Norma Shearer in Marie Antoinette (1938)

norma face marie

Norma Shearer received her sixth (last) Oscar nomination for playing Marie Antoinette, the tragic Queen of France. She lost the golden man to Bette Davis for Jezebel.

Marie Antoinette was a bit disappointing for me. I was expecting something along the brilliance of Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) and my love of period films also gave me high expectations, but for some reason I felt a bit…underwhelmed. First off, I highly commend the HUGE amount of work put into the film. The costumes are gorgeous, the set designs are impeccable and the score is also very good. Unfortunately, the story for some reason isn’t very interesting and the film feels very stuffy at times, especially during the first half. If you are hoping to gain some insight on what happened during the French Revolution and Reign of Terror, you are better off reading Wikipedia. Still, it gets ALOT better in the second half depicting the downfall of the family. The escape scene was really suspenseful and well-directed. Robert Morley was also nominated for best supporting actor for his portrayal of Louis XVI; Frankly, I didn’t think he was very good (“Leave me alone. Leave me alone.”), but far from terrible nonetheless.

Pretty much like The Divorcee, Norma Shearer is the light of her otherwise not so interesting film. Almost literally, in fact. There are some scenes where her huge white dresses and jewelry make her look like she’s glowing.  Although this is only the second film of hers I’ve seen, I can tell you I really like this actress. The criticisms against her are understandable; the flirty smile, the mannerisms, the giggling can be very annoying if it doesn’t appeal to you. I agree that some of her emotional scenes (especially in The Divorcee – VANITY!) can be handled better, yet as a whole I just find her a fascinating presence on screen. People have been calling her fake, exaggerated, annoying but to me the fakeness of it all just makes it even more…real (I imagine some people going “WTF is he talking about”). The way I see it, all these are the mannerisms and traits of a superficial, spoilt yet charming and simply magnetic personality. Yes, I know superficial has a negative connotation to it and yet it works so well on screen. Simply put, I’m just charmed by this lady and I can’t wait to watch more of her films.

In short, she’s fantastic here. Shearer made this film after the death of her husband Irving Thalberg, and I think this played a huge role in the bringing out the greatness of the performance from her. I have read reviews drawing parallels between Shearer’s life and that of Marie Antoinette, since both were fallen “queens” (Shearer of MGM, Antoinette of France) themselves. To me, I can see the 100% commitment Shearer devoted herself to this role. Yes, she’s doing her usual thing again; charming, naive, flirty in the beginning, then tears and breakdowns at the end. However, there is this energy in the role that she brought out so magnificently that I have no problems believing she’s THE QUEEN.

Watching Antoinette deal with the shenanigans around her was fascinating as well. From the way she threw shade at Madame. du Barry in the most subtle and sarcastic way ever, to her lavish expenditures and fooling around, it is clear that she was no saint herself but Shearer managed to portray her in a sympathetic light. She was stuck in a loveless marriage, constantly tormented by Madame du. Barry and the conniving Duke of Orléans, and simply way out of her depth. Her affair with Count Axel de Fersen (Tyrone Power) was surprisingly played in a moving manner, and even though this is not my favourite part of the film (at all…), I was still impressed by the amount of genuine emotions that Shearer brought out. Yet there is also a fierce fighting spirit and devotion to her duties that Shearer portrays admirably. Her loyalty to her husband was very well-depicted – even though they weren’t really in love, you can still feel the strong affection they have for each other, and how she fiercely stands by him and protects him.

People often rave about the second part of the performance, and yes they are extremely saddening to watch. From the affair of the necklace, to her waning popularity, Shearer is simply heartbreaking in her portrayal of Antoinette’s exhaustion and devastation. Her nervousness on the night of the escape, her expression when her husband was recognised, her tears on their last supper together and her desperate plea to the guards to not take her son away from her – all these are so realistically played that I was frankly disturbed (and impressed) by the intensity of her acting. Her devastation during the execution scene was all captured in her face without a single-word.

It’s a pity the Academy decided not to award Shearer her second Oscar as a proper sendoff (but I think Davis deserved it too), yet I think this performance is simply magnificent on its own. It really showed Norma Shearer’s talents as an actress and one of the great movie stars of the 30s.

 

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