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Merle Oberon: The Untold Story of 1st Asian Nominated for Best Actress Oscar

Meet the Asian woman, born in Bombay, nominated before Michelle Yeoh for best actress Oscar 85 years ago.

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South Asians
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Edited By :Ahamad Fuwad

Since the Golden Globes, the internet has been buzzing with just one name: Michelle Yeoh, a Malaysian star who won the best actress award. The world seems to be almost sure that an Academy Award is on the cards for Yeoh.

It took 59 years for Yeoh to land her first lead role in Hollywood, and her nomination for an Academy Award was widely believed to be the first time an Asian woman has been nominated in the best actress category. 

But it might surprise you to know that most people have gotten it wrong. There was another Asian woman who was nominated in the best actress category more than 85 years ago. 

Merle Oberon, a Hollywood star of the black and white era, was born in Bombay and was the first woman of Asian descent to be nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards in 1935.

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Best-known for playing the lead in the classic film Wuthering Heights, Oberon was a star during Hollywood’s Golden Age and kept her background a secret, passing off as white throughout her life. 

Born in Bombay, Raised in Calcutta

The world remained blissfully unaware of Oberon’s parentage, as for most of her life, she protected herself by concealing the truth, claiming to be born in Australia’s Tasmania and further claiming that her birth records had been destroyed in a fire. 

Born Estelle Merle O’Brien Thompson in 1911, her mother was part-Sinhalese and part-Maori while her father was British. After he died in 1914, the family moved to Calcutta (now Kolkata), where she felt the first spark for acting through the Calcutta Amatuer Theatrical Society.

After she watched her first movie, The Dark Angel, a silent movie, its star, Vilma Bánky, inspired Oberon to take up acting. She eventually left for France in 1929 after an army colonel introduced her to director Rex Ingram, who gave her a part in his film. 

Oberon’s first big break came from Sir Alexander Korda, a filmmaker who would later become her husband, who cast her as Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933).

Inventing Estelle Merle Oberon

His publicists had to invent a whole background story to explain Merle Oberon’s race and descent. But why?

A 2014 documentary called The Trouble with Merle found that Oberon’s mother, Charlotte Selby, was actually her grandmother.

Selby’s daughter Constance gave birth to Oberon as a teenager, but Merle was raised as her half-sister for many years.

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“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,"  director of The Trouble with Merle, Marée Delofski, wrote in the notes of her documentary.

Oberon was passed off as an upper-class girl from Tasmania’s Hobart, who moved to India after a hunting accident saw her father lose his life, Delofski added.

She became an important part of Tasmanian culture and even went to the extent of acknowledging it as her hometown, but she rarely mentioned Calcutta

But Calcutta never failed to remember her.

Back in the city, her relatives and the people that knew her were aware of the reality. Accounts of several Englishmen even mentioned her in their memoirs.

During the later years of her career, several accounts about her parentage and background begun surfacing, with one even from Oberon’s alleged nephew.

Truth Unravelled 

As the ruse kept getting harder to keep up, questions never seemed to settle. In 1965, Oberon cancelled public appearances and actually went ahead and cut short a trip to Australia after she found that local journalists was a tad bit too curious of her background.

Reports quoted by BBC said that she was distraught when she last visited Tasmania in 1978, amid swirling questions about her identity. But she never admitted the truth in front of the world. 

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In 1983, the truth of her Anglo-Indian heritage was revealed in a biography, Princess Merle: The Romantic Life of Merle Oberon. The author of the book found her birth record in Bombay, her baptismal certificate, along with letter and photographs from her relatives in India. 

While one can say that Oberon’s legacy is somewhat tainted by the questions aimed at finding the truth about her identity, her role in Hollywood’s golden age and her talent as an actress and a star simply cannot be contested. 

In 1935, she was nominated for an Oscar for her role in Sidney Franklin’s The Dark Angel, a film with the same title as her first, almost ten years ago. The nomination made Oberon the first-ever actress of Asian origin to be nominated for one. 

Best known for her role in The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Private Life of Henry, The Dark Angel and, of course, Wuthering Heights, Oberon, as a closeted Asian, cemented her status in Hollywood forever. To date, she has remained one of the most prominent members of Hollywood royalty.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:   Academy Awards  

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