A Hollywood star of the black and white era, the first actor of South Asian origin to be nominated for an Oscar and beloved icon of Hollywood, Merle Oberon remains forgotten in the country of her birth, India.
The Anglo-Indian was born in Bombay in 1911 to Estelle Merle O’Brien Thompson, a British man and a mother who was part Sinhalese and part Maori, and continued to hide her identity of being a South-Asian throughout her life. Keeping her background a secret, her life consisted of constantly and sometimes desperately passing herself off as white.
Post her father’s death in 1914, the family moved to Calcutta and by 1920, she started acting through the Calcutta Amateur Theatrical Society. Inspired by Vilma Bánky’s role in the silent film The Dark Angel, Oberon decided in 1925 that she wanted to be an actress and by 1928 left for France after an army colonel introduced her to director Rex Ingram who had decided to give her a bit-part in his film.
The Invention Of Oberon’s Life History
Oberon’s first big break came from filmmaker Sir Alexander Korda who cast her as Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) and who she would later go on to marry. It is alleged that Korda’s publicists were the ones to invent a background story to explain her race.
Owing to her invented life story even her personal history remained conflicted, Oberon’s mother Charlotte Selby, who had darker skin and followed her as her maid through her acting years, was later revealed to be her grandmother. Her mother had her when she was very young and so, for a long-time, they were raised like sisters by Oberon’s grandmother.
A 2014 documentary The Trouble with Merle by director Marée Delofski brought to light her true background. The directorial notes on the film said, “Tasmania was chosen as her new birthplace because it was so far from the US and Europe and was generally considered to be ‘British’ to its core’ further revealing Oberon was passed off as an upper-class girl from Hobart who moved to India after her father died in a hunting accident.”
The Weight Of A Secret That Followed Her Around
Lapping up the Tasmanian lore created, the Australian media started looking into her life and work with curiosity. Further adding credibility to the myth, Oberon acknowledged Tasmania as her hometown, never uttering a word about Calcutta.
But those back in Calcutta, her relatives and those who knew her were aware of the truth. Many accounts of Englishmen even mentioned her in their memoirs. As time passed and particularly in the latter part of her career, many different accounts of her background started surfacing, one even by Oberon’s nephew.
As per the BBC reports, “The charade became harder to maintain. In 1965, Oberon and cut short a trip to Australia after finding the local journalists to be curious about her background. Reports say she was distraught during her last visit to Tasmania in 1978 as questions around her identity continued to swirl. But she never admitted the truth in public.”
The Legacy, Identity & The Struggle To Have It All
While most of her legacy is somewhat tainted by questions surrounding her identity, her calibre as an actress and a star of her own right cannot be contested.
In 1935 she was nominated for an Oscar for her role in The Dark Angel, making her the first-ever actor of South-Asian origin to be nominated for one.
Best-known for playing the lead in the 1939’s classic Wuthering Heights, she came to embody the quintessential Brontë heroine. It was this role that cemented her place in Hollywood and allowed her to enter the big league of Hollywood royalty.
A New York Times review of the film back then had said Oberon had “...perfectly caught the restless, changeling spirit of the Brontë heroine”.
US-based writer and academic, Mayukh Sen who is working on a biography on Oberon, lending the story a South Asian perspective and who is now majorly responsible for everyone’s renewed interest in the life of India’s forgotten Hollywood star, empathizes with her need to want to hide a part of her identity in order to survive in a hostile society.
In an interview with the BBC, Sen said that through his book, he wishes to convey the enormous pressures Oberon faced as a South Asian woman “...navigating an industry that wasn’t designed to accommodate her and producing such moving work while fighting those battles”. Further adding, “Dealing with those struggles couldn’t have been easy. It feels more productive to extend grace and empathy to her than to judge.”
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