Norma Shearer was born in Canada in 1902, and raised in comfortable circumstances. After the failure of her father’s business in 1920, her mother took her to New York. She worked as a model, movie extra, bit player, and actress. She was brought to Hollywood in 1923 by Louis B. Mayer Productions and within two years was the first star at the newly merged Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios.
That studio’s production head, Irving Thalberg, had guided her to stardom, and he kept her in the front ranks. Shearer and Thalberg were married in 1927. Shearer made a successful transition to sound films in 1929 and was one of the few silent-film stars who sustained stardom into the 1940s.
Shearer was M-G-M’s most versatile star, playing in adaptations of Noël Coward, Eugene O’Neill, and Shakespeare. Her performances drew six Academy Award® nominations. In 1931 she won the Oscar® for Best Actress of 1929-30. Thalberg’s eminence and Shearer’s box-office pull earned her the title “First Lady of M-G-M.” She became a patron for designer Gilbert Adrian and photographer George Hurrell, and she worked on behalf of the Motion Picture Country House. After Thalberg’s untimely death in 1936, Shearer raised their two children and continued her career with a series of prestige projects.
In 1942, after sixteen years of stardom, Shearer decided on temporary retirement and married outside the industry. Her second husband was a ski instructor, Martin Arrougé. A comeback never occurred, but Shearer contributed to 1950s Hollywood by coaching two unknowns to acting careers: Janet Leigh and Robert Evans. Shearer was a respected fixture of the Hollywood social scene and developed the Sun Valley resort with Arrouge. In the late 1970s she fell ill and entered the Motion Picture Country Home. Norma Shearer died in 1983.
Shearer’s retirement was assumed to be the end of her cultural presence, but the sale of studio libraries to television in the 1950s and the arrival of VHS, cable, and digital media in the 1980s kept Shearer’s work available. The popularity of pre-Code films in the 1990s contributed to a Shearer revival, and scholars found archival documents affirming that Shearer had actively managed her career, advocating portrayals of self-possessed women. Because she had campaigned for a role in The Divorcee and won an Oscar® for it, she was the first actress to be honored for participation in a pre-Code film. Norma Shearer’s roles in that genre are as much a testament to her skill and intelligence as her performance in the 1938 Marie Antoinette.