Saturday, April 18, 2015

1929/1930: Norma Shearer for The Divorcee

Based on the title of this movie, I thought it was going to start with the end of Norma Shearer's character's marriage and go from there. So I was rather surprised to find that at the beginning she hasn't even been married yet, although she is in love. Toward the beginning, her boyfriend proposes and they get married, with every expectation of living happily ever after. Unfortunately, on their third anniversary, as he's about to leave on a business trip, she discovers that he has been unfaithful to her. He brushes it off, says it doesn't mean anything, and leaves on his trip. She is so angry and upset that she spends the night with another man. She regrets it immediately, and confesses to her husband when he returns home, but he refuses to forgive her, and that's how she becomes a divorcee.

I love how feminist this movie is. I love how it points out the folly of society thinking it's no big deal for men to cheat on their wives, but the end of the world for women to cheat on their husbands. I love that even when they're married she's working, but no one makes condescending remarks about how unusual she is for being able to manage a husband and a career at the same time. I love how she tries to enjoy her life after her husband leaves her, even though it doesn't really work. And I really love how much of the time Norma Shearer's wearing pants. It's kind of sad watching this movie 85 years later, knowing that, apart from the pants part, things haven't really progressed that much, and for a while in between they were a lot worse. But anyway, this is a Best Actress blog, so let's talk about Norma Shearer.

Because of her "proper lady" image, Shearer had to work hard to persuade MGM producers, including her husband Irving Thalberg, that she could play this role. Apparently, she did some sort of scandalous photo-shoot that finally convinced Thalberg. After seeing the finished product, he must have wondered why he had ever doubted her. She is absolutely fabulous. Her facial expressions are those of a talented silent actress, but unlike many of her peers, she knew how to use her voice with her face. It helps that her voice sounded pretty normal, unlike Mary Pickford's, but it's the way she says her lines, not merely her voice itself, that's impressive. Okay, yes, I'll admit, there were a few moments that I thought were a bit over-the-top, but on the whole her performance was remarkably controlled. Much of the time, particularly in the scene when she confronts her husband about his infidelity and the scene soon afterward when she confesses her own, it doesn't even seem like a performance at all. In my experience, this is unusual for early talkies, and is unquestionably one of the main reasons why she won the Oscar.

This was the final year that actresses were allowed to be nominated for multiple performances at the same time. Both Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo were nominated for two of their 1929/1930 films. For some reason, unlike Janet Gaynor, who two years earlier won for all three performances for which she was nominated, Shearer only won for The Divorcee. I haven't seen the other film, which is called Their Own Desire, but while I'm sure she was wonderful in it, I can't see how it could have possibly topped this performance. Apparently it was another of her typical "good girl" roles, so it certainly couldn't have surprised the Academy as much as this one did.

Although this would prove to be her only Oscar, Shearer was nominated for Best Actress four more times: for 1931's A Free Soul, 1934's The Barretts of Wimpole Street, 1936's Romeo and Juliet, and 1938's Marie Antoinette, after which she only made five more films before retiring in 1942. With her fourth nomination, she became the person most nominated for this award, pulling ahead even further with her fifth nomination. Though her record was broken only a few years later by Bette Davis, I still think it's cool that Norma Shearer was the first person to receive five Best Actress nominations, since in 87 years only 18 others have managed it, and only eight of them have gotten more than five.

Next up is Marie Dressler, only the fourth winner and already the third from Canada. Was there some sort of Canadian conspiracy or something?

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