Dubbed "The Queen of Hollywood" by Louis B. Mayer, Norma Shearer began her movie career not in front of a camera but playing the piano at silent movie theatres in Montreal.
Norma Shearer recalled her childhood as a "pleasant dream" filled with piano, skating, skiing and swimming. By the time she was nine, she knew exactly what she wanted from life: she wanted to be an actress like the Dolly Sisters. When Shearer's parents separated, her mother packed up her daughters, Norma and Athole, and headed for New York City.
Norma gained work as a bit player in small films, one of which was D.W. Griffith's Way Down East (1920). More than one director suggested that she had an eye problem that would make it difficult for her to attain her goal of stardom. A determined Shearer began exercises to strengthen her eyes and spent hours in front of the mirror learning to highlight her best features for the camera. The work paid off.
Norma had paid her dues in small-budget "B" films and moved on to larger films, including The Divorcee (1930) and her final silent feature, A Lady of Chance (1928). While most silent-film stars failed to make the transition to "talkies," Norma's first talking role, the title character in The Trial of Mary Dugan (1929), was a great success. Her "medium pitched, fluent, flexible Canadian accent" was widely imitated and critically applauded. In 1931, she won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her work in The Divorcee, accepting her award alongside her brother, Douglas Shearer, who won for Best Sound Recording for The Big House? the only time a brother and sister have been honoured in the same year. At the time, Norma was asked if she had feared the advent of sound in film. She replied, "It offered a new way to express emotion. But, of course, I would have murdered my brother, Douglas, if he hadn't made me sound so good." Although she took time off for the births of her two children, Shearer continued her success in prestige projects, including The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934) and Romeo and Juliet (1936). The latter would bring her fifth Oscar nomination. Norma took her role as a film star seriously. She exercised daily, had her own hairdresser and makeup artist, and brought her firm sense of style to the screen by insisting that her wardrobe be fashioned by world-renowned designers, including Adrian and Erté.
Norma's perfect life came to a crashing halt when Thalberg died at the age of 37, after his second heart attack, which abruptly changed the course of her career. Norma wanted to retire. Louis B. Mayer didn't want to let his star go. He pressured her to make six more films. Although she would go on to star in Marie Antoinette (1938), The Women (1939) and Escape (1940), she passed up plum roles in Pride and Prejudice, Susan and God, Mrs. Miniver, Gone with the Wind, and Now, Voyager.
Norma Shearer married ski instructor Martin Arrouge in 1942 and retired from the screen forever. She died at the age of 83, her Hollywood legacy as a feminist pioneer in motion pictures firmly cemented in film history.