June 12, 2014

Norma Shearer, Marie Antoinette

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Won: Venice Film Festival - Volpi Cup for Best Actress

People naturally compare Gone with the Wind and Jezebel due to both films being set around the Civil War period and the fact that both have queenly southern belles for heroines. However, I'd say that Marie Antoinette is just as worthy a comparison. Like Gone with the Wind, it too has a hefty running-time and monster grandiose aspirations. Further, like the other two pictures, the success of Marie Antoinette settles itself entirely on the giant wigs of leading lady Norma Shearer, whose French queen has a fabulosity that makes Scarlett O'Hara and Julie Marsden look like mere mortals. By now I've seen all of Shearer's Oscar-nominated performances and my relationship with her has been on-and-off. I tend to find her work either pretty good or terribly dull. Marie Antoinette was the last project Irving Thalberg had lined up for his wife before his death. In a figurative sense, this performance would be a bid farewell to Oscar, who had recognized Shearer more than any other actress throughout his first 12 years. I imagine that Shearer saw this role as an opportunity to not only honor her late husband, but to channel her pain by giving the performance of her life as well.

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 photo ScreenShot2014-06-04at70824PM.pngAnd what's not to love about Shearer in this film? From a purely superficial standpoint, her wigs, headpieces, and gorgeous Adrian gowns make her look like an opulent goddess, and that alone ensures she is watchable at the very least. I've often taken issue with Shearer's acting style, which at times can be too mannered and reliant on gestures to indicate drama, but never before has a film's tone been so fitting for these Shearer-isms. We are dealing with a legendary larger-than-life Queen in a film that's not taking itself too seriously as a biopic after all, so her performance here is really a marriage of silly theatrical tics and profound emotional acting that feels entirely appropriate with the picture's tone and atmosphere. The first half of the film is just Shearer having fun--we are to be in awe of her as she runs around in fabulous gowns and partakes in various shenanigans and shades the hell out of Gladys George and is gently wounded by King Louis XV, King Louis XVI, and Count Axel von Fersen. And in awe of her I was--Shearer is flighty, rambunctious, and fun, on top of doing an excellent job at handling all that the role demands while carrying this massive costume ball of a film. And then the second half hits--and suddenly we're in for a tailspin as the film becomes a crushing and relentless viewing experience. It's easy to see why Marie Antoinette was a favorite of Shearer's--the picture acts sort of like a metaphor for her life at the time. It's befitting that the Queen of M-G-M would play the Queen of France, but by 1938, Shearer had grown weary of her career, surely because of Thalberg's death but likely because what left with Thalberg was the mastermind that shaped Shearer's dominance throughout the 1930's. So there's something painfully sincere in watching a woman nearing the end of her professional career play the tragic French queen, overthrown by her people and taken to the guillotine to die. Same goes with the scene in which Marie reacts to the news of Louis' execution and the subsequent scene in which she watches him die--there is an intensity to her here that feels dangerously real. There were times near the end of the film that were vividly tough to watch, and that's due to Shearer's visceral use of emotions. Her work is beautiful in its tragedy--seeing her watch all her loved ones taken away and killed, seeing her try and protect her son with what little royal courage she has left, and seeing her jailed alone, stripped and raw and ready for all of it to be over. It's an incredible transformation, as thrilling to watch as it is grueling. I've never seen Shearer so gritty as in her last two scenes, a ghost of a person she once was, damaged by her despair. Perhaps it's the closeness to home that really brought out the greatness in her...it's exciting, gripping, and traumatic work, a perfect cherry on top to a fantastic run. With an exception of The Women, Shearer's films would see waning returns and she would retire not long after Marie Antoinette. She would also shy away from the spotlights that had previously shone so brightly on her. Frankly, I couldn't have asked for a better goodbye than with this performance, and it is with great pleasure that I give her a


  1. Yay, I'm so glad you love her so much! :)

  2. wow. I hope I get to draw 1938 at one point, if only for an excuse to see this. :)

    1. Haha, you probably won't be doing another year out of the 30's for awhile though, right?

    2. Actually, I will. 30s, 50s and 90s still have only 2 years each.

  3. The drama going on behind the scenes was as intriguing as anything happening on the screen. In November 1936, two months after Thalberg’s death, Louis B. Mayer made a move to have Irving’s share of the ongoing profit deal between the two and MGM lawyer Robert Rubin revert to those two survivors.

    They hadn’t reckoned with Norma as a surviving party, who was more than prepared to fight. A five-month cold war set it, with Norma using her every skill as a actress to play the victim to select interviewers, until Mayer was finally ordered by Nicholas Schenck, head of MGM’s New York-located, parent company Loew’s Inc., to back down.

    The Thalberg estate would receive its share of Irving’s percentage up to 1938, when his contract would expire. “Later, when the company began leasing its films to television, the benefit to the estate was far greater than either side foresaw at the time.”

