Picks and Pans Review: Norma Shearer: a Biography

updated 06/25/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/25/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Gavin Lambert

In her final years, Norma Shearer, looking and behaving more like Miss Haversham than one of the 1930s' big movie stars, would clutch the wrists of friends visiting her at the Motion Picture Country House hospital in the San Fernando Valley and ask, "Are you Irving? Were we married?"

It was not the end Irving Thalberg, her first husband and Hollywood's most famous boy-genius producer, would have wanted for his wife, the onetime queen of the MGM lot. But by the time Norma died in 1983 at age 80, Thalberg was long dead and she hadn't made a movie for 41 years. Unlike Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Myrna Loy, other actresses who reigned at MGM in the 1930s, Shearer has not endured in the public mind. Her most famous movies, Private Lives, The Barretts of Wimpole Street and Romeo and Juliet, appear today as overreaching attempts to transfer Broadway's grand gestures to the screen. Maybe because a reader approaches a Shearer biography with such low expectations she proves a surprisingly absorbing subject. Lambert, blending thorough research with able prose, gives Norma her due without overstating her talent, or intellectual or emotional depth. He shows how Shearer, while less than beautiful (she had thick legs, heavy hips and a wandering left eye), made herself into the most glamorous woman at Hollywood's most glamorous studio. Actor Robert Morley, appearing with Norma in 1938's Marie Antoinette, tactlessly asked her, "How did you become a movie star?" Norma replied: "I wanted to!"

She was helped, of course, by being married to Thalberg, MGM's No. 2 man, though Lambert argues that Thalberg limited Norma to playing highfalutin parts that matched his view of her as a screen equivalent of the great ladies of the theater. Lambert, a novelist and author of various books on Hollywood, says Norma would have preferred sexpot roles.

Thalberg was born with a weak heart, and when Norma married him in 1927, she knew full well that he would be lucky to make it to 35. He managed to live to 37, dying in 1936, leaving Norma with a couple million dollars and two small children. The marriage had been a happy one, though Lambert implies that Irving had a low sex drive. Once Thalberg died, Norma polished up her own carnal knowledge, having affairs with James Stewart, George Raft and a 16-year-old Mickey Rooney (she was 36). Six years after Thalberg's death and with her career over, she wed Martin Arrougé, a ski instructor 12 years her junior. For the next 40 years, Shearer lived a quiet life, skiing and dancing (including the frug) with her husband and fading from public view.

There were moments, though, especially in her final decade, that seem to belong to that other, more desperate Norma, Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond. Lambert tells of an evening he spent with Shearer in 1974, when, after deciding to go to a movie at a Beverly Hills theater, Norma backed out at the last minute. "I would really love to go," she said, "but there'll be so many photographers waiting outside the theater. I'm afraid it would spoil our evening." (Knopf, $24.95)

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