A child model and bit player in New York-based films whose appearance in "The Stealers" (1920) caught the attention of producer Irving Thalberg. Thalberg signed Shearer to a long-term contract with MGM in 1923 and she quickly became a popular star in such films as "He Who Gets Slapped" (1924), "His Secretary" (1925) and "The Student Prince" (1927), typically as a gentle but vivacious ingenue. Thalberg married his star in 1927, after which she had her pick of films, parts and directors. A striking and often lovely brunette actress with a great profile, Shearer compensated for a slight lack of conventional beauty with great poise, elegance and charm. She played a wide range of roles in a glittering array of films; among her most notable efforts were "The Divorcee" (1930), for which she won an Oscar, "A Free Soul" (1931), "Private Lives" (1931; an especially fine and rare comic performance at this stage in her career), "Smilin' Through" (1932; one of her loveliest performances, and most romantic films) and "Romeo and Juliet" (1936).
One of MGM's biggest stars of the 1930s, the ultra-chic Shearer eschewed the more innocent image of her silent stardom during the racy pre-Code period of the early 30s to play a series of wronged wives who fight the double standard by turning into silken sinners in films including "The Divorcee", "Strangers May Kiss" (1931) and "Riptide" (1934). She quickly became, along with Garbo, the studio's resident "prestige" star, and later in the decade played in several classy costume dramas, the most popular of which was "The Barretts of Wimpole Street" (1934, as poet Elizabeth Barrett).
Shearer lost interest in her career after Thalberg's death in 1936; this, coupled with a poor choice of roles (she turned down the leads in "Gone With the Wind" 1939 and "Mrs. Miniver" 1942 and opted instead for fluffy comedies) led her to retire from the screen in 1942. She did, however, leave her admirers with two excellent performances, easily among her finest, in two of her best-remembered films: as the tragic title heroine of the lavish, underrated "Marie Antoinette" (1938); and as the cheated-upon husband who must endure the "help" of her catty girlfriends in the all-star, all-female comedy, "The Women" (1939, in which she was first-billed over longstanding rival Joan Crawford).
As with Garbo, Shearer did receive offers after she left MGM and considered return vehicles to the cinema; in several cases, she backed out or else the projects never really got off the ground. Her glamorous image, though, was more accessible, less distant than Garbo's and so her absence from films never really contributed to any aloof star mystique; as the decades progressed she unjustly became somewhat forgotten and by the time the vogue in classical Hollywood nostalgia reached its apex her health had already begun to decline. Shearer did enjoy four decades of marriage, though, to her second husband, a former ski instructor and land developer she met and married in 1942. Her brother, Douglas Shearer (1899-1971), was a pioneering sound technician who won 12 Oscars and developed several key technical innovations.