Norma Shearer Becomes the First Jewish Woman to Win Academy Award
On November 5th, 1930, at the third annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California, Norma Shearer won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in The Divorcee, a film about a love triangle in a posh New York inner circle. This was her first nomination and the first win for a Jewish American woman. She went on to receive five more nominations throughout her career.
Shearer was born in Montreal, Canada in 1902 to Scottish and Irish parents. After the family lost its fortune during World War I, Shearer's mother decided to move the family to New York City in hopes that her daughter would become an actress. Shearer did not find immediate success, but eventually landed a contract at Metro Goldwyn Meyer (MGM) in 1923 after catching the attention of producer Irving Thalberg. Shearer began as a silent film actress but managed to succeed in “talkies” as well.
In 1927, Shearer converted to Judaism in order to marry Thalberg. They went on to have two children before Thalberg’s untimely death in 1936. Shearer remained in the movie business and was one of MGM’s biggest stars, playing many different kinds of roles until her retirement in 1942, after which she faded into obscurity.
This entry was created for This Week in History as part of a course on the history of American Jewish women taught by Karla Goldman at the University of Michigan, Winter 2019.
Sources: “Norma Shearer.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times; Green, David B. “1936: Hollywood's 'Boy Wonder' Producer, Irving Thalberg, Dies.” Haaretz.com, 10 Apr. 2018.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Norma Shearer Becomes the First Jewish Woman to Win Academy Award." (Viewed on January 26, 2021) <https://jwa.org/thisweek/nov/05/1930/norma-shearer-becomes-first-jewish-woman-win-academy-award>.