The movie star who hid his past to pass as white and succeed in Hollywood

Merle Oberon was born in Bombay.

Merle Oberon, a Hollywood star from the black and white era, is a forgotten icon in her native India.

Best known for playing the Lead role in the classic “Wuthering Heights” (1939), Oberon was an Anglo-Indian born in Bombay in 1911. But as a star in Hollywood’s Golden Age, she kept her background a secret, posing as white throughout her life.

Mayukh Sen, a US-based writer and academic, first stumbled upon his name in 2009 when he discovered that Oberon had been the first person of South Asian descent to be nominated for an Oscar.

His fascination grew when he saw his films and delved into his past.

“What queer who I am, I empathize with this feeling that you have to hide a part of your identity to survive in a hostile society that isn’t really ready to accept who you are,” she says.

Sen is working on a biography to tell the actress’s story from a South Asian perspective.

A mother who was not the mother

Oberon, whose real name was Estelle Merle O’Brien Thompson, was born in Bombay in 1911.times when India was a British colony.

His mother was part Ceylon – now Sri Lankan – and part Maori, while his father was British.

The family moved to Calcutta in 1917 after Oberon’s father died in 1914, and he began acting through that city’s Amateur Theatrical Society in the 1920s.

After seeing a movie for the first time in 1925, the silent film “The Angel of Darkness”, Oberon was inspired by her leading lady, Vilma Bánky, to become an actressaccording to Sen.

He left for France in 1928, after an army colonel introduced him to director Rex Ingram, who gave him small parts in his films.

Oberon’s mother, Charlotte Selby, who had darker skin, accompanied her as her maid.

Merle Oberon with Laurence Olivier in a scene from

Oberon’s performance in “Wuthering Heights,” opposite Laurence Olivier, cemented his place in Hollywood.

A 2002 documentary called The Trouble with Merle (in Spanish, “The problem with Merle”) he later found out that Selby was, in fact, Oberon’s grandmother.

Selby’s daughter, Constance, had Oberon as a teenager, but the two were reportedly raised together as sisters for a few years.

The Tasmanian Lie

Oberon’s first big break came from alexander kordaa filmmaker she would later marry, who cast her as Anne Boleyn in “The Private Life of Henry VIII” (1933).

Korda’s publicists allegedly had to invent a story to explain its origins.

“Tasmania was chosen as her new birthplace because it was a long way from the US and Europe (in Australia) and was generally considered ‘British’ to the core,” wrote Marée Delofski, director of The Trouble with Merlein his notes on the documentary.

Merle Oberon playing Lady Marguerite Blakeney in

Merle Oberon playing Lady Marguerite Blakeney in “The Scarlet Pimpernel.”

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 soon became an intrinsic part of local lore in Tasmania, and for the rest of her career, the Australian media followed her closely with pride and curiosity.

Even he acknowledged Tasmania as his origin and rarely mentioned India.

Merle Oberon as Anne Boleyn in

One of Oberon’s most notable roles was that of Anne Boleyn in “The Private Life of Henry VIII.”

But Calcutta remembered her. “In the 1920s and 1930s there were passing mentions of it in the memoirs of many English men” who lived in the Indian city, says journalist Sunanda K. Datta Ray.

“People said that she was born in the city, that she was an operator at the telephone exchange and that she won a contest at the Firpo restaurant,” she adds.

Arrival in Hollywood

As she made more movies in Hollywood, Oberon moved to the United States and in 1935 she was nominated for an Oscar for her role in a new version of “The Angel of Darkness”.

But it was his performance in “Wuthering Heights”along with acting legend Laurence Olivier, which established its place in the industry.

Merle Oberon in a dance scene from

Merle Oberon in a dance scene from “Jack the Ripper” (1944).

They supposedly chose her over Vivien Leigh, another Indian-born actress, because the team behind the film felt she was a bigger name, says Sen.

A review of the film published in The New York Times when it was released stated that Oberon had “perfectly captured the shifting, restless spirit of (Emily) Brontë’s heroine”.

The end of the 1930s catapulted Oberon into the so-called big leaguesSen narrates. His inner circle included such figures as music composer Cole Porter and playwright Noël Coward.

Get rid of your accent

Merle Oberon with her first husband, film producer Alexander Korda, reading a script together, circa 1939-1945.

Filmmaker Alexander Korda was Oberon’s first husband.

Korda and veteran producer Samuel Goldwyn helped Oberon change some aspects like your accentwhich would have given away its South Asian origins, says Sen.

But Oberon’s secret weighed on her, even though her light skin color it made it easy for her to pass as white on the screen.

“She often still felt the need to silence the frequent murmurs that she was mixed race. Film journalists of her day noted her more tanned complexion,” says Sen.

Some reports claim that Oberon’s skin was damaged by bleaching treatments.

After Oberon was injured and scarred on her face in a car accident in 1937, the cinematographer Lucien Ballard developed a technique that illuminated her in a way that concealed what had happened (Oberon divorced Korda and married Ballard in 1945).

Merle Oberon in Acapulco (México) in 1966.

Merle Oberon in Acapulco (Mexico) in 1966.

“Some sources have suggested that the technique was also a way to whiten Merle’s face on camera,” says Sen.

Oberon’s nephew, Michael Korda, who published a family memoir called “Alexander Korda: A Dream Life” in 1979, said that hid details of his past after she threatened to sue him for including your real name and place of birth.

Merle Oberon at the wheel of a motorboat in her movie

Oberon and his patrons made concerted efforts to keep his past hidden.

“I figured enough water had gotten 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

As time passed, the farce became more difficult to sustain.

In 1965, Oberon canceled public appearances and cut a trip to Australia short after learning that local journalists were curious about his background.

Reports from that time claimed that she was distraught during her last visit to Tasmania in 1978, as questions about her identity kept coming up.

But she never admitted the truth in public. He died in 1979, of a stroke.

Merle Oberon with TV host Mike Walsh in 1978.

Merle Oberon with TV host Mike Walsh at an award show in 1978.

In 1983, his Anglo-Indian heritage was revealed in a biography, Princess Merle: The Romantic Life of Merle Oberon (in Spanish, “Princess Merle: the romantic life of Merle Oberon”).

The authors found his birth certificate in Bombay, his baptismal certificate, and letters and photographs held by his Indian relatives.

Through her book, Sen hopes to convey the enormous pressures Oberon faced as a South Asian woman “navigating an industry that wasn’t designed to suit her and producing such moving work while fighting those battles.”

“Dealing with those struggles couldn’t have been easy. It’s more helpful to empathize with her than to judge her.”

YOU MAY ALSO BE INTERESTED | ON VIDEO