Book Review -Norma Shearer: A Biography by Gavin Lambert

Norma Shearer has long been a subject of interest for me.  I am an ardent admirer of her work, particularly since she successfully made the transition from silent pictures to become a film star in sound films, a feat many others couldn’t accomplish.

Then there is of course my fascination with the mythos behind Norma’s marriage to MGM wunderkind Irving Thalberg. She benefitted from this relationship but also had to fight for her place, not only has his partner but for the roles he didn’t think she could play.  I’ve also always wanted to know more about her life post Thalberg and MGM.

Thankfully, I finally had the chance to read the biography written by Gavin Lambert who was a screenwriter, novelist and who also wrote biographies on  Alla Nazimova and Natalie Wood. Lambert was able to meet Norma several times before she passed away, interviewed her son and some of her friends and was also granted access to personal papers owned by MGM, all of which help add personal knowledge and details that are vitally necessary in his tribute to a woman who rarely shared or even hinted at the inner Norma Shearer.

In that regard, I was slightly disappointed as I read , because Norma as a subject feels so ephemeral. There are gaps of time and details lacking especially in Norma’s early and latter years. As a reader I felt I would just start to grasp something solid about her, but then it would slip away. At other times I felt the author was filling in details by guessing at at the thoughts and emotions of Norma and those who knew her instead of from actual facts or quotes. But I do feel Lambert did his best to work with the information his research provided.

Norma thinks too much – Marion Davies

The challenge seems to be that Norma was an actress both onscreen and off, working to maintain the image she wanted everyone to believe of her. In real life, she was emotionally reserved, suppressing her feelings to accomplish her goals.  In other words, she was a complex character. While Lambert makes a valiant attempt to plumb the depths of Norma as a private person, as a subject she remains remote.

In addition, in the years that Norma is with Irving Thalberg, the writing focus shifts from Norma to Irving. Since I’m intrigued by him, I don’t mind the extra details, but I wish it didn’t come at the expense of Norma. However, considering she herself seemed to center her life around Thalberg, even more so after he passed and she desperately tried to keep his legacy and her own connection to it alive, I suppose this focus on him is fitting in a way. And I did appreciate the glimpse it offered me into the management and politics of MGM as well as  the relationships Thalberg had with Mayer and other key figures of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

She had this driving force inside her all the time – George Hurrell

Though she had many successes both personally and professionally, Norma ultimately strikes me as a sad figure. It seems that her desire for security drove her. She accomplished her goal to be an actress, through discipline and determination. But that same desire drove her fear to maintain her hallowed public image once it was established . It also kept her mired in her past glory years long after they ended. She  just couldn’t face the fact that her youth, beauty and onscreen image had faded.

The way the author writes about Norma reminds me so much of what has been written about Cary Grant. He worked so hard to become his star persona, that he buried his true self. In many ways, the same could be said of Norma as she acted out her various roles in life; tenacious actress, wife of Irving Thalberg and Queen of the MGM lot. Once those things were gone, she seemed to lose her sense of identity though she desperately tried to retain it by reliving the past.

Bayard Veiller – She was “extremely easy to direct, once I realized she couldn’t be coached…She wasn’t acting, that was the trick, she was living it.”

Lambert continually praises Norma’s acting skills, even as he admits the weaknesses of some of the films she acted in.  He touches upon Joan Crawford’s envy of Norma’s position within MGM, notes her few true friendships with women such as Merle Oberon and Sylvia Ashley, and makes a very discerning statement about the Hollywood enclave being a small, privileged bubble of sorts that kept Norma insulated from real life.

I also appreciated the concise personality summaries of other Hollywood luminaries, as well as learning more about Norma’s brother and sister. I had no idea the depths of mental illness that her sister Athole experienced or that it apparently ran in the family. In her later years, Norma seems to have been terrified that she would experience similar symptoms. Though brief, the mention of her brother Douglas answered a question I had as to his success as the sound genius of MGM. It turns out, aside from his personal connection through Norma and Irving, Douglas success, including multiple Academy Awards, was his own. He kept his distance from his more famous relatives and earned it all on his own merit, owing to his innovative inventions.

In some ways, it is odd that Norma did not really have close or healthy personal relationships. For the most part she kept an emotional distance, which was especially devastating to her children. But since her whole life was in essence a performance I suppose it makes sense.

Lambert really sums her up when he describes her as follows, “The real Norma Shearer – a woman deeply disturbed by her disturbed sister, a faithful wife who “lived’ adultery on the screen, a mother who was far more concerned with her career than her children…The movie star and Mrs. Irving Thalberg formed such inseparable parts of the same person that not even death, as she found out later, could not divide them.”

Sadly, Gavin Lambert’s biography is one of two written about Norma Shearer. It’s not tragic because it lacks in any way, but because Shearer deserves much more attention than she has received. Her pioneering onscreen image, talent, ability to reinvent herself, her devotion to her career, Thalberg, MGM and Louis B Mayer all play an important role in film history Thankfully, we do have Lambert’s well-written book on her at least. We also have her legacy of films and between the two, Norma’s legacy survives for new generations to discover.


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2 Replies to “Book Review -Norma Shearer: A Biography by Gavin Lambert”

  1. When, as a tribute to her, Miss Shearer was The Star of the Month on TCM, Robert Osborne the tv host before one of her films was shown said that her early silent films on average cost $200,000 to make and on average returned $600,000 to MGM, the studio that made them. Movie seats in those days cost about $.25 cents, and it takes a lot of quarters to make that amount of money, so she obviously had a fan base that was eager to fill them. She was also one of the handful of silent film stars who became even bigger stars once their voices could be heard in talking films. I was glad that Gavin Lambert wrote his book about her and maybe I’m wrong, but he didn’t seem to really like her. I have been a fan of hers since as a ten year old I saw her in the film “Marie Antoinette” in two parts on The Early Show back in the late 50’s. Bette Davis was a wonderful “Jezebel”, but Shearer that year should have taken the best actress award home.

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