Norma Shearer and Mental Wellness

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Welcome to Museum Moments, presented by the Canadian Women in Film Museum. The museum is based in the childhood home of actress Marie Dressler in Cobourg, Ontario. These Moments explore themes and topics surrounding Canadian women in Early Hollywood to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Today, we will be exploring the topic of Norma Shearer and mental wellness. Content warning: this Museum Moment deals with issues of mental wellness and mental illness. Please continue listening at your own discretion.

Norma Shearer was famous for her strong, independent, and liberated characters onscreen, and her fierce, ambitious, and willful personality behind it. Behind the scenes she was a much more complex and troubled figure. Strong faces often protect more vulnerable interiors, as was the case with Norma. A lifetime of success was paired with one of struggles and pain.

Mental wellness is a topic that is as important ninety years ago as it is today. Our more refined understanding of the nuances of mental wellness allows us to understand figures such as Norma Shearer with much greater sympathy and understanding than she may have received in her day. An unfortunate truth of stardom is that celebrities are often seen as a step above everyday people, not subject to the same emotions, illnesses, and disorders.

Throughout her life, Norma faced numerous challenges to her mental health. First, her family, especially her mother, Edith, suffered a history of mental illness. Norma herself faced numerous traumatic experiences in her days of youth, such as the deaths of a friend and music teacher, as well as her family’s relocation away from her childhood home following the failure of her father’s construction business. Despite these troubles, the maturing Norma was able to overcome and move beyond, soon entering the world of Hollywood.

As Norma stepped onto the Hollywood stage, she faced more attacks on her mental wellbeing. The male-centric nature of Hollywood placed strict expectations for beauty and body image upon its actresses, and Norma was no exception. Throughout her career, she was subject to harsh pressure and cruel criticism when she didn’t conform to them. Against these pressures, Norma stood her ground, asserting herself and her strong feminine influence in the field.

A serious blow to her mental wellbeing an adult Norma received was the death of her husband, Irving Thalberg, in 1936. Irving was an extremely significant figure in both Norma’s personal and professional lives. He was a supportive husband and professional partner, helping to propel an up-and-coming Norma into stardom. Irving’s death from pneumonia left many in the film industry bereft, but none more than Norma, who fell into deep grief and sadness in the period following. As if this wasn’t enough, Norma was also left to raise her two young children along, having lost their father.

Despite all the difficulties in mental wellness she faced in her life, Norma Shearer was able to overcome them all and maintain her position as one of the queens of Hollywood until her retirement from acting in 1942. Although her films after Irving’s death weren’t as popular as hers from before, she still had several minor hits, including Idiot’s Delight and The Women, both released in 1939.

Unfortunately, by the end of her life Norma faced a steep decline in her mental well-being. Her family’s history of dementia caught up with her, affecting her memory and cognition greatly. This resulted in an increasingly reserved lifestyle and an eventual move to Motion Picture Country Home for permeant care. She passed away there at the age of 80 of pneumonia.

While Norma Shearer’s life was marked by attacks on her mental wellbeing, including loss, extreme pressure, and hereditary issues. Despite all this, Norma was able to endure, becoming one of the Golden Age Hollywood’s greatest starts, entering a dignified retirement, and passing away at a respectable age. She remains a symbol of feminine strength, endurance, and triumph even today.

Thank you for listening to today’s Museum Moments. For more information, or to join us for another Museum Moment, visit our website at, or visit us in-person at the Marie Dressler House in Cobourg, Ontario.