Merle Oberon: the first Asian Best Actress Oscar nominee who hid her heritage from Hollywood

Merle Oberon: the first Asian Best Actress Oscar nominee who hid her heritage from Hollywood

At the time, it was nearly impossible for non-white actors, especially women of color, to enter the industry

January 26, 2023
When Michelle Yeoh’s nomination for Best Actress at the Oscars was announced on Tuesday, some outlets highlighted that she was the first Asian woman to do so. 
Other platforms, including NextShark, made the distinction that the actor was actually the “first person who identifies as Asian” to be nominated for the award.
As it turns out, there was one biracial actress of South Asian origin who was the first to be nominated for the category: Hollywood star Merle Oberon.
Oberon, who was a renowned celebrity in the 1930s, was discovered to have lied about her real birthplace and biracial identity after her death. 
While her reasons for doing so aren’t fully known, it was widely speculated that it was in part due to her ambition to succeed in the entertainment industry, as NextShark previously reported.
At the time, it was near impossible for non-white actors, especially women of color, to enter the industry. Not only was casting actors of color frowned upon, but there were also self-imposed industry restrictions, known as the Hays Code, that made doing so effectively impossible.  
Oberon claimed then that she was originally from Tasmania, an island state in Australia. 
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“I was born in Tasmania but left there when I was a child,” Oberon shared in a 1934 interview in The West Australian. “Since my films have been circulated, several people in odd parts of Australia have bobbed up to claim me as a relation … I don’t know very much about them because my family quarreled with them some time ago.”
In reality, she was born Estelle Merle O’Brien Thompson to a British father and part-Sinhalese and part-Maori mother in what is now Mumbai in 1911.
A London publicist reportedly engineered the fabrication of her new background, alleging that Oberon’s birth records were destroyed in a fire and that she moved to India after her British father died.
Oberon first got into acting at age 9 when she joined the Calcutta Amateur Theatrical Society after her family moved to what is now Kolkata, India.
In 1928, she moved to France to pursue an acting career with the help of filmmaker Rex Ingram, who gave her bit roles in his films. 
Hungarian filmmaker Alexander Korda gave Oberon her big break with a small but prominent role as Anne Boleyn in the 1933 film “The Private Life of Henry VIII.”
She traveled to the U.S. to make her first Hollywood films for Samuel Goldwyn following the success of her 1934 film “The Scarlet Pimpernel.”
Her Oscar nomination for Best Actress would come just a year later, via the 1935 film “The Dark Angel.” 
Another highlight of her career was her starring role as Catherine Earnshaw in the 1939 film “Wuthering Heights.”
Oberon’s secretly were revealed shortly after she died of a stroke at age 68 in 1979. 
Details about her background were first shared in the 1983 biography “Princess Merle: The Romantic Life of Merle Oberon,” by Hollywood historian Charles Higham and author Roy Moseley.
Oberon’s birth certificate was published in 2014 via a project between the British Library and the ancestry website

      Ryan General

      Ryan General is a Senior Reporter for NextShark




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