Choosing the best actress of 1931-32 was a bit problematic—the two best performances by an actress during this award season, Miriam Hopkins (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and Joan Crawford (Grand Hotel) were both supporting ones, Hopkins's obviously so, Crawford's not so clearly, since she and her co-stars all received star billing, but Grand Hotel was an ensemble piece, the first in Hollywood history, and to my mind at least, none of its stars were on screen long enough to receive a nomination in the lead category. The Oscars didn't have a supporting category back in those days so it's difficult to say which if any of the film's stars the Academy might have nominated in a supporting category; but none were nominated as lead performers and I'll follow suit here. (The Academy would be faced with an identical dilemma the following year with the star-studded ensemble piece Dinner At Eight and arrived at an identical solution—none of those wonderful performances were nominated then either.)
Which is not to say there were no good choices for the award. The Academy nominated three fine actresses—the ever-popular Marie Dressler (Emma) who had won an Oscar the year before for Min and Bill (and who won a Katie award for her supporting performance in Anna Christie); stage legend Lynn Fontanne (The Guardsman) in the only film appearance of her career; and eventual winner Helen Hayes (The Sin of Madelon Claudet), another stage legend making her feature-film debut. (Hayes would win a second Oscar in 1970 for Airport.)
And then there were unnominated performances such as Constance Bennett in What Price Hollywood?, Joan Blondell in Blonde Crazy and Dorothea Wieck in Mädchen In Uniform. The Academy similarly ignored all four of my nominees—Mae Clarke (Waterloo Bridge), Marlene Dietrich (Shanghai Express), Norma Shearer (Private Lives) and Barbara Stanwyck (The Miracle Woman).
I'm guessing that Marlene Dietrich would be the popular choice. The first phase of her career was in full swing, she was working with a great director, and Shanghai Express is one of the tastiest collaborations. But I gave Dietrich the award just last year for her Hollywood debut, Morocco, and I can't see giving her back-to-back awards, especially when Shanghai co-star Anna May Wong completely out-cools her and steals every scene they're in together. (Still, it's a must-see performance in a must-see movie. Go watch it. Now. I'll wait.)
As for Stanwyck, she was one of the greatest actresses in Hollywood history, and she has not one but two best actress awards in her future—I'm thinking The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire in 1941 and Double Indemnity in 1944. But while The Miracle Woman, a biting look at the sordid intersection of religion and money, is one of her most interesting pre-Code films, Stanwyck's best work is still ten years in front of us. She'll have to wait a little longer.
Which leaves Mae Clarke and Norma Shearer.
If you only remember Clarke as the good- looking blonde who got James Cagney's grapefruit in the kisser, you really should take time to explore her work during this period. No actress in 1931 appeared in more must-see movies than Mae Clarke. In addition to her memorable supporting role in The Public Enemy, she also played Molly Malloy, a hooker with a heart of gold who befriends a death row inmate in the comedy The Front Page; a mad scientist's much put-upon fiancee in Frankenstein; and in one of the few lead roles of her career, American chorus girl-turned-prostitute Myra Deauville in the first and best version of the tragic romance Waterloo Bridge. Myra meets a naive soldier boy on the bridge where she plies her trade and this being wartime, he falls in love quickly and asks her to marry him. Based on a play by Pulitzer Prize winner Robert E. Sherwood, there is no villain in this piece other than cold, hard reality. It's the sort of movie that critics of the day dismissed as a "woman's picture"—and dismiss now as a "chick flick"—and if you're tempted to do the same and give this one a miss because it features tears and romance, I urge you not to. In fact, if I thought doing so would convince you to expand your film-watching repertoire enough to include Waterloo Bridge, I would hand Clarke the award as best actress of 1931-32. And maybe she'd deserve it.
But there was another actress from 1931 who I think deserves your attention, certainly if you want a well-rounded sense of the era; and just coincidentally, her wickedly comic portrayal of a recently remarried divorcee who would rather fight with her ex-husband than honeymoon with her new one is my favorite performance of the year.
Much celebrated in her day, Norma Shearer's name is now met by many largely with derision, including I confess by me. Choosing her as the best actress of this or any other year will no doubt get me drummed out of the very exclusive alternate Oscar club—a year ago, in fact, I would have voluntarily resigned my membership before I would have chosen Norma Shearer for an award. But only a schmuck won't admit when he's wrong and I was wrong to dismiss Norma Shearer without first seeing her pre-Code work (and a few silents, too). As it happens, before she got culture and started playing those maddeningly starchy good girls in bloodless MGM literary adaptations, Shearer turned in some fine performances playing against type, including a terrific one here in the film adaptation of Noel Coward's comedy, Private Lives. It's the best of her career—sharp, witty, and here at least, appropriately theatrical. In an essay for Bright Lights Film Journal, Dan Callahan called it "Shearer's finest, most well-rounded performance, and it's the only film that you can show to the uninitiated without fear of the dreaded Shearer-isms."
If she'd made more movies like this one, you could safely admit to liking her without fear of making a fool of yourself in mixed company.
"She was hotter than a half-f***ed fox in a forest fire," said the ever-classy Mickey Rooney years later, and for those who find that assertion at odds with their preconceived notions of Shearer, well, it's time to dip into her pre-Code work.