    Louie didn’t take kindly to being challenged and beaten by any mere actress, and while putting on a warm show of welcome back to the widowed Shearer, quietly plotted revenge. On New Year’s Eve, 1937, separately and quickly, Shearer and Sidney Franklin (Antoinette’s schedule director, and a trusted Shearer confidante) were summoned to Mayer’s office and told the picture would have to be made in 60 days, not the planned 90, to save money. When Franklin declared he couldn’t do it that fast, he was replaced with fast working W.S. VanDyke. Before Shearer and Franklin could compare notes, they were each led to believe the change was fine with the other.

    Shearer feared VanDyke’s reputation for speedy work, and knew she couldn’t pressure him into endless retakes as she could Franklin. She also knew she was being watched for signs of a troublemaker once she returned to the studio. In a miracle, all turned out well. Woody VanDyke proved not to be the uncaring, cut-corner worker he was supposed, and Norma summoned all her professionalism to accommodate Woody’s preference for spontaneity in performance.

    The result is that Barretts (directed by Franklin) at about 115 minutes actually feels like a longer movie than Antoinette’s 150, thanks to VanDyke’s facility for pacing. As for Louie, it is said that when he saw the rough cut, he wept at its greatness, forgetting any lingering hard feelings toward its leading lady. At the Trocadero, Norma sat right next to Louie B. for the celebration party after Antoinette's triumphant premiere.

    1. That's definitely interesting to know that she put together this performance succinctly and quicker than usual. She's divine in this film.

    2. Only in 1955, when Sidney Franklin was remaking Barretts Of Wimpole Street with Jennifer Jones, and wrote to Norma on impulse, did the two relay their respective experiences that fateful New Years Eve and realize how deftly each had been maneuvered.

      Franklin's letter in particular indicates that Nicholas Schenck was one of the principals at the meetings. "His presence makes clear how powerfully the dice were loaded against her as well as disposes of a rumor circulating at the time that Norma was MGM's controlling stockholder. In that position, she certainly have found the 'courage' to insist on retaining Franklin."

      Sincerely recommended reading: "Norma Shearer" by Gavin Lambert, published by Knopf in May 1990 (hard to find now, and pricey when it is, but till someone writes a better one, the definitive Shearer biography), and "Complicated Women" by Mick LaSalle, Thomas Dunne Books, 2000 (still reasonable at Amazon). Each turned page of LaSalle's book had me thinking 'I wish I'd written that.' Nothing less than Shearer's literary knight in shining armor, LaSalle restores Norma's pre-Code primacy with informed heroism.

  4. Some notes on the marriage of Irving Thalberg and Norma Shearer:

    Norma’s first love was director Victor Fleming, who eventually proved a love ‘em and leave ‘em scalp collector. Monta Bell, who directed Norma in some of her very best silents, was next, but he would prove to be far more in love than she was. Tellingly, once the courtship between Norma and Irving drew serious, Bell didn’t work with her anymore.

    Irving’s most prominent romances while still single were with the actress Constance Talmage, and Rosabelle Laemmle, the daughter of Irving’s boss during his Universal days. However Irving’s mother Henrietta, a dominating matriarch, disapproved of both and in their way too both women proved themselves too mercurial to be suitable life mates. In 1924, when Irving began a partnership with him, Louis B. Mayer, aware of Irving’s fragile health, preemptively told both his daughters Irene and Edith that Irving was “hands off.”

    Norma, who admittedly set her cap for Irving sooner than he, and who jokingly referred to herself as “Irving’s spare tire,” observed all of this, played a patient waiting game and formed her strategy. Too shrewd to underestimate the emotional competition, she set out to win over both son and mother, “sincere in the first case, diplomatic in the second.” It couldn’t have been easy for someone born under the sign of Leo.

    Eventually opinion among Irving’s friends coalesced around the verdict, “Norma relaxed him.” But Irving was no fool, and was testing Norma as well, until he was convinced the future Mrs. Thalberg would always accommodate his workaholic personality.

    In time, some ugly observations would be attributed to a jealous Joan Crawford: “She only married him because she knew he was going to die on her,” “She rode his balls through the entire studio,” the viewpoint of an eventual three-time marital loser. Facts say otherwise.

    Following Irving’s December 1932 heart attack he and Norma embarked on a recuperative European vacation, which would eventually see Norma off the screen from that autumn till March 1934’s Riptide, a dangerous length of sabbatical when every other star actress at MGM save Marion Davies was younger than Norma.

    (During that break, a juicy property, Another Language, whose story pitted a young wife in locked horns with a formidable mother-in-law, and had very personal overtones for Norma, went instead to Helen Hayes.)

    Naturally in light of that, and similar sacrifices, any loving husband once to returned to health, would seek to repay in kind. Whatever perks marriage to Thalberg brought Norma, she earned. Theirs was the rarest of Hollywood marriages, solid till death, and there was never any gossip, let alone evidence, either was less than fully devoted to the other.