Whenever the queens of the Oscars are mentioned, the names Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn and Meryl Streep are mentioned. And this makes perfect sense since all three of them, at one point in their career, held the record of most Best Actress nomination (and, of course, Meryl Streep still does and most likely will for a very long time). But before these three legendary performers wrote their names into Oscar’s history book, it was Norma Shearer who held the distinction of being Oscar’s favorite performer with a total of 6 nominations until 1938. And it was certainly more than fitting that she received her record-breaking 6th and final nomination which truly turned her into the Queen of the Oscars (even though only for a couple of years until Bette Davis overtook her) for her performance as the doomed French Queen Marie Antoinette who lost her family and ultimately her life during the French Revolution. The Oscar race between Bette Davis and Norma Shearer in 1938 is an extremely interesting one – of course, nobody will ever know how many votes each nominee received but Norma Shearer’s status in Hollywood, the surely still strong sentiment about the death of her husband Irving Thalberg and her popularity with audiences must surely have resulted in a strong number of votes. Of course, on the other hand she surely did not make a lot of friends during her marriage to Thalberg and the royal treatment she received as the ‘Queen of MGM’ which also resulted in a Best Actress Oscar for one of her first talkies undoubtedly put a lot of actresses against her – so maybe her loss in 1938 cannot be exactly considered a surprise. Still, in some ways, the 30s almost belonged to Norma Shearer even though she became largely forgotten during the following decades and rivals like Joan Crawford, who had to play second fiddle during Norma Shearer’s prime, have used her declining fame to great advantage since it enabled them to write her off as an untalented performer who was able to sleep her way to the top. Today, Norma Shearer’s reputation is beginning to improve again and the release of many of her old movies enables a new and comprehensive look at her filmography. And looking at Norma Shearer’s Oscar-nominated performances, one thing becomes clear very soon: her improvement as an actress over the years. During her first talkies, she often displayed a tendency for theatrical over-acting that belonged to the time of silent pictures and she also did not truly know how to use her voice in a natural, unaffected and believable way. But with time, Norma Shearer developed an unexpected strength as an actress that maybe did not always cover her melodramatic acting style but allowed her to dig surprisingly deep into her characters and very often display an unexpected willingness to completely let go of herself, forgetting all awareness of herself and act truly in the moment. And this strength was never more visible than in Marie Antoinette.
Marie Antoinette is as grand, lavish and pompous as one would expect it to be. Costume designer Gilbert Adrian and set decorator Cederic Gibbons obviously followed their credo ‘more is more’ and filled every frame with opulent design, grandiose sets and extravagant gowns. Marie Antoinette screams ‘epic’ at every second of its running time and doesn’t waste one second pretending anything else. But on the scale of ‘epicness’, Marie Antoinette did not reach a very high level because underneath all the glamour and opulence hides a typical melodrama from the 30s. And in some ways, the central performance by Norma Shearer also offers that typical melodrama from the 30s – she stares into the open space, moves her body very often as if she hadn’t realized yet that the invention of sound had brought a new acting style years ago and uses her face with such exaggeration that one feels the need to move a few feet away from the screen. But the miraculous thing is that all these aspects that usually rather destroy a Norma-Shearer-performance this time completely disappeared in Norma Shearer’s overall characterization. Because in Marie Antoinette, Norma Shearer displayed her ability to act ‘without a net’ – she did not act with visible strings between herself and her character but instead wholly let go of her own control and let her instincts dominate her work. This way, her performance became an overwhelming kaleidoscope of human emotions, from the joy and playfulness of a young girl to the broken spirit of a lost soul.
Right from the start, Norma Shearer takes the viewer on an emotional rollercoaster ride – she believably shows the anxiety of a young woman entering a new life that seemed exciting and adventurous at first but only turns out to be dull and limited. It may be odd to see two so obviously mature actors in the parts of such inexperienced teenagers but both Norma Shearer and Robert Morley know how to portray these aspects of their performance without overdoing it – Robert Morley finds the right amount of shyness and frustration in his work while Norma Shearer plays her disappointment, her attempts to bond with her husband and her anger and frustration that she cannot give France an heir with just the right mixture of girlish inexperience and mature decisiveness. This way, both actors managed to create a remarkable chemistry that may not be truly romantic but turns into a believable friendship and Norma Shearer achieved the almost impossible task to display how much feelings Marie Antoinette actually has for her husband – which made their final moments together at the end even more heartbreaking. But the movie makers obviously thought that they could not tell the story of Marie Antoinette without some true romance – enter Tyrone Power to give the female audience something to dream about and Norma Shearer the chance for some romantic close-ups. And again, everything so easily could have gone wrong in this production but Norma Shearer not only handled these parts of the storyline with wonderful clarity in which she refused to turn the scenes with Tyrone Power into typical love scenes but instead always underlined a certain tension, a certain sadness and impossibility but she also found the perfect balance between the scenes between herself and Robert Morley and herself and Tyrone Power – she displayed a strong chemistry with both actors but both are completely different and seem to exist independent from one another while Norma Shearer also makes it clear how much she is thinking of Power in her scenes with Morley and how much of Morley in her scenes with Power. And Norma Shearer also managed to make it completely believable that Marie Antoinette would not only stay with her husband but also develop feelings for him that may not be the same as for the other man in her life but also strong and honest.
