Norma Shearer

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Updated On February 17, 2022
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Montreal, Quebec
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Birthday
Birthplace
Montreal, Quebec

Norma Shearer was a prominent early-twentieth-century Canadian actress who had nearly two decades of stardom in Hollywood (1924 to 1942). Shearer was noted for her lively ingénue on the big screen, for which she was nominated six times and won one Academy Award. Though Shearer is remembered today as a pioneering actress of her era, few people realize how difficult it was for her to break into the film industry. Most people turned her down because of her chubby physique, strong legs, and blunt hands. Her cross-eyed appearance was due to a misalignment of her eyes, which caused her to be mocked by many. Shearer, on the other hand, did not let the criticism stop her from following her dream of being an actress. She overcame the opinions of others with pure perseverance and willpower, and she continued to hone her acting skills. In 1921, she received her big break in the movies. Shearer ventured into early talkies with élan after making a name for himself in silent cinema. Under MGM, she churned out song after hit.

Childhood and Adolescence

Andrew Shearer and Edith Fisher Shearer had Norma Shearer on August 10, 1902 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Her father was the owner of a construction company. Shearer’s destiny was sealed when she saw a vaudeville show on her ninth birthday. She was so taken with the show that she decided to pursue a career as an actress.

She was ruthlessly ambitious, aiming to overcome all of her physical flaws (dumpy body, robust legs, blunt hands, and large shoulders) in order to become a celebrity. Despite coming from a wealthy family, Shearer’s father’s business failed unexpectedly in 1918, forcing the Shearers to relocate to a run-down apartment in Montreal. The situation became far worse when her mother divorced and sent Norma and her sister to New York.

Career of Norma

Shearer delivered a letter of recommendation to Florenz Ziegfeld in New York, which she had obtained from a local theatre owner in Montreal. The meeting was a catastrophe, as Ziegfeld sent Shearer away almost immediately and mocked her physical looks. Shearer continued to turn up at every production house and audition, unaffected by the disastrous encounter with Ziegfeld. She struck gold when she was cast as an extra in a Universal Pictures film. Following that, he played a succession of extra roles in a number of films, including Griffith’s ‘Way Down East.’ Shearer introduced herself to Griffith while filming ‘Way Down East.’ This meeting was also a letdown, with Griffith dismissing her as ‘no good.’

Shearer continued to work as an extra despite the rejections from Ziegfeld and Griffith. She was able to save enough money from the money she received to get her eyes aligned properly and her vision corrected. She had been doing muscle-strengthening exercises for years in order to hide her physical faults. Shearer went to modeling after acting as an extra didn’t pay the bills. She worked as a model for a variety of items, ranging from laundry soap to dental paste. Even Kelly-Springfield Tires used her as a spokesperson. Shearer first appeared in the movies in 1921, in the B-grade feature ‘The Stealers.’ Following that, in 1923, she was offered an audition for a main role in the film ‘The Wanters’ by Louis B. Mayer Pictures, a studio in Los Angeles.  She flew to Los Angeles after obtaining the offer.

Shearer’s first screen test was a huge letdown. On screen, she was awful. A second test was carried out under the supervision of cameraman Ernest Palmer. Despite the fact that the test was a success and she was cast in the lead part, she was turned down by the film’s director during filming because she was deemed “un-photogenic.” Shearer retreated to minor roles after her disappointment. Shearer’s career took off after a chance meeting with Mayer while filming ‘Pleasure Mad.’ He made fun of her to the point where she refused to show off her natural acting talent. Following that, she excelled in front of the camera, landing six more projects in eight months.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was formed in 1924 when Louis B. Mayer Pictures, Metro Pictures, and the Samuel Goldwyn Company amalgamated to become Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Shearer starred in the studio’s inaugural film, “He Who Gets Slapped.” The picture was a huge hit, and it helped launch both the company and Shearer’s career. Shearer was a well-known actor by 1925. She was MGM’s newest attraction, and she quickly rose to the status of a true star. She had a number of films in her collection. Shearer’s present task, unlike her hard years when she fought for stardom, was to maintain her star position. She put in a lot of effort to stay among the finest of the best.

While her career progressed, Shearer fell deeply in love with her boss, Irving Thalberg, who, despite his stern demeanor in front, privately awed her. It wasn’t until 1927 that the two revealed their emotions for each other.

