Feb 21, 2014

Norma Shearer, Romeo and Juliet

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At the age of 34, Norma Shearer was about twenty years too old to be playing Juliet in Shakespeare's classic tragedy. I've seen this factoid brought up quite a bit in articles regarding the 1936 Romeo & Juliet...but at the end of the day, does it really matter? After all, the earliest actors who played Juliet were men. Plus, this is a story that has a boy and a girl meet one evening, fall in love right on the spot, decide later that night that they are to be married, get married less than 24 hours after having first laid eyes on each other, and then die for each other by the end of the week. Needless to say, Romeo & Juliet is a play that teeters a bit onto the unrealistic. I had my doubts, but all that really mattered to me was whether or not Shearer could bring anything interesting to such a world-renown character.

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 photo ScreenShot2014-02-12at72436PM.jpgAn obvious advantage to Shearer's age is her acting experience. The difference between Shearer and say, Olivia Hussey in the 1968 Romeo and Juliet is like night and day. Shakespeare's words are in a world of their own, and at times it can all sound a bit looney and cheesy. Mix that with the wrong kind of stagey early Hollywood acting (looking at you, John Barrymore) and the whole thing has the potential to be a big 'ol mess. It takes an actor who really knows what he or she is doing to bring justice to these Shakespearian characters, and so I can't begrudge the casting of an actress in her thirties versus an actress in her teens. If there's anything I've gotten used to while watching films of this era, it's seeing sweet and virginal female characters fall hard in love with some dude, and Juliet is really just a continuation of that old-Hollywood dynamic. While I don't think Shearer was able to capture the naive spirit that I'd say is more innate in a girl of 14, I could definitely buy her as a twenty-something ingenue--and that ought to be good enough, right? What I really enjoyed (and what really surprised me) about Shearer's work here was the airy ease in which she tackles Shakespeare's dialogue. As alien as the words sound at times, her delivery makes it all look like a cinch. And in the heavier moments of the film, I really did feel for her. My issue with Shearer in the past was that while she's good at dramatic acting, the films she starred in always had emotional moments that felt very forced. Shearer brings some pretty fervent passion to her big emotional scenes here (namely the scene in which she finds out about Tybalt's death as well as the long monologue she has before taking her sleeping potion), and I think she understood the character of Juliet well enough to make it all register effectively, as all the spectrums of Juliet's emotions feel fully realized. It's chilling stuff, and not only does Shearer transcend the Shakespearean, she does it all with an expertise that I'd imagine only a more seasoned and skilled actress can do. Is she too old for the part? Maybe. But she's radiant and heartbreaking and by far the best thing in her film.


  1. Interesting. Most of what I hear about this one is negative, but you aren't the first to like it either. I don't think the age thing will bother me, that's never something that gets on my nerves as long as it's not like 40 year old Norma with a 17 year old or something like that. Your appreciation for Norma's perfs seem to be building as the years go on, maybe she'll reach 5 stars for Marie Antoinette :)

    How was Rathbone?

    1. I've always been a teeny bit iffy on Shearer, but I'm pretty surprised that I liked her as much as I did for this particular nomination no less! And I've heard nothing but good things about her in Marie Antoinette, so I'm looking forward to it :)

      As for Rathbone...his nomination was a total flop. He's in the film for like, 5 minutes. Hardly enough time for him to do anything noteworthy. And the weird thing is, he isn't the only supporting nominee I've seen from this year so far with such a small amount of screen time...I suppose Academy members back then felt glorified cameos were "supporting" performances.

  2. I remember that I liked her but saw the movie years ago...

  3. Shearer worked tirelessly at home with the stage actress Constance Collier to give the Shakespearean blank verse an air of spontaneity, and as you note, it worked very well. In January 1936, at the start of production, Shearer was actually 33; her birthday was in August when the finished film was ready for premiere.

    As for Shearer's age it's worth noting for the record MGM worked to compensate by upping the age of the other actors. Leslie Howard was 42, Barrymore would turn 54 during filming and C. Aubrey Smith typically was playing grandfather roles. The otherwise lusty nurse became a doddering Edna May Oliver biddy. They were all great even though Shakespeare's intended ages were raised.

    MGM and Irving Thalberg had to cut a deal with Warner Brothers to get Howard, which included a subsequent loanout of Shearer for a Warners picture. That stipulation dissolved after a year when neither Warners nor Shearer could agree on a project. But, according to Shearer biographer, Gavin Lambert, "But the terms of the contract disprove the frequent claim that Irving exaggerated her box office value. A notably stingy studio was eager enough for a Shearer picture to offer $150,000, top-billing, and approval of leading man, and cameraman as well as story."

    Irving Thalberg knew his time was running out; doctors had not expected him, with his serious heart trouble, to live much past 30. He was now 37, in this his last year. He was determined to finish Juliet for Norma, "Camille" for Greta Garbo, "The Good Earth," "Maytime" and "Marie Antoinette" and be done. He did get the first three of those completed, which not too incidentally feature central characters who go to a noble death after a brief, difficult life.

    He faced significant opposition from Louis B. Mayer as his expenditures ballooned; "Juliet" had an eventual price tag beaten that same year only by MGM's own "The Great Ziegfeld." The film made money, especially after drawing Oscar nominations, but still finished a few hundred thousand in the red due to its production costs. "The Good Earth" would prove enormously costly too.