Norma Shearer also may have been handed a character that was written too saint-like but she never actively tried to act her like this – instead, she portrayed the ignorance, the single-mindedness and the arrogance of Marie Antoinette with an intriguing honesty. And even though these feelings might have been born out of her anger of rejection and unhappiness (at least in this movie version), Norma Shearer showed that Marie Antoinette was not fully without flaws – her carelessness at various parties at which she is giving away her jewelry during little games or her flirting with various men may mostly serve the movie’s need for some glamour and excitement but Norma Shearer again refuses to take the easy way out and uses these moments to constantly surprise the audience with new shades of her character which never seem like unconnected attempts to deepen the role beyond the page but instead always create a believable and complete flow. But Norma Shearer always knows when to change Marie, when to develop her and when to let her find new aspects of her own personality – she can challenge Madame du Barry during a ball in front of her father-in-law, she can show her loyalty to her husband when he is made King, she can enjoy his little, awkward moments of affection just as much as the passion of Count von Fersen or fight against the intrigues and gossip of the royal court – and does it all splendidly. Norma Shearer runs the gamut of basically every human emotion in her role and does so with a visible willingness to challenge herself, to prove herself, to display her talents while developing them at the same time. She can be intimidated just as convincingly as she intimated herself, she can be arrogant and loving, scheming and helpless, desperate and hopeful. Most of all, Marie Antoinette is a showcase and Norma Shearer truly delivers, but thankfully without ever turning it into pure attention-seeking but always in harmony with the character.
Norma Shearer takes the viewer on an artistically utterly fascinating journey – and all this even before her real tour-de-force begins. Had Norma Shearer mostly found the human drama in the opulent melodrama so far, she rose to a level of dramatic excellence that she never had before – and few actresses would ever after. From the moment she watches her husband as he loses the respect and loyalty of his troops to the scene when she runs around her room, looking for her clothes to pack as the royal family plans to escape the occupied palace, she slowly, step by step, introduces the human drama that is about to follow. And Norma Shearer not only displays these moments but, like few other performances, is able to create such an atmosphere of helplessness, of confinement and desperation that these final moments of Marie Antoinette become almost unbearable in their tension and devastation. In these scenes, she does not become the messenger of the movie’s story but instead shapes and defines the story herself, adds the tragedy and horror instead of projecting it. Her scene when she watches her husband and her children, knowing that this is their last night together, is completely heartbreaking and with her silent suffering, her ‘smile through tears’, Norma Shearer again proved how much she had developed herself from the theatrical and mannered performer she had been at the beginning of the decade. And later, when she listens to the execution of her husband, Norma Shearer once more displayed her willingness to completely surrender herself to the moment, to the context of the story – her head shaking uncontrollably, her eyes so wide with panic that they seem to fall out at any moment, could have been so overdone but Norma Shearer’s instincts perfectly guided her though the scene. But in the last part of Marie Antoinette, Norma Shearer constantly manages to top herself – her delivery of the line in which she asks the men, who came to pick up her son just moments after the execution of her husband, what they just said is one for the ages. No shrill panic, no over-expression – instead, she delivers her line completely calm, almost amused as if she thinks that these men are joking since she cannot believe that they would take away her son now, at this moment. The way she slowly stands up, hiding her child behind her back, trying to fight the men away is done masterfully and her final acceptance of the inevitable, her comfort of her son and her telling him to be brave while clearly dying inside is certainly one of the most shocking and harrowing scenes in movie history. And in a later scene, she gives one of the most unforgettable displays of silent acting ever put on the screen when Marie, alone in prison, recognizes an old friend coming to say goodbye – her disbelief, her shame, her fear, her desperation all wash across her face in just a few seconds. It’s a towering moment that brings the exhausting journey of Marie Antoinette to a tragic end.
I admit that Norma Shearer’s acting style is not everyone’s cup of tea – very often not even mine. But in this case, she has completely won me over. Her slight smile as Marie Antoinette is brought to the place of execution could have been played so easily but Norma Shearer finds so many different emotions in this expression that it seems impossible to mention them all. And when an image of a young Marie Antoinette, rejoicing about her future as Queen of France, is laid over the scene of Marie Antoinette facing the guillotine, it becomes clear how epic her achievement truly is. For all this, she receives