Norma Shearer

Edith Norma Shearer (August 10, 1902 – June 12, 1983) was a Canadian actress, and a major 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, in comedy, and in period roles. She gave well-received performances in adaptations of Noël Coward, Eugene O’Neill, and William Shakespeare. She was nominated six times for the Academy Award for Best Actress and won once, for her performance in the 1930 film The Divorcee. Shearer’s fame declined after her early retirement in 1942. She was rediscovered in the late 1950s, when her films were sold to television, and in the 1970s, when her films enjoyed theatrical revivals. By the time of her death in 1983, she was best known for her „noble” roles in Marie Antoinette and The Women. A Shearer revival began in 1988, when Turner Network Television began broadcasting the entire Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film library. In 1994 Turner Classic Movies began showcasing her films, most of which had not been seen since the reconstitution of the Production Code in 1934. Shearer’s work was seen anew, and the critical focus shifted from her „noble” roles to her pre-Code roles. Shearer’s work was formally reappraised in the 1990s through a number of high-profile books. The first was a major biography by Gavin Lambert. Next came the groundbreaking study Complicated Women, by Mick LaSalle, film critic at the San Francisco Chronicle. Then came three books by photographer Mark A. Vieira: a revisionist biography of Shearer’s husband, producer Irving Thalberg; and two biographies of Hollywood glamour photographer George Hurrell. Shearer was praised not only for the control she exercised over her work but also for her patronage of George Hurrell, of M-G-M designer Adrian, of actress Janet Leigh, and of actor-producer Robert Evans. Reviewing Shearer’s work, historians called her „the exemplar of sophisticated 1930s womanhood… exploring love and sex with an honesty that would be considered frank by modern standards”. While there had been instances of performers who were given a belated celebrity by historians, this was the first time that a star’s reputation had been restored by scholars. As a result, Shearer is celebrated as a feminist pioneer, „the first American film actress to make it chic and acceptable to be single and not a virgin on screen”. Her films continue to be exhibited and studied.

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