Sunday, October 5, 2014

Women We Love: Norma Shearer

Norma, not Moira

When I was a kid, and ballerina-obsessed on account of "The Red Shoes", the only Shearer I knew was the star of that 1948 film, Moira Shearer. A gorgeous, delicate redhead, Moira was originally a ballerina with Sadler Wells and was no doubt responsible for millions of little girls begging their mothers for ballet lessons. I was one of them, but the request fell on deaf ears. Possibly because my mother could see my two left feet; most likely because lessons didn't fit the budget.

Moira, not Norma
Checking out Norma

At the library I would repeatedly check out a picture book of old Hollywood stars. Norma Shearer was among them, but I thought she might have been Moira's mother. It wasn't until advanced adulthood and the birth of Turner Classic Movies that I got to see Norma in the flesh, so to speak, on celluloid. My first exposure was the fabulous "The Women". The story pretty much revolves around her, though she is surrounded by a glorious gaggle of co-stars acting their hearts out. Not to forget gowns by Adrian— in color— as the finale of this b&w movie. Since then, I perk up at the mention of "Norma Shearer" and try to catch her films when they appear on TCM.

Norma Shearer's appeal is her grown-up-girl-next-door good looks. She's wholesome but not saccharine with a twinkle that lets you know she'll try anything. She was the girly-girl women would love for a friend and men would just love. She was not a comedienne or tragedienne but injected a lot of life into dramatic parts. Norma was one of very few who transitioned from silents to talkies. The charm she gave her role in "The Divorcee" (1930), portraying a "good-girl-gone-bad", earned her an Academy Award and more sophisticated parts.

Conrad Nagel as mesmerized by the divorcee Norma

It didn't hurt that she was Mrs. Irving Thalberg. He was the charismatic head of production at MGM studios. You may recognize the name from the Irving Thalberg award presented at the Academy Awards for exceptionally high standards in film making. Norma and Irving skirted around a romantic relationship for years before going public and marrying in 1927. His untimely death in 1936 is part of Hollywood history.

Mrs. and Mr. Thalberg

As for Norma, she always worked hard to overcome supposed physical limitations ranging from "bad legs" to a "cast eye" (me, I see none of that). Some of her later films were not great choices. "Marie Antoinette" had her wearing a silly blonde wig and "Her Cardboard Lover" in 1942 was her last film. She did know what camera angles worked best, and she felt she knew when it was time to leave the spotlight.

Following her retirement she married a 12-years-younger man and "withdrew from the Glamour side of Hollywood, preferring anonymity". Janet Leigh credited Norma Shearer for mentoring her during her early days in Hollywood as well as helping many other aspiring actors. But quietly. She died in 1983 at age 80.

Heard but not seen, 1951

Hollywood, where there are "more stars than there are in the heavens"*. And more than you may know. Norma Shearer is worth discovering.

*According to Louis B. Mayer of MGM


  1. I adore Norma Shearer and carry a copy of a picture of her in my wallet! It's the one where she's wearing a big black hat with a white flower and all her trademark diamond bracelets. She wore the bracelets in the film The Women in the brunch scene at her house. She was my grandfather's favorite actress. I loved that one of her eyes crossed a bit. She was real.

    1. I'm trying to catch up on all her movies as they appear on tv. She was luminous!