Private Lives is what I'd call a divorce comedy, of which there were several in Hollywood's golden age, most of them starring Cary Grant for some reason—perhaps because he was so unbelievably good in them—comedies such as The Awful Truth, His Girl Friday and The Philadelphia Story. The formula required discord, divorce (or its threat), laughs arising from screwball attempts to undermine a new relationship and salvage the old one, and by the movie's end, of course, a tender reconciliation.
In Private Lives—a faithful adaptation of Noel Coward's popular stageplay—the twist is that two recently remarried divorcees, Robert Montgomery's Elyot and Shearer's Amanda, find themselves honeymooning in adjoining suites at the same resort. While most divorce comedies lean to varying degrees on the screwball comedy, Private Lives leans heavily on the discord. The two ex-spouses are less interested in tenderness than in tearing into each other, preferably with a wit so biting, the quips leave teeth marks, and when that's not enough, they turn to actual biting, along with fisticuffs and furniture throwing. (Indeed, while filming one particularly physical encounter, Shearer accidently knocked her co-star unconscious.)
"I think very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives," Amanda observes in one of her few introspective moments. "It all depends on a combination of circumstances. If all the various cosmic thingummys fuse at the same moment, and the right spark is struck, there's no knowing what one mightn't do. That was the trouble with Elyot and me, we were like two violent acids bubbling about in a nasty little matrimonial bottle."
You'd be tempted to call this a comedy of mutual spousal abuse but for the fact that the two participants so thoroughly enjoy themselves. Elyot and Amanda are natural-born performers—drama queens, we'd call them now—and after a season apart, they realize each is the other's best audience. They can't live together, but to live apart means they'd have climb off their private little stages and start living with themselves, or more to the point, with their brand new spouses who, they quickly discover, bore them to tears.
"There isn't a part of you that I don't know, remember, and want," Elyot confesses to Amanda even while calling her a "slattern" and threatening to beat her like a gong.
In order to help both Shearer and Montgomery prepare for their parts, the studio filmed a stage performance featuring Gertrude Lawrence and Noel Coward himself in the leads. The result was what Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times called "a swift and witty picture ... one of the most intelligent comedies that has come to the screen." Coward was so pleased with the result, he immediately sold more of his plays to Hollywood.
So why don't we have a similarly positive reaction to the name Norma Shearer?
Well, for one thing, if it's true that the history of war is written by the winners, then it's equally true that the history of Hollywood is written by the ones with the biggest mouths, and a great deal of what we think we know about Norma Shearer is a product of one of the biggest, Joan Crawford's. "What chance do I have now?" she quipped when Shearer won an Oscar in 1930. "Norma sleeps with the boss."
But while it was true Irving Thalberg, as MGM's producer boy wonder could procure almost any role for his wife, if anything, Shearer's career and reputation suffered for her husband's interference. As Walter Clemons once wrote for EW.com, "Thalberg was fatally afflicted with gentility. He cast his wife in movies with literary pretensions—O'Neill's Strange Interlude, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, and as a mature Juliet in a suffocatingly tasteful rendition of Shakespeare. Norma gets a bad rap for these turkeys, but the reverence in which Thalberg's contemporaries held him is an unexamined delusion."
And maybe, too, Shearer craved the respect that roles such as Juliet promised. If only she'd always maintained the same cavalier attitude toward the so-called "legitimate" theater she evinced in answer to Noel Coward's early reservations about her ability to play Amanda. "I don't care what he thinks—he thinks in theater terms—I think in film terms. It doesn't seem to occur to Mr. Coward that we both may turn out to be right!" I suspect, though, that the forced smile she always seemed to wear masked a crippling insecurity, and in retrospect it's a wonder she was able to act at all. After her father squandered a fortune in her youth, leaving the family in poverty, Shearer's mother left him, taking Norma and the other children to New York. Shearer coped by retreating into a carefully-constructed fantasy world, and to a degree, she lived in that world for the rest of her life. That bipolar disorder ran in her family as well with Shearer herself suffering from depression, makes her subsequent climb to stardom all the more remarkable.
Her acting career was a sheer act of will.
"How did you ever become a star?" asked an incredulous Robert Morley on the set of Marie Antoinette.
"Because I wanted to!" she laughed.
Unfortunately, as Gary Morris points out (again in Bright Lights Film Journal), "While this description seems to point to Shearer as a sympathetic, even tragic character, she rarely moves far enough inside her characterizations to create a genuine sense of pathos. She seems to work too hard for her effects, almost desperately concerned with image and the mechanical aspects of performance, with measuring up to 'legitimate theatre' standards with their attendant excessive mannerisms."
He may be right. But at the same time, I am reminded of some- thing Norman Mailer wrote about Ernest Hemingway, not long after the latter's suicide. "It may even be that the final judgment on his work may come to the notion that what he failed to do was tragic, but what he accomplished was heroic, for it is possible he carried a weight of anxiety within him from day to day that would have suffocated any man smaller than himself."
The question is not why Norma Shearer made so many bad movies, but how she managed to make so many good ones.