm between her iffy acting talent and her fetching “here-I-am-in-my-lingerie” exhibitionism, Thalberg stuffed her into two period films that are close to unwatchable for a modern audience, the faded antique Smilin’ Through (1932) and the lamentable The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934). They were hit movies at the time, but there’s nothing to stimulate Shearer in either of them, and the exciting, slightly weird, emotionally unguarded performer revealed in Private Lives and Strange Interlude is reduced to placid, dull passivity. She’s so totally bored by Barretts that she even lets her eyes cross several times while sitting patiently on her couch and pretending to write poetry; her face is a blank, even when her small blue eyes glisten with tears.
Shearer at least looks better in Thalberg’s misguided production of Romeo and Juliet (1936), but she seems concerned with projecting a youthful appearance above all else. The play gets smothered, and Shearer’s extremely tentative approximation of girlish lyricism just doesn’t cut it; we have only to imagine Katharine Hepburn and Laurence Olivier in the roles to see how merely adequate and sometimes less than that Shearer and Leslie Howard are as the star-crossed lovers. She’s too placid again, in a role that begs for abandon, though she does sneak in a humdinger of a Shearer-ism in her bug-eyed finish to the potion speech. In her last scene, she plays the dagger suicide as a sort of orgasm, a bold choice, but too little, too late. After the premiere, Crawford snarled, “I couldn’t wait for those two old turkeys to die!”
Thalberg died shortly after Romeo and Juliet, and it was clear that Shearer would be helpless without his protection. Perhaps that’s why she woke up so decisively for Marie Antoinette (1938), the climax of her career, and the ultimate Norma Shearer movie; it’s less about the heedless French queen than it is about the embattled Queen of the Lot on her way to the guillotine of retirement. Yes, she overdoes her “I’m vivacious!” stuff in her first scenes as a girl, indicating excitement with widened eyes and her eternal hand to the mouth; when she first approaches the French throne and jerks her head to the left, it’s reasonable to expect and fear a sort of bad Shearer-ism cavalcade.
But Shearer improves when she starts her scenes with Robert Morley’s slow-witted soon-to-be-king, and her flowery hand gestures feel right, finally, in this movie: you would move that way in a royal court. Her various affectations suit the role, and she works overtime to live up to the massive scale of the production, directed with rousing pace and skill by W. S. Van Dyke (Shearer rarely had good directors, and mainly worked for company hacks like Robert Z. Leonard and Sidney Franklin). Marie is much closer to Amanda and Nina than her boring Elizabeth Barrett and staid Juliet, and Shearer clearly believes in this film as a metaphor for both her life and career, with Madame du Barry (Gladys George) as the Joan Crawford figure. There’s a lighthearted “merry widow” abandon to her scenes of partying and whooping it up, and Shearer looks spectacular in the white wigs and huge, beaded dresses; she wills herself to be gorgeous and keeps her eyes firmly focused at all times. The French Revolution in Marie Antoinette really represents the death of Thalberg, the overthrow of the old order at MGM, and even the criticism of Shearer as an actress that persists to the present day.
Toward the end of Marie Antoinette, Shearer succumbs to a few head jerks to indicate unrest, and she also indulges, alas, in what has to be the very worst recorded Shearer-ism. Reacting to the bloody mob murder of a trusted servant, Shearer widens her eyes to popping point, lets out a fake scream, throws her hands up into claws and actually shakes them to show us her grief. This is a piece of acting so incredibly bad that it almost derails the entire movie, yet in her last scenes in prison, Shearer rises to the occasion, falling limply to the floor when Morley is executed, then fighting like a lioness for her children. After these trials, as Marie awaits her death, Shearer allows herself to look old and wasted; harshly lit, her Marie seems like a hollow shell of a human being, only her blue eyes left to scream out the pain that she’s in. In these concluding moments, we even have Norma Shearer at the end of her life, her hair white, her mind gone, waiting for death in the Motion Picture Country Home, asking any male visitors, “Are you Irving? Were we married?”
Shearer’s whole life is in Marie Antoinette, and it’s the film that meant the most to her. It contains some of her fakest acting, but it also contains the best acting she ever did. In the last sequence, her Marie is being driven to the guillotine. Her hands are tied, and she sits stiffly upright; all the elaborate dresses and white wigs are gone, and she looks like a ruined scrubwoman in a plain dress and simple bonnet. In close-up, Shearer’s Marie is lost in thought, readying herself for the blade, and her eyes look rueful, even ironic, as if she understands the final absurdity of her situation. Stepping up to the guillotine, she remembers her first joy at the prospect of being Queen of France, and surely Shearer is recalling the palmy days of her Queen of the Lot status as Mrs. Thalberg. A classic Shearer-ism from one of her first “youthful” scenes is actually superimposed over the desperate, almost happy, pleading eyes of queen Marie/Norma awaiting her death, and surely this is the film’s masterstroke: we have bad-actress Norma for Kael and all her other detractors, literally in the same frame with a Shearer who so identifies with her role that she’s ravaged by complex, deep emotions. It’s a haunting and hilarious dual image; call me sentimental, but it made me laugh, and then tear up in rapid succession. That’s the Norma Shearer experience, and conundrum, in a nutshell. When F. Scott Fitzgerald made Shearer a character in his short story “Crazy Sunday,” he has her say, “I never get anybody’s unqualified devotion,” and that hits the nail on the head, too.
Marie Antoinette was her apex, and the few films she made after it are a rather melancholy tying up of loose ends. In them, she played a phony, a placid wife of a man we never see, a placid widow, a broke princess, and finally a desperate lady with a perfectly unlikely name, Consuelo Croyden, in Her Cardboard Lover (1942), her last film. Shearer is pretty awful in Idiot’s Delight (1939), a confused, pointless version of an acclaimed Robert Sherwood play. Playing a fake Russian in a blond wig, she’s lost any comic timing she once had and is very heavy-handed with the part; the jokes land thud, thud, thud on the screen. In The Women (1939), her best-known film, Shearer is already a back number, out of her time, and her Mary Haines is a tired-looking woman; her eyes don’t cross here, but her right eyelid droops distressingly. Amid the campy put-downs of the movie, Shearer is only Sincere, even if she treats us to some classic Shearer-isms: a diva head snap when she cries, “It’s wrong! Shockingly wrong!” and an appalling bad-Norma finish, where she reunites with her off-screen man by giving us her full frontal “hands up, arms out, head tilt” pose.
In Escape (1940), Conrad Veidt tells Shearer that she “looks like a ghost,” and it’s true; it’s as if she’s waiting to fade away, or dissolve. Off screen, she was lucky in finding a devoted second husband, Marti Arrougé, who didn’t even mind when she took to calling him “Irving.” Shearer might have been adrift without Thalberg’s guidance for movies, but she was tough enough to play hardball to retain her MGM stock, which meant that she was well off for the rest of her life. That money from the company allowed Shearer to live in a sort of Mrs. Thalberg time warp for decades, until the inroads of old age and her inherited mental illness robbed her of her looks, her sight, and her mind. Whatever her limitations, and Lord knows they were extensive, Shearer remains a singularly fascinating case of star authority and special privileges overriding all reasonable objections.