Edith Norma Shearer was a Canadian-American actress and Hollywood star from 1925 through 1942. Her early films cast her as a spunky ingenue, but in the pre-Code film era, she played sexually liberated women. She excelled in drama, comedy, and period roles. She gave well-received performances in adaptations of Noël Coward, Eugene O'Neill, and William Shakespeare.
Shearer was of Scottish and Irish descent. Her childhood was spent in Montreal and was one of privilege due to the success of her father's construction business. However, the marriage between her parents was unhappy. Andrew Shearer was prone to manic depression and "moved like a shadow or a ghost around the house," while her mother Edith Fisher Shearer was attractive, flamboyant, and stylish. Young Norma was interested in music, as well, but after seeing a vaudeville show for her ninth birthday, announced her intention to become an actress. Edith offered support, but as Shearer entered adolescence, became secretly fearful that her daughter's physical flaws would jeopardize her chances. Shearer herself "had no illusions about the image I saw in the mirror." She acknowledged her "dumpy figure, with shoulders too broad, legs too sturdy, hands too blunt", and was also acutely aware of her small eyes that appeared crossed due to a cast in her right eye. By her own admission, though, she was "ferociously ambitious, even as a young girl" and planned to overcome her deficiencies through careful camouflage, sheer determination, and charm.
The childhood and adolescence that Shearer once described as "a pleasant dream" ended in 1918, when her father's company collapsed and older sister, Athole, suffered her first serious mental breakdown. Forced to move into a small, dreary house in a "modest" Montreal suburb, the sudden plunge into poverty only strengthened Shearer's determined attitude: "At an early age, I formed a philosophy about failure. Perhaps an endeavor, like my father's business, could fail, but that didn't mean Father had failed."
Edith Shearer thought otherwise. Within weeks, she had left her husband and moved into a cheap boarding house with her two daughters. A few months later, encouraged by her brother, who believed his niece should try her luck in "the picture business", then operating largely on the East Coast, Edith sold her daughter's piano and bought three train tickets for New York City. Also in her pocket was a letter of introduction for Norma, acquired from a local theatre owner, to Florenz Ziegfeld, who was currently preparing a new season of his famous Ziegfeld Follies.
In January 1920, the three Shearer women arrived in New York, each of them dressed up for the occasion. "I had my hair in little curls," Shearer remembered, "and I felt very ambitious and proud." Her heart sank, however, when she saw their rented apartment: "There was one double bed, a cot with no mattress and a stove with one gas jet. The communal bathroom was at the end of a long, dimly lit hallway. Athole and I took turns sleeping with mother in the bed, but sleep was impossible anyway the elevated trains rattled right past our window every few minutes."
The introduction to Ziegfeld proved equally disastrous. He turned Shearer down flat, reportedly calling her a "dog", and criticized her crossed eyes and stubby legs. She continued doing the rounds with her determination undimmed: "I learned that Universal Pictures was looking for eight pretty girls to serve as extras. Athole and I showed up and found 50 girls ahead of us. An assistant casting director walked up and down looking us over. He passed up the first three and picked the fourth. The fifth and sixth were unattractive, but the seventh would do, and so on, down the line until seven had been selected—and he was still some ten feet ahead of us. I did some quick thinking. I coughed loudly, and when the man looked in the direction of the cough, I stood on my tiptoes and smiled right at him. Recognizing the awkward ruse to which I'd resorted, he laughed openly and walked over to me and said, 'You win, Sis. You're Number Eight.'"
Other extra parts followed, including one in Way Down East, directed by D. W. Griffith. Taking advantage of a break in filming and standing shrewdly near a powerful arc light, Shearer introduced herself to Griffith and began to confide her hopes for stardom. "The Master looked down at me, studied my upturned face in the glare of the arc, and shook his eagle head. Eyes no good, he said. A cast in one and far too blue; blue eyes always looked blank in close-up. You'll never make it, he declared, and turned solemnly away."
Still undeterred, Shearer risked some of her savings on a consultation with Dr. William Bates, a pioneer in the treatment of incorrectly aligned eyes and defective vision. He wrote out a series of muscle-strengthening exercises that, after many years of daily practice, would successfully conceal Shearer's cast for long periods of time on the screen. She spent hours in front of the mirror, exercising her eyes and striking poses that concealed or improved the physical flaws noted by Ziegfeld or Griffith. At night, she sat in the galleries of Broadway theatres, studying the entrances of Ina Claire, Lynn Fontanne, and Katharine Cornell.
Shearer left New York around February 17. Accompanied by her mother, she felt "dangerously sure of herself" as her train neared Los Angeles. When she was not welcomed, even an hour after her arrival, she realized that there would be no star treatment from her new studio. Dispirited, she allowed Edith to hail a taxi.
The next morning, Shearer went to the Mayer Company on Mission Road to meet with Thalberg. Shearer was momentarily thrown by their confused introduction, but soon found herself "impressed by his air of dispassionate strength, his calm self-possession and the almost black, impenetrable eyes set in a pale olive face."