    Thalberg was out at a premiere at the time, but George Cukor, with everything and everyone he needed for the potion scene, decided to make a take without waiting for Irving. When Thalberg saw it, he tried to feign annoyance, but in fact Cukor and Norma had done so well it went right into the finished film without Irving ordering retakes. Indeed, in the second half of the movie, where Norma isn't asked to feign the naiveté of a teenager any longer, she assuredly takes the entire movie on her shoulders and justifies the Academy nomination that would follow.

    I first saw the movie in the 1970s, and have never been without a copy of it since.

    1. Thank you for the great information! And welcome to my blog, I'm glad to have you. I almost feel a little strange for having liked Shearer as much as I did in this film. I haven't seen much love for her here from many other Oscar bloggers, and it's a performance I don't read much about on the internet in general, so it's good to know I'm not the only one who is a fan.

  4. The Breen Office was watching closely when it came to the honeymoon morning. Shearer and Howard were certainly not allowed any state of undress, and there'd be no pawing and clutching such as was available Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting by 1968.

    This left it to the two actors, fully clothed, and only Juliet reclined, to suggest post-coital bliss, and it's another instance where Shearer's work earned its nomination. Watch it closely again for the line reading, "Art thou gone so? It was the nightingale and not the lark did pierce the fearful hollow of thine ear. Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate tree." With just her tender delivery, Norma fully underlines the state of sated yearning of the newlyweds.

    Then we follow with Romeo's flight to Mantua, banished by the Prince of Verona after the sword fight with Tybalt. Mere weeks before filming this scene, Thalberg had attended the funeral of John Gilbert. Marlene Dietrich, the Great Lover's last lover, apparently put on a performance of such show-stopping wailing and sobbing, it fostered a new Thalberg dictum: "Grief must always be underplayed." Shearer biographer Gavin Lambert said this contributed to the picture's "low emotional temperature," but watching it through 2015 eyes, it was a smart move, allowing the viewer's heart to break for the forced apart lovers with no need for Howard or Shearer to overdo it.

  5. Your appreciation of Shearer here is not misplaced. She's a bit girlish early on, but her command of the Shakespearean dialog and, in particular, the monologues is superb and her emotionally intelligent portrayal is quite memorable.

    One thing to note about the Shearer reputation: when the era of cinema "auteurs" came into being in the '60s and '70s, studio men like Irving Thalberg came under harsh fire and Norma, being his wife, was included in the "she married the boss" perspective that Joan Crawford loved to say. Also, many of Shearer's films, the pre-code ones, had been out of circulation for years so newer critics were commenting on her acting talent (or supposed lack of) without seeing any of her work. With the advent of VHS, DVD and TCM, her work has been rediscovered and reevaluated by many, myself included.

    1. You virtually parrot Mick LaSalle, Norma's pre-Code rescuer in his superb work "Complicated Women":

      "For about twenty years following her retirement, Shearer got a free ride from the critics. Then came the new generation, the one that had grown up with MGM's hype about the "First Lady of MGM" rammed down their throats. Out came the knives.

      "Many film books of the sixties and seventies, written in the days before video forced film historians to be honest, are filled with suspicious references ( for instance, descriptions of The Divorcee as a "tearjerker"). And no writer could resist describing the "brutal" scene in which Gable "slapped," "slugged," "punched," or "socked" Shearer in A Free Soul. Actually, he shoved her. But why quibble?

      "In the film book mythology that emerged, Shearer became the queenly, no-talent, cross-eyed actress who was invariably used as an example of someone not as good as whatever actress was being written about. Everyone developed a favorite on whose behalf Shearer's roles were coveted. Even Ethan Mordden, whose book Movie Star: A Look at the Women Who Made Hollywood showed an appreciation for Shearer's work, wishes Ann Harding might have starred in Private Lives and Strange Interlude. At least he picked a good one.

      "In 1980, the dread ghost of Joan Crawford broke out of the crypt, ready to settle old scores in Roy Newquist's Conversations with Joan Crawford. "Norma Shearer, as usual, played the perpetual virgin," she said, regarding The Women. It is hard to believe that Crawford would say that, since she, of all people, knew better."

      - -
      From the first reading and since, LaSalle echoed experience I could recall myself.

      The first MGM star from the same era I became fascinated with was Jean Harlow, around 1974. She was soon followed by Crawford and Garbo. All four being leading lights at the same studio, naturally Norma's name was dropped often in books about the other three (not surprisingly, most dismissively in Crawford books). It was enough to engender a sustained hunger for Shearer knowledge, but it was quite a long wait until May 1990 for a full-bodied Shearer biography by Gavin Lambert. My precious copy, read not less than fifteen times, now could use some tender rebinding.

      In the spring of 1985, The Women finally came to MGM Home Video on VHS, and I still have that first edition too. Generous, but not comprehensive Shearer material followed, and yes, Turner Classic Movies would prove a godsend. I now have some keepsake version of every sound film except Mary Dugan, as well as the silents, He Who Gets Slapped, Lady Of The Night, Student Prince and her final, A Lady Of Chance. Upstage, which LaSalle judges the best silent Shearer made with director Monta Bell, remains a holy grail.

    2. To dvlaries: We are obviously Shearer fans. I think she was a great actress with forgivable habits because her work was so emotionally honest. When you say I 'parrot' the 'Complicated Women' passages ... I bet I do because when I read it, it was articulating what I already believed. I think Shearer's been undervalued for more than 50 years because some critics resented the studio system and her perceived role in it. And by the way, the studio system (despite its shortcomings) was full to the brim with artists producing work at their zenith.