Norma Shearer won her only Oscar for playing Jerry Martin in The Divorcee.
The Divorcee is an okay pre-code movie. I’m not crazy about it at all, and despite it being controversial back in its day, it is very mild by today’s standards (“I’d like to make love to you till you scream for help”). The idea of a sexually liberated divorcee and her promiscuity must have been shocking to audiences back then, but that wasn’t my biggest issue with the movie. It had that very common problem in many 30s’ movies, where the scenes transition a little too quickly and abruptly from one to another and the story was on the thin side. Still, I liked that the director made an effort to actually capture the actors’ expressions through some cut scenes, and that made it a lot more effective rather than making the whole film like a staged play. I liked some of the ideas it explored, such as the double standards imposed between men and women when it comes to sexuality and marriage. Talkies were still early back then, so I guess they were still figuring it out.
Still, the light of the film itself is really its leading actress Norma Shearer. Shearer was pretty much the queen of the Oscars (and MGM) in the thirties, receiving a total of 6 Oscar nominations in that decade before her last film in 1942. She was known for her “free soul” image and pre-code films. I have often read people describing her as a fascinating presence on screen, and to certain extent I would agree. The flirtatious smile, the charm, the seductiveness and sexiness all emanates from her naturally without coming across as forced and contrived, but at the same time there is this mystery behind it that makes this lady so compelling to watch.
As such, Shearer actually fits the role of Jerry like a glove. Right from the beginning, she is the light of the otherwise not-so-interesting movie. Some people may argue that the giggling and the mannerisms are fake, but to me it was just an integral part of Jerry’s personality. Things change, however, when Jerry learns of her d-bag husband’s affair. Shearer plays the initial hurt and disebelief of Jerry fairly well, although I must admit I wished she went deeper into the emotions at times. I personally felt that her line deliveries sounded a bit fake at times although it wasn’t extremely distracting or terrible. The scene where she tosses the glass in her hand to one side in front of her husband’s mistress was brilliant though – that brief shot on her face captured the anger, the vindictiveness and bitchiness.
The highlight of her performance comes from the transformed, sexually liberated Jerry. The scene where she begged for her husband’s forgiveness after having an affair herself was very good; she covers a wide range of emotions, from the way she decided to humiliate herself, to her heartbreak and realisation that her husband’s a real dick (“I thought your heart was breaking like mine. But instead you tell me your man’s pride can’t stand the gaffe.”) and her declaration that “I’m glad there’s more than one man in the world while I’m young and they want me.” Yet despite her subsequent affairs with numerous men, Shearer still shows Jerry’s pain and regret over the failure of her marriage.
I like the performance more than I really respect it. From what I gather, this doesn’t seem to be considered Shearer’s best performance despite her Oscar win, but I think it is a solid performance with more emotional depth than one would imagine. A bit over the top and annoying at times (especially her voice), but it’s a good performance by an actress I want to see more of (borrowed Marie Antoinette today!)