Shearer was less impressed, however, with her first screen test: "The custom then was to use flat lighting, to throw a great deal of light from all directions, in order to kill all shadows that might be caused by wrinkles or blemishes. But the strong lights placed on either side of my face made my blue eyes look almost white, and by nearly eliminating my nose, made me seem cross-eyed. The result was hideous."
The day after the test had been screened for Mayer and Thalberg, cameraman Ernest Palmer found Shearer frantic and trembling in the hallway. Speaking with her, he was struck by her "fierce, almost raging disappointment", and after viewing the test himself, agreed that she had been "poorly handled." Under Palmer's own supervision, a second test was made and judged a success by the studio brass. The lead in The Wanters seemed hers, until the film's director objected, finding her "unphotogenic". Again, Shearer was to be disappointed, relegated to a minor role.
She accepted her next role in Pleasure Mad, knowing "it was well understood that if I didn't deliver in this picture, I was through." After only a few days of shooting, things were not looking good. Shearer was struggling. Finally, the film's director complained to Mayer that he could get nothing out of the young actress, and when summoned to Mayer's office, she fully expected the axe to fall: "But to my surprise, Mr. Mayer's manner was paternal. 'There seems to be a problem,' he said, 'tell me about it.' I told him that the director had shouted at me and frightened me. Nobody had warned me that Mayer was a better actor than any of us, and I was unprepared for what happened next. He staged an alarming outburst, screaming at me, calling me a fool and a coward, accusing me of throwing away my career because I couldn't get on with a director. It worked. I became tearful, but obstinate. 'I'll show you!' I said to him. 'You'll see!' Delighted, Mayer resumed the paternal act. ‘That's what I wanted to hear,’ he said, smiling." Returning to the set, Shearer plunged into an emotional scene. "I took that scene lock, stock, and barrel, fur, fins and feathers," she remembered, earning her the respect of her director and her studio. As a reward, Thalberg cast her in six films in eight months.
The apprenticeship served Shearer well. On April 26, 1924, Louis B. Mayer Pictures was merged with Metro Pictures and the Samuel Goldwyn Company to form Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Shearer was cast with Lon Chaney and John Gilbert in the studio's first official production, He Who Gets Slapped. The film was a conspicuous success and contributed to the meteoric rise of the new company, and to Shearer's visibility. By late 1925, she was carrying her own films, and was one of MGM's biggest attractions, a bona fide star. She signed a new contract; it paid $1,000 a week and would rise to $5,000 over the next five years. She bought a house for herself and Edith at 2004 Vine Street, which was located under the Hollywoodland sign.
The enforcement of the Production Code in 1934 forced Shearer to drop her celebrated "free soul" image and move exclusively into period dramas and "prestige" pictures. Of these, The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934) proved her most successful at the box office, making a profit of $668,000, in part because the film contained elements that slipped by the newly instituted Production Code. In that film, she played a role made famous by Katharine Cornell. Shearer also took on another play popularized by Cornell in Romeo and Juliet (1936) (her first film of the '30s to lose money) and Marie Antoinette (1938) (a budget of almost $2,500,000 was too great for the studio to expect a profit), though their elaborate sets and costumes helped make the films immensely popular with audiences.
Shearer was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress on six occasions, winning only for The Divorcee in 1930. She was nominated the same year for Their Own Desire, for A Free Soul in 1931, The Barretts of Wimpole Street in 1934, Romeo and Juliet in 1936, and Marie Antoinette in 1938. Marion Davies later recalled that Shearer came to a party at San Simeon in her Marie Antoinette costume; Davies said she was not about to remove the door so Shearer could enter, so Norma made her grand entrance through wider doors leading from another room. Four chairs were arranged so she could sit at the table in her voluminous skirts.
After Thalberg's unexpected death on September 14, 1936, Shearer retained a lawyer to ensure that Thalberg's percentages of films on which he had worked were still paid to his estate, which was contested by MGM. When she took the story to gossip columnist Louella Parsons, the studio was forced to give in and granted all the profits from MGM movies made and released from 1924 to 1938, meaning the estate eventually received over $1.5 million in percentage payments. Nevertheless, Shearer's contract was renewed for six films at $150,000 each. During this time, she embarked on a brief romance with the younger actor James Stewart, and then with the married actor George Raft. (Raft had separated from his wife years earlier, soon after they married.) He stated publicly that he wanted to marry Shearer. However, his wife's refusal to allow a divorce and the disapproval of MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer caused Shearer to end the affair.
Following her retirement in 1942, she married Martin Arrougé (March 23, 1914 – August 8, 1999), a former ski instructor 11 years her junior. Although often attending public events in her later life, Shearer gradually withdrew from the Hollywood social scene. In 1960, her secretary stated: "Miss Shearer does not want any publicity. She doesn't talk to anyone. But I can tell you that she has refused many requests to appear in motion pictures and TV shows." Arrougé and Shearer remained married until her death.
On June 12, 1983, Shearer died of bronchial pneumonia at the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills, California, where she had been living since 1980.
She is entombed in the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California, in a crypt marked Norma Arrouge, along with her first husband, Irving Thalberg.