QUEEN OF THE LOT
Why Norma Shearer remains class personified
Canadian born actress Norma Shearer once declared that, “Clothes are a woman’s first duty to herself. It is when she is conscious of being well dressed that she can…get that superiority complex that makes for success.”
Arguably, no one did fashion the honor more than MGM’s queen of the lot. But she was far better than a handsome clotheshorse for Gilbert Adrian’s sumptuous creations. Ambitious and driven to a fault, that thick skin allowed Norma to overcome early professional rejections and the shortcoming of being born with a lazy eye. It also ameliorated her recovery from several cancerous later career decisions. When offered the lead in Gone with the Wind (1939) Shearer rejected it tongue-in-cheek and without a great deal of regret saying, “Scarlett O'Hara is going to be a thankless role. I'd like to play is Rhett Butler.”
Yet, it is often the distinguished oversight of biographers and historians reflecting on Norma’s career from a contemporary vantage to infer that her marriage to VP Irving Thailberg had everything to do with her promotion as an actress of merit. Though Norma could be ravenous in her professional pursuits, in marriage to Thailberg theirs was a union based on love admiration and mutual respect by all accounts.
Generous with her time, wealth and attentions paid to burgeoning young talents (Janet Leigh was one of her discoveries and she prodded MGM for Leigh’s screen test), Shearer was the radiant quintessence of a classy leading lady; a woman to whom the word ‘competition’ meant the opportunity to improve upon one’s own accomplishment but never at the expense of someone else’s. Not that this courtesy was always reciprocated or even admired.
“How can I compete with her?” Joan Crawford used to lament, “She sleeps with the boss.”
True - but Norma’s was a enchanting screen presence all her own; a divinely stubborn enigma advocating, as one critic put it, “the very thing that in other women would be cheap or common” but that in Norma flourished as clever – if a tad naughty. As an actress she exudes a profound serenity and respectability even when playing the most audacious, sometimes ever so wicked and déclassé ladies. That undercurrent of exquisite fortitude, poise and spirited conviction; attributes vanished from our morally insincere ensemble of current leading ladies in the movie landscape and, in fact, our world, is never absent from the Shearer mystique.
What Norma Shearer most vivaciously represents is the odd contradiction between something unattainable, yet decidedly accessible – a glimpse into human perfection. She is ever more the star than the legend, further the woman than the star and quite definitely animated and fundamental to us now, even as the ghost flowers of her caste have departed into their grand paradise of almost forgotten bluebirds in the sky.
@Nick Zegarac 2006 (all rights reserved).