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The Queen of the MGM Lot : NORMA SHEARER by Gavin Lambert (Knopf: $24.95; 352 pp.; 0-394-55158-3)

May 06, 1990|Paul Rosenfield | Rosenfield is a Times staff writer. His book about power in Hollywood, "The Club," will be published next year by Warner Books.

It was touch-and-go whether the meeting would take place at all, Lambert reports. Shearer was perennially movie-star late, and the biographer had been warned that she might not show at all; but in fact, she swept in a mere 30 minutes after the appointed time. (Janet Leigh, whom Shearer "discovered," remembers being invited to the actress' home for dinner one evening; Mrs. Thalberg arrived hours after her guests, making a grand entrance indeed.)

But if Shearer was second only to Garbo at MGM as female star, in her personal life she was also very much a woman of her time: no scandal, not even one divorce. Her second marriage--to a younger man, ski instructor Marti Arrouge--was by all accounts happy. Together they walked all over Beverly Hills, "discovering" Robert Evans by the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel. It was Shearer who suggested that Evans play Thalberg in "Man of a Thousand Faces," his debut as an actor.

The author captures not only the headiness of the early years (he goes inside the Shearer beach house, which was built, as F. Scott Fitzgerald had put it, "for the great emotional moments"), but he got close enough in his interviews with the aging actress to get the small, telling moments. After their private viewing of "Idiot's Delight," one of the classic Broadway roles of which she made a film success, Shearer took Lambert's wrist, "seized it with an enormously powerful grip," and told him: "That really took me back, a long way back."

On another occasion, at her house in town, the author quoted Fitzgerald to the actress (Fitzgerald based his short story, "Crazy Sunday," in part on Thalberg and Shearer). " 'The golden bowl was broken,' " Lambert told her, " 'but at least it was golden.' "

The author reports that the actress caught her breath and gave him a long, unnerving stare.

That's just what the reader wants to do, too, after reading Lambert's book: stare at him in awe for knowing so much about the real women and men of Hollywood. Finally he has found a real-life heroine as wonderful--and scared--as his Daisy Clover. Now if only Natalie Wood were alive to play her.

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