Tuesday, September 1, 2009

For Katie's Birthday: Norma Shearer's Head On A Plate

It's Katie-Bar-The-Door's birthday today and what better way to celebrate than by trashing her least favorite actress of the pre-war era, Norma Shearer. At least that's what she asked for, along with the more traditional gold earrings and chocolates from Godiva.

And while taking shots at Norma Shearer is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel, sometimes you're in the mood for seafood and where else are you going to get it besides the fish barrel? The ocean? Not likely.

So here you are, Katie, Norma Shearer wrapped in newspaper with a side order of French fries and tartar sauce. Bon appetit.

Now, Katie would be the first to tell you that there were actresses in Hollywood in the 1930s with less talent, but she'd also point out, and this is what gets her goat, they weren't (1) famous, well-connected, (2) pompous, preening egomaniacs who (3) took on roles they were unsuited for, depriving other actresses of work and (4) winning an Oscar for it. I mean, yes, Luise Rainer won a couple of Oscars during the decade, but she flamed out so quickly and was otherwise so anonymous, it's hard to work up any personal animosity toward her.

Besides, Norma was just so goody-goody, it's hard to swallow that much saccharine without suffering at least a little insulin shock.

I guess it's possible you're reading this and don't quite remember who Norma Shearer was. Have you ever seen The Women, probably the most celebrated "chick flick" of all time (the 1939 original, that is)—Norma Shearer was the boring one who gets eaten alive by bitch goddess Joan Crawford and her catty pal Rosalind Russell. Like most of Shearer's later roles, she's dated, faintly musty and more than a little ludicrous.

You can see most of Shearer's shortcoming as actress right in this movie. She doesn't act, she declaims, repeating her lines like a kid reciting a poem she's memorized but doesn't understand. She plays every role as if she's in a melodrama. And she took longer to abandon the broad, theatrical gestures of the Silent Era than any of her contemporaries, and some she didn't abandon at all.

She seems completely unaware that anyone is on the stage with her, except as a prop to maneuver around. If acting is listening, as many actors have insisted, she's not acting at all because she's never listening. It doesn't help that she was cross-eyed and to cover the fact was almost always photographed in three-quarter profile. It leaves her face pointed at nothing in particular, certainly not at the person she's supposed to be talking to.

In fact, she was self-conscious about nearly every aspect of her appearance—in addition to her eyes, she hated her waist, her legs, her hands, her chin—and used dozens of tricks, catalogued at length at "Divas The Site," to cover them up. The result is that she's so busy turning her chin just so, holding her hands just there and hiding her legs behind this and her waist behind that, that she forever comes across as someone uncomfortable in her own skin and trying too hard to look the opposite. I mean, sure, Cary Grant always admitted that "Cary Grant" was an artificial construct, but he could bring it off; Norma couldn't.

And that's just Norma Shearer the actress. You add to that Norma Shearer the person and no wonder Katie can't stand her. Shearer was the wife of powerful producer Irving Thalberg, and played it to the hilt, muscling her way into roles she wanted as opposed to ones that suited her, firing directors she didn't like and using the studio publicity machine to carve a monument to her own vain self-image. She had the power to choose the roles that suited her ambition, so it's her fault and hers alone that she chose, say, to star in Romeo and Juliet at age 36 and followed it up with Marie Antoinette, both rewarded with undeserved Oscar nominations.

Anyway, she took home the Oscar for The Divorcee in 1930 and was nominated for five other movies, Their Own Desire, A Free Soul, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, and the aforementioned Romeo and Juliet and Marie Antoinette. Personally, I don't think she's good in any of them.

The dope has it that she was offered the part of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With The Wind, but turned it down, saying, "Scarlett O'Hara is going to be a thankless and difficult role. The part I'd like to play is Rhett Butler." Personally, my mind rebels at the thought. I prefer to think the offer, if it happened at all, was never serious and was part of some polite publicity stunt designed to keep Norma happy and in the public eye. I truly believe the only way David O. Selznick would have cast Norma Shearer in Gone With The Wind is if she had had nude photographs of him with a chipmunk—and even then he would said, "To hell with it! Who hasn't had sex with a chipmunk!" To think otherwise is just too perverse to contemplate.

Some also claim Billy Wilder offered her the part of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, but I don't believe that either.

Actually, I refuse to believe Norma Shearer was ever offered the part in any movie. I think she owned a cache of blackmail photos to rival J. Edgar Hoover's and simply whipped one out whenever a movie role piqued her interest. Really, it's the only explanation that makes sense.

Anyway, once she retired in 1942 she stayed retired, which is to her credit. She died in 1983.

Which is also to her credit.

Next up: A few words about her power couple marriage to Irving Thalberg.

[3/18/2010 And yet Norma Shearer wins the Katie Award for Best Actress of 1931-32 with her career-best performance in Private Lives. Click here to read the essay.]


mister muleboy said...

While I am a committed contrarian, and I hesitate to jump in, I can only say that just looking at the photos of her, I hate her guts and would enjoy walloping her.


Mythical Monkey said...

I commend to you She Blogged by Night's post on the subject of Norma Shearer, which is much better than mine. You can find it by scrolling back up to the word "melodrama" in my post and clicking on the blue highlighted link.

