Merle Oberon, a pick for best actress in 1936, was born in Bombay and spent her career passing for white
@by_drewTue 7 Mar 2023 06.00 GMT
Magazine writers didn’t know what to make of Merle Oberon when she took Hollywood by storm in the 1930s. One writer described her as “bizarre, bewildering, and different”, while others marveled at her “delicate” oval face, “eloquent” emerald eyes, “bright red lips” and “alabaster” skin.
Though her 1936 best actress Oscar nomination for the coming-of-age drama The Dark Angel affirmed her place in a league with Katharine Hepburn and the eventual winner, Bette Davis, the glamor paragons of the day, it was only later that the world discovered Oberon was a south Asian woman passing for white.
Given the way Everything Everywhere All at Once has dominated this awards season, it seems increasingly likely that Michelle Yeoh will take home this year’s best actress prize. But when Yeoh’s name was announced among the best actress nominees for this year’s Academy Awards in late January, the Hollywood Reporter was at pains to call the veteran actor “the first person who identifies as Asian to ever be nominated for the award”.
Critics condemned the declaration as too politically correct, even as it captured the complex tie that binds these women, each a product of her time. Where the 60-year-old Yeoh is a butt-kicking film pioneer on the brink of smashing a cultural ceiling for playing a role originally written for Jackie Chan, Oberon carefully hid her true identity to evade certain racial persecution and took that secret to her grave. It wasn’t until decades after her death in 1979 at age 68 that the world learned her truth. That, not Oberon’s eye-opening work in The Dark Angel, is what should rightly be hailed as her signature performance.
“When you think about the story of racial representation,” says Shilpa Davé, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, “Merle Oberon is a really important part. She brings a global aspect to it, the shades of brown.”
Born Estelle Merle O’Brien Thompson in what was then the British Indian city of Bombay, Oberon was determined to make the most of her innately fairer complexion. It became her ticket to a bigger world, the shroud that helped disguise the fact that she was the product of rape. Her birth father was the Anglo-Irish foreman of a tea plantation. Her mother, believed to have been of Sri Lankan and Māori ancestry, was just 14 when she gave birth in 1911. After centuries of intermixing, babies born from biracial relationships had evolved into a quiet shame – shunned by Britons and Indians alike.
The family nicknamed Oberon “Queenie”, as her birth coincided with Queen Mary and King George’s visit to India. In an attempt to soften Oberon’s lot in life, her grandmother raised her as her own and convinced her that her teenage mother was actually her half sister. But that wasn’t enough to shield Oberon from the relentless taunts over her mixed heritage. At the age of three, after a cross-country move to Calcutta, she won a scholarship to one of the city’s best all-girls private schools, only for classmates to drive her out with their overt racism. Films and the nightlife scene became her escape, and playing pretend key to her survival.
In adolescence, Oberon began honing a posh accent and lightening her skin with bleach creams loaded with ammoniated mercury – a dangerous poison that had more of a weakening effect on Oberon’s many male suitors. Those who didn’t dump her outright after discovering her race helped sponsor her moves from India to France and England, where she worked for a time as a club hostess under the name Queenie O’Brien. When she became romantically involved with the Hungarian-born British director Alexander Korda, Oberon’s acting career clicked into high gear.
A bit part as Anne Boleyn in the 1933 blockbuster The Private Life of Henry VIII announced her breakout. A mad scramble to come up with a cover story for the actor credited as “Merle Oberon” ensued. She told people she had been born in Tasmania “because it was so far from the US and Europe and generally considered to be ‘British’ to its core”, wrote Marée Delofski, director of the 2002 documentary The Trouble with Merle. (In her lifetime, Oberon visited Australia twice.) Oberon claimed her birth records had been destroyed in a fire. (Her half-brother, Harry, would discover them in Bombay, now Mumbai, after her death.) As for her much darker-skinned mother – her biological grandmother – Oberon presented her as a maid.
Such was the cost of making it in show business at a time when the US government was keen to crack down on indecency. Rather than leave it up to lawmakers, Hollywood seized on the opportunity to police itself, adopting a set of rules known as the Hays Code – which, among many other things, frowned upon interracial romance. With representational casting essentially made illegal, studios embraced yellow and blackface. And when Oberon’s early work with Korda, whom she eventually married, led to a successful career under Samuel Goldwyn, it became in everyone’s best interest to keep her identity a mystery. “Think about it,” says Davé. “She was part of this cadre of actors and actresses that were loaned out to make all these movies. She was dependent on Goldwyn and Korda for her livelihood. I can see why she had to hide in that way. She had no power.”
Not even the 1936 best actress nomination brought Oberon any extra clout. For a start, the Oscars were barely a decade old and not yet the gold standard award. For another, the media was even tougher on female actors than they are now and held Oberon up for extra scrutiny.
One critic derided Oberon’s performance in the 1934 action film The Scarlet Pimpernel, citing a “tendency to strongly orientalize her appearance by means of facial makeup and the slant of black brows”. When a 1934 Los Angeles Times story used the term “Euro-Asian” to describe her, Oberon dismissed it as a coincidence. In an ad campaign for Max Factor, the cosmetics brand bragged about how its makeup turned her from “slightly unreal and exotic” to a “beautiful, charming girl”.
It’s ironic that she would be Oscar nominated for The Dark Angel, a film about a first world war love affair that is complicated when the male protagonist suffers a battle injury that costs him his eyesight. Strangely, it was Oberon’s only nomination, even as Hepburn and Davis became Oscar perennials and Oberon kept working into the early 70s. She starred opposite Laurence Olivier in 1939’s Wuthering Heights and as herself in 1966’s The Oscar, which is about the awards.
Still, she soldiered on in spite of the damage she’d caused to her skin from so much bleach cream and a car accident that left her disfigured and forced Korda to abandon production of the epic I, Claudius. To keep the cracks in Oberon’s white facade from surfacing on screen, the cinematographer Lucien Ballard developed a special camera light for her to obscure her facial scars. This was after “Lady Korda” had divorced her knighted director husband to marry Ballard.
On her downslope, Oberon reveled in her grand dame status, regaling magazine reporters with her true Hollywood stories, when she wasn’t making the odd cameo on the game show What’s My Line? or presenting a special achievement award to the Poseidon Adventure at the 1973 Oscars. Even then Charlton Heston called her “a lady whose beauty is not only a legend, but a reality”.
But even as times changed and Hollywood’s aversion toward race mixing on screen began to relax, Oberon remained committed to her lie and quickly tightened up when it unraveled. When her nephew Michael Korda, then editor-in-chief at Simon and Schuster, tried to write a biography on Oberon, he says, she threatened to sue him and cut him out of her will if he used real details. So he turned it into the roman-à-clef Queenie, which became an ABC miniseries.
According to the Australian historian Cassandra Pybus, a visit to Hobart in 1978 turned awkward for Oberon when officials couldn’t find proof that she had been born in Tasmania. After confirming as much, Oberon ducked reporters and skipped a ceremony at a theater named in her honor before quietly returning home.
A year later, she died in Malibu from a stroke.
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