- Meryl Sebastien
- BBC News in the South
Merle Oberon, Hollywood star of the era of black and white cinema, is a forgotten icon in his native India.
Best known for playing the classic Wuthering Heights (1939), Oberon was an Anglo-Indian woman born in Bombay in 1911. But as a star of Hollywood’s Golden Age, she kept her past a secret, impersonating a white person for life.
Mayukh Sen, an American writer and scholar, first heard the star’s name in 2009, when he discovered Oberon had been the first person of South Asian descent to be nominated for an Oscar.
His fascination grows by seeing his films and immersing himself in his past.
“As a queer person, I sympathize with that feeling that you have to hide part of your identity to survive in a hostile society that’s not really ready to accept who you are,” he says.
Sen is working on a biography of the actress from a South Asian perspective.
A mother who was the grandmother
Oberon, real name Estelle Merle O’Brien Thompson, was born in Bombay in 1911, at a time when India was a British colony.
His mother was of Ceylonese – now Sri Lankan – and Maori descent, while his father was British.
The family moved to Calcutta in 1917, three years after Oberon’s father died. She began acting through the Calcutta Amateur Theater Society in the 1920s.
After watching a silent movie angel of darkness for the first time in the cinema, in 1925, Oberon was inspired by its protagonist, Vilma Bánky, to become an actress, according to Sen.
She left for France in 1928 after an army colonel introduced her to director Rex Ingram, who gave her small roles in his films.
Oberon’s mother, Charlotte Selby, who had the darkest complexion, accompanied him as maid.
A 2002 documentary titled The problem with Merle (The problem with Marle, in free translation) later discovered that Selby was, in fact, Oberon’s grandmother.
Selby’s daughter Constance had Oberon as a teenager, but the two were raised as sisters for a few years.
The Tasmanian Lie
Oberon’s first big break in film came from Alexander Korda, a filmmaker she would later marry, who cast her as Anne Boleyn in The Loves of Henry VIII (1933).
Korda’s agents had to make up a story to explain Oberon’s origin.
“Tasmania, Australia was chosen as the new birthplace because it was so far from the United States and Europe and was generally considered a ‘British’ region,” writes Marée Delofski, director of The problem with Merle.
Oberon posed as an upper-class girl from Hobart (Tasmania’s capital) who moved to India after her father was killed in a hunting accident, Delofski said.
However, the actress quickly became a fixture of local folklore in Tasmania, and for the rest of her career the Australian media followed her closely with pride and curiosity.
She even acknowledged Tasmania as her origin and rarely mentioned India.
But Calcutta remembered her. “In the 1920s and 1930s, there were passing mentions in the memories of many English people” who lived in the Indian town, says journalist Sunanda K. Datta Ray.
“People said she was born in town, she was a telephone operator and she won a competition at the Firpo restaurant,” he adds.
Arrival in Hollywood
As she made more and more Hollywood films, Oberon moved to the United States and in 1935 was nominated for an Oscar for her role in a remake of The angel of darkness.
But it was his performance in The Wuthering Heights (1939), alongside acting legend Laurence Olivier, who cemented his place in the industry.
She was cast over Vivien Leigh, another Indian-born actress, because the team behind the film felt she was a bigger name, Sen says.
A New York Times review of the film said Oberon had “perfectly captured the restless spirit of (Emily) Brontë’s heroine”.
The late 1930s catapulted Oberon to Hollywood prominence, Sen says. His inner circle included figures such as music composer Cole Porter and playwright Noël Coward.
Korda and veteran producer Samuel Goldwyn helped Oberon change his accent, which would have revealed his South Asian origins, Sen says.
Oberon’s secret weighed heavily on her, even though her fair skin color made her easily pass as white on screen.
“She still often felt the need to silence the frequent whispers that she was mixed-race. Film journalists of her time noticed her more tanned skin,” Sen explains.
Some reports claim that Oberon’s skin was damaged by bleaching treatments.
After Oberon was injured in a car accident in 1937, cinematographer Lucien Ballard developed a technique that lit her in a way that disguised what had happened (Oberon divorced Korda and married Ballard in 1945).
“Some sources have suggested that the technique was also a way to brighten Merle’s face on camera,” Sen explains.
Oberon’s nephew, Michael Korda, who published a family memoir titled Alexander Korda: A Dream Life, in 1979, said he hid details of his aunt’s past after she threatened to disown him. Details include your real name and place of birth.
“I thought there was enough water under the bridge, but she still cared a lot about her past,” he said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.
run away from questions
Over time, the hoax became harder to sustain.
In 1965 Oberon canceled public appearances and cut short a trip to Australia after learning that local reporters were curious about his life.
Accounts from the time claimed she was upset when she last visited Tasmania in 1978, as questions about her identity kept coming up.
But she never admitted the truth in public. Oberon died in 1979 of a stroke.
In 1983, his Anglo-Indian heritage was revealed in a biography, Princess Merle: The Romantic Life of Merle Oberon.
The authors found his birth certificate in Bombay, his baptism certificate and photographs of his Indian parents.
Through her book, Sen hopes to convey the tremendous pressures Oberon faced as a South Asian woman “navigating an industry that was not designed for her and producing such exciting work as she fought those battles. “.
“Dealing with these struggles shouldn’t have been easy. It’s more helpful to sympathize with her than to judge her.”
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