An actress must never lose her ego–without it she has no talent. — Norma Shearer
AS Mrs. Irving Thalberg, actress Norma Shearer ruled over Hollywood with a sophisticated and poised air, brandishing her husband’s authority as her own when it came time to choose the best scripts, co-stars and directors. Her preeminence made her a number of bitter enemies among her female peers at M-G-M–rival Joan Crawford, for instance, bemoaned her situation: “How can I compete with Norma when she sleeps with the boss?” For her part, Shearer believed that “It [was] impossible to get anything major accomplished without stepping on some toes; enemies are inevitable when one is a doer.” She did, and she was.
Though Shearer’s fanny landed firmly in the catbird’s seat following her marriage to Thalberg, her path to stardom wasn’t exactly strewn with rose petals. When her wealthy family lost all its money in the 1910s, Shearer’s mother shuttled her to New York in hopes that her daughter’s beauty could be parlayed into a lucrative show business career. Unfortunately, Shearer bombed out on her audition with follies king Florenz Ziegfeld. Fortunately, she was able to land some work as a model–notably as “Miss Lotta Miles” in tire advertisements–and as an actress in a few bit parts in New York-shot films in 1920. She was spotted in one such effort, The Stealers, by her future husband, Irving Thalberg, who was then working as a talent scout, but Thalberg wasn’t able to track down and sign the compelling actress for a few years.
Married to the Boss
After Thalberg’s own star rose at M-G-M, he and Shearer married (in 1927), and the duo reigned as the leading couple of Hollywood. Ensconsed as the “First Lady of the Screen,” it was no wonder Shearer achieved stardom, what with having her perennial pick of the litter, but her success wasn’t solely based on nepotism: she garnered five Best Actress Oscar nominations (for 1929’s Their Own Desire, 1930’s The Divorcée, 1934’s The Barretts of Wimpole Street, 1936’s Romeo and Juliet, and 1938’s Marie Antoinette), winning for 1930’s The Divorcée.
Following Thalberg’s untimely (he was thirty-seven) demise from pneumonia in 1936, Shearer lost her sense of direction in the absence of his sage career counsel, and witlessly declined proffered plum assignments in Gone With the Wind and Mrs. Miniver in favor of roles in two back-to-back flops, We Were Dancing and Her Cardboard Lover (both in 1942). She wisely retired from the screen after these failures and later married a ski instructor named Martin Jacques Arrougé, who was twenty years her junior. Shearer is credited for discovering Janet Leigh, whose photograph she spotted while vacationing at a ski resort.