Childhood & Early Life
Norma Shearer was born on August 10, 1902 at Montreal, Quebec, Canada to Andrew Shearer and Edith Fisher Shearer. Her father owned a construction business.
The future of young Shearer was sealed when she saw a vaudeville show on her ninth birthday. She was so impressed and enthralled by the show that she decided to become an actor. Ferociously ambitious, she aimed to curb all her physical deficiencies (dumpy figure, sturdy legs, blunt hands and broad shoulders) to become a star.
Though Shearer hailed from a well-to-do family, the sudden collapse of her father’s business in 1918 forced the Shearers to move into a dingy space in Montreal. The situation worsened as her mother separated and took young Norma and her sister to New York.
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In New York, Shearer carried the letter of recommendation that she had acquired from a local theatre owner in Montreal to Florenz Ziegfeld. As expected, the meeting was a disaster as Ziegfeld turned out Shearer almost immediately and even ridiculed her physical appearance.
Unabated by the failed meeting with Ziegfeld, Shearer showed herself at every production house and every audition. Luck came her way when she was selected as one of the extras for Universal Pictures. What followed was a series of roles, all as extras, for several films including ‘Way Down East’ by Griffith. It was while shooting for ‘Way Down East’ that Shearer introduced herself to Griffith. This meeting too was a let-down as Griffith shoved her off as ‘no good’.
Undeterred by the rejection from Ziegfeld and Griffith, Shearer continued working as an extra. From the money she received, she saved enough to treat the incorrect alignment of her eyes and defective vision. For years, she practiced muscle-strengthening exercises that helped conceal her physical flaws.
When acting as extras did not support her financially, Shearer turned to modelling. She took up modelling projects for quite a number of products, right from laundry soap to dental paste. She served as the face for Kelly-Springfield Tires even.
It was in 1921 that Shearer received her beak in movies with a B-grade film, ‘The Stealers’. Post that, in 1923, she received an offer from Louis B. Mayer Pictures, a studio in Los Angeles for an audition for a lead role in the film called ‘The Wanters’. Upon receiving the offer, she left for Los Angeles.
The first screen test of Shearer turned out to be a major disappointment. She looked hideous on screen. A second test was conducted under cameraman Ernest Palmer. Though the test was a success and got her the lead role, she was turned down by the film’s director at the time of shooting who labelled her as ‘un-photogenic’.
Following her disappointment, Shearer turned to minor roles. A meeting with Mayer while shooting ‘Pleasure Mad’ got it all going for Shearer later in her career. He ridiculed her to the point that she became obstinate to display her inherent talent for acting. What resulted next was excellence in front of camera that clinched her six more films in eight months.
In 1924, Louis B. Mayer Pictures was merged with Metro Pictures and the Samuel Goldwyn Company to form Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Shearer starred in the first film of the studio ‘He Who Gets Slapped’. The film was a major success and established both the studio and Shearer.
By 1925, Shearer became a famous actor. She was the latest attraction of MGM productions and became a bona fide star. She had several films in her kitty. Unlike her struggling years when she fought for fame, the current challenge for Shearer was to retain her star status. She worked hard to remain among the best of best.
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While her career steadily scaled upwards, Shearer fell intimately in love with her boss, Irving Thalberg who though showed steely presence publically, privately awed Shearer. The two did not unveil their feelings until 1927.
By 1927, Shearer made a total of 13 silent films with MGM. Each of them was a major hit. The success earned her a role in Ernst Lubitsch’s ‘The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg’
In October 1927, ‘The Jazz Singer’ was released. It was the first feature length motion picture with sound. The film dramatically changed the cinematic landscape and brought an end to the era of silent pictures. Interestingly, unlike several actors whose careers ended with sound, Shearer stood firm and steady. In fact, she prepared herself for the microphone way ahead as it was her brother Douglas Shearer who played an instrumental role in the development of sound in MGM.
In 1929, Shearer came out with her first talkie, ‘The Trial of Mary Dugan’. The film as a tremendous hit both commercially and critically and established a strong foothold of Shearer in early talkies. The same year, she came up with two more projects, ‘The Last of Mrs Cheyney’ and ‘Their Own Desire’.
Tired of her ‘good girl’ image, Shearer revamped her look for a photo shoot portraying her sexy side to camera. The shoot earned her a lead role in MGM's racy new film, ‘The Divorcee’ in 1930. Her brilliant portrayal of the character got her an Academy Award in the category of Best Actress.
Following her super successful stint in ‘The Divorcee’, Shearer was featured in a series of highly successful pre-Code films, including ‘Let Us Be Gay’, ‘Strangers May Kiss’, ‘A Free Soul’ and‘Private Lives’. All the films were major box office blockbusters and made her amongst the top-rated actresses of MGM.
In 1934, when Production Code was enforced, Shearer restrained herself to period dramas and prestige films. The same year, she starred in the super successful ‘The Barretts of Wimpole Street’. The film was a major hit and was followed by ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Marie Antoinette’.
In 1939, Shearer played an unusual role in the dark comedy ‘Idiot's Delight’. The movie was an adaptation from the 1936 Robert E. Sherwood play. The following year, she starred in the suspense thriller ‘Escape’ wherein she capped the role of the lover of a Nazi general who helps an American free his mother from a concentration camp.
Towards the end of her career, Shearer starred in average films like ‘We Were Dancing’ and ‘Her Cardboard Lover’. In 1942, she unofficially retired from acting.
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Personal Life & Legacy
Shearer was introduced to her boss Irving Thalberg while working for MGM studios. Though there was a huge age difference between the two, both of them grew very close and officially declared themselves as a couple on September 29, 1927. They were blessed with two children, Irving Junior and Katherine. Thalberg died an unexpected death in 1936.
Following Thalberg's death in 1936, Shearer engaged herself in a brief affair with young actor James Stewart ad later with George Raft. Though Raft wanted to marry Shearer, his wife's refusal to allow a divorce and the disapproval of MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer caused Shearer to end the affair.
Post retirement, Shearer married Martin Arrougé, a former ski instructor. He was ten years her junior. They remained married until her death.
Towards the end of the decade of 1950s, Shearer withdrew herself from the Hollywood social scene completely. She breathed her last on June 12, 1983, of bronchial pneumonia at the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills, California. She was entombed in the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California, along with her first husband, Irving Thalberg.
To commemorate her contribution to cinema, Canada Post issued a postage stamp series, Canadians in Hollywood, in 2008 that honoured several Canadian actors including Norma Shearer.
In 2008, she was inducted into Canada's Walk of Fame