To quote:

Norma Shearer sucks. She's a talentless, scenery chewing hack who approaches every role as melodrama. Let me summarize every film she's ever been in: Norma swoons, Norma bites her knuckle, Norma wrings her hands, Norma talks in faux high society falsetto, Norma wins in the end. Norma may, on occasion, wear a wacky wig. When she smiles, she reminds me of that funny moment in "The Tender Trap" where Debbie Reynolds explains that actresses smile by opening their mouth into a D shape instead of genuinely smiling, because smiling causes wrinkles.

She really, really doesn't like Norma Shearer.

And neither does Katie-Bar-The-Door ...

Uncle Tom said...

someone should taint punch her and then chop-block her. Well given she's dead, we'll have to exhume her body, then taint punch her and chop-block her. Where's my shovel?

She was probably home-schooled by midgets.

mister muleboy said...

So I take it that, in light of our recent exchanges in the comments section, and Sheriff Chance's prohibitions, that I'd be right out if I wrote that Norma Shearer is a talentless c*nt.

In the English sense of the word c*nt, of course. . . . .

and Sheriff, please feel free to delete this comment -- it is intended for thy amusement.

Sheriff John T. Chance said...

Well, pilgrim, I have to assume the missing vowel is "A" -- a talentless cant. As in

1  /kænt/ –noun
1. insincere, esp. conventional expressions of enthusiasm for high ideals, goodness, or piety.

I would say the two words I would most associate with Norma Shearer's acting are "talentless" and "insincere." Throw in that business about goodness and piety and you pretty much have Norma nailed.

So I think you're probably okay.

But just remember -- We don't like tinhorns around here, mister. So you watch yourself ...

Uncle Tom said...

ah, the sheriff is near....

Katie said...

What a nice birthday present, you're such a thoughtful husband!

Mythical Monkey said...

Yeah, you usually get a lot of stupid toys or a bicycle or clothes or something like that.

Next year -- real estate!

Bellotoot said...

Interestingly, Matt Groening initially offered the role of Mr. Burns to Norma Shearer. Some confusion followed, and the part ultimately went to Harry Shearer.

Who Am Us Anyway? said...

Well Myth, if someone were to be following Dylan’s advice -- or more accurately (as I think Mr. Mule :-) might point out) -- the advice of the narrator in Dylan’s song She Belongs to Me, they'd do exactly what you just done did: Salute her when her birthday comes. (Of course on Halloween you’d also have to give her a trumpet and for Christmas, buy her a drum.)

But Happy Birthday to Katie-Bar-The-Door, and may you & Myth have many, many more.

mister muleboy said...

and, as John Chance explained, to live outside the law, you must be honest.

AndI honestly can't abide Norma Shearer.

KTBtD, OTOH, is quite nice and beloved by all. . . . .

mister muleboy said...

for relief from shearer, I offer a certain redhead from Mad Men


Lupner said...

A belated happy birthday to Katie-Bar-The-Door! I've not seen enough of Norma to have any strong feelings about her (lack of) acting ability, but can say that I found her performance in 'The Women' bland at best and annoying at worst. The only other NS recollection I have is that clip of 'Idiot's Delight' where Gable sings and dances and she reclines and looks vampish for a couple secs. I think that was NS . . .

Zak in the ATL said...

Jesus, your Norma hate is out of control.

Your article is filled with half truths and lies as well.

She was a star and a working actress before she married Thalberg.

Her career continued even after Thalberg's death.

Due to her popularity, even after she retired she was offered film roles.

Using her performance in "The Women" to describe her entire career or he acting style is lame. The part is written to be a simpering fool in the beginning. Did you even watch it to the end to see her transformation?

Norma may have had acting styles that now seem outdated, but she wasn't called The Queen of MGM for nothing!

She is the GREATEST Star! "Trapped in that lightbeam is a youth that shall not FAAAAAAAAAAADE!" --Sunset Blvd.

Mythical Monkey said...

She is the GREATEST Star! "Trapped in that lightbeam is a youth that shall not FAAAAAAAAAAADE!"

Say, I get the impression you're a fan of her work. Welcome aboard! It's a big tent we've pitched here at the Monkey and we encourage all points of view. Hopefully, your enthusiasm for Norma Shearer's work will counter my own crabbier response and will encourage readers who stumble across this blog to give her a try.

In response to your specific question whether I've seen The Women, the answer is "many times." It's one of my favorites from an era that produced Hollywood's greatest movies.

The goal of this blog, for me at least, is to encourage my readers to see as many movies as possible. I hope you stick around to cheer Norma on in the future and argue in support of your favorites.

Mythical Monkey said...

Also be sure to check out my post of January 1, 2010, where I nominate Norma Shearer for a coveted Katie Award.

There I said:

You might notice as you scroll down the list of nominees that I've nominated Norma Shearer for her comedic performance in Private Lives. Those of you who have been following this blog from the beginning probably know I'm no fan of her work. Yet, I would be doing you a disservice not to recognize that she was a big star in the 1930s and that she has legions of fans to this day. Private Lives, though little known now, was for my money the best performance of her career, perfectly suited to her personality and talents. She winds up with a nomination for best actress.

As I will note in a post early next week, "revolution is dissent" and the aim of the Monkey is nothing short of a movie-watching revolution.