Shearer worked with MGM on a total of 13 silent pictures by 1927. Each one was a huge success. As a result of her achievement, she was cast in Ernst Lubitsch’s film “The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg.” ‘The Jazz Singer’ was released in October 1927. It was the first full-length feature film with sound. The film radically altered the cinematic landscape and signaled the end of the silent film era.

Shearer, unlike a number of other actors whose careers ended with sound, remained sturdy and steady. In fact, she prepared herself for the microphone months in advance because her brother Douglas Shearer was a key figure in MGM’s sound development. ‘The Trial of Mary Dugan,’ Shearer’s debut talkie, was released in 1929. The picture was a huge commercial and critical success, and it cemented Shearer’s place in the early talkies. ‘The Last of Mrs Cheyney’ and ‘Their Own Desire’ were two other projects she came up with the same year.

Shearer altered her look for a picture session expressing her sensual side to camera, fed up with her ‘nice girl’ reputation. She landed a main role in MGM’s racy new film, ‘The Divorcee,’ in 1930, as a result of the shoot. Her outstanding performance earned her an Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of the character. Shearer went on to star in a string of successful pre-Code pictures, including ‘Let Us Be Gay,’ ‘Strangers May Kiss,’ ‘A Free Soul,’ and ‘Private Lives,’ after her breakout performance in ‘The Divorcee.’ All of her films were box office smashes, putting her among MGM’s top-rated actresses.

When the Production Code was implemented in 1934, Shearer limited herself to historical dramas and premium films. She also starred in the hugely hit ‘The Barretts of Wimpole Street’ the same year. The picture was a huge success, and it was quickly followed by ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Marie Antoinette.’ Shearer made an unexpected appearance in the dark comedy ‘Idiot’s Delight’ in 1939. The film was based on the 1936 play by Robert E. Sherwood. She starred in the suspense thriller ‘Escape’ the following year, in which she played the lover of a Nazi commander who helps an American liberate his mother from a concentration camp. Shearer acted in mediocre films like ‘We Were Dancing’ and ‘Her Cardboard Lover’ near the end of her career. She unofficially resigned from performing in 1942.

Major Projects of Norma

Shearer’s most promising work occurred after 1924, when she joined MGM productions, which was then still in its infancy. She appeared in a number of films, the majority of which were box office successes. Her claim to fame, however, came with the 1930 release of the film ‘The Divorcee.’ Her performance in the film earned her an Academy Award for Best Actress. Other notable films in which she appeared include ‘Their Own Desire,’ ‘A Free Soul,’ ‘The Barretts of Wimpole Street,’ ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ and ‘Marie Antoinette.’

Achievements & Awards of Norma

Between 1930 and 1938, she received six Academy Award nominations for Best Actress. For her picture ‘The Divorcee,’ she won an Academy Award. For the film ‘Marie Antoinette,’ she won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival in 1938. At 6636 Hollywood Boulevard, Shearer has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Personal History and Legacy

While working for MGM Studios, Shearer met her boss, Irving Thalberg. Despite their vast age gap, the two became quite close and publicly announced themselves as a couple on September 29, 1927. Irving Junior and Katherine, their two children, were born to them. Thalberg perished in a tragic accident in 1936. Shearer had a brief affair with young actor James Stewart after Thalberg’s death in 1936, and then with George Raft. Despite Raft’s desire to marry Shearer, Shearer ended the affair due to his wife’s refusal to accept a divorce and MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer’s disapproval. Shearer married Martin Arrougé, a former ski instructor, after retiring. He was ten years younger than she was. They were married till she died.

Shearer entirely removed herself from the Hollywood social scene by the end of the 1950s. She died of bronchial pneumonia on June 12, 1983, at the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills, California. She and her first husband, Irving Thalberg, were buried together in the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. In 2008, Canada Post released a postage stamp series, Canadians in Hollywood, honoring various Canadian actors, including Norma Shearer, to acknowledge her contribution to cinema.

Estimated Net Worth

Norma is one of the wealthiest movie actresses and one of the most well-known. Norma Shearer’s net worth is estimated to be $1.5 million, according to Wikipedia, Forbes, and Business Insider.