Hiding in Plain Sight
This article appeared in the June 17 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Merle Oberon in Night in Paradise (Arthur Lubin, 1946)
In May 1935, a new star shone on Hollywood’s horizon. Raven-haired and tan-complexioned, her eyes a striking shape, she looked unlike most leading ladies the industry had seen up until then. To the now-defunct film publication Screen & Radio Weekly, these traits made her “bizarre, bewildering, and different,” as if she were a foreign object who did not quite belong on American screens. Though she’d cut her teeth in British cinema, as the article noted, she had spent her early life in India. Her stage name was Merle Oberon.
“Here they tell fabulous stories about her, one of the most often repeated being that she is Eurasian with a part-Hindu mother,” the piece continued. This rumor conflicted with the claim that Oberon sustained throughout her life: that she was born in Tasmania, Australia, and that her birth records had perished in a fire.
But the paper’s speculation wasn’t far from the truth, revealed only after Oberon’s death in 1979. In reality, she had been born into poverty in what is now Mumbai to a 12-year-old mother of Sri Lankan, Māori, and white ancestry, whom Oberon grew up believing was her sister; the identity of her biological father remains unclear. Raised by her grandmother (whom she thought was her mother) in what is today Kolkata, she had an interest in acting early in life and performed with the city’s Amateur Dramatic Society. A boyfriend offered to introduce her to the director Rex Ingram, so, while still in her teens, she pooled enough money to travel to France to meet the filmmaker. Ingram found Oberon’s appearance so entrancing that he cast her as an extra in a film of his, The Three Passions (1928). From there, she went to Britain, where her career took off. As she pursued fame abroad, though, Oberon deliberately concealed two truths about herself: she grew up poor, and she was (at least in part) Brown.
These were taboos in the era during which Oberon labored against impossible odds to become one of Old Hollywood’s brightest stars. Once in America, she would star in Sidney Franklin’s wartime romance The Dark Angel (1935), which earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Though the public had no clue about her mixed-race parentage back then (stories in gossip mills were pure conjecture), she is, to date, the only actress of known Asian descent to be nominated in that category in the 20th century, an embarrassing indictment of the Academy’s institutional blind spots.
For all its historical significance, though, Oberon’s sterling performance in The Dark Angel is rarely mentioned by critics today, along with her art more generally. Consider how casually the critic David Thomson wrote her off as a “renowned beauty with a graven face and the legend of mixed blood” who was nevertheless “often a dull actress” in his canonical The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. There’s been far more interest in Oberon’s off-screen torment. She inspired the character of Margo Taft (Jennifer Beals), an actress in the studio era who tries to suppress her biracial identity, on Amazon’s 2016-17 series The Last Tycoon; she was the subject of an episode of the You Must Remember This podcast in February of last year. The segment detailed painful stories of how Oberon bleached her skin, passed off her dark-skinned grandmother as her maid, and nearly sued a family member who sought to divulge her ancestry in a book. The ongoing fascination with Oberon’s inner turmoil is understandable in the present-day media landscape, where the history of racial discrimination in entertainment has begun to command greater scrutiny. Yet, as with many actors of color, it has eclipsed her actual work.
Oberon’s talents come across in an early appearance as the doomed Anne Boleyn in her future husband Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). The role is tiny—she disappears just after the 15-minute mark, executed for treason—yet she makes a distinct impression as a woman who dutifully accepts her terrible fate. Oberon teems with nervous energy; when she jokes that people will call her “Anne who lost her head,” the line is rattled off in a way that is both sardonic and haunting. The tension that Oberon brought to this and other roles may read as a lack of spontaneity to some, but that studied quality did not translate to discomfort before the camera; rather, Oberon’s agitated demeanor made the predicaments of her women seem compelling in their immediacy.
The director Harold Young would give this attribute more room to shine in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), where she is enchanting as an aristocratic woman during the French Revolution, unaware that her husband is leading a double life. Oberon projects regality, and Young gives her arresting close-ups that allow the actress to bring her character’s emotional dilemmas—namely her frustration at her husband’s seeming inattentiveness—to the surface. Though The Scarlet Pimpernel has the trappings of an adventure movie, it is Oberon who gives the film its soul.
In Britain, Oberon usually essayed roles of women with an aura of mystique. Such performances caught the eye of producer Samuel Goldwyn, who brought her to America and in short order cast her in The Dark Angel. The film would offer a change of pace: Oberon reportedly tired of the “exotic” label the press appended to her back in Britain, and grew determined to play more of an everywoman. Set in World War I–era Britain, Franklin’s film hinges on a love triangle involving Oberon’s Kitty Vane and her two male childhood friends. The Dark Angel tends to get classified as a melodrama, yet Oberon plays the film’s most potentially histrionic scenes with control. In a scene right before the film’s finale, she learns that the man she loves (Fredric March) didn’t die in the war as she believed. She’s thrilled that he’s alive, a fact that she mutters to herself repeatedly. The revelation could provoke a theatrical response, but Oberon speaks in a register that’s barely above a whisper, pulling the viewer close in this moment rather than playing to the gallery. It is an intelligent—and effective—actorly gesture.
In the years that followed, Oberon would give a moving performance in William Wyler’s These Three (1936) as a schoolteacher mired in scandal, and it was indeed Wyler who gave her her finest showcase as Cathy in Wuthering Heights (1939). Detractors might find her performance too stern to express Cathy’s “wild, uncontrollable passion for Heathcliff,” as the film’s narrator puts it. Pauline Kael, for example, described her as “chill and dainty” in the role. But Oberon creates a rich portrait of repressed longing. Cathy has high-society aspirations that clash with her love for Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier), a character termed “gypsy scum” in the film. (References to Heathcliff’s skin tone draw out the contrast with Cathy’s porcelain skin, indicating how successfully Oberon had “whitened” her public image by that point.) Her feelings for him fluctuate at the snap of a finger, shifting between affection and disgust. Oberon is stellar in wordless scenes—her first, for example, when Cathy must stomach her boorish brother’s disparaging comments about Heathcliff—as the actress’s coolly detached mien conveys the heroine’s struggle to hide her devotion.
But Oberon makes unexpected choices with dialogue too. In one pivotal scene, when Cathy realizes the depth of her bond with her forbidden lover, she proclaims, “I am Heathcliff!” The sequence may seem to call for a thunderous declaration (it is even accompanied by a strike of lightning), but Oberon resists the temptation for overstatement, her delivery touching in its directness.
Few roles after that would task Oberon with such emotional demands. In the later decades of her life, she still acted, though less often. She succumbed to a stroke in Malibu when she was 68, taking the secrets of her birth and blood to her grave. Biographers Charles Higham and Roy Moseley, authors of the 1983 book Princess Merle, eventually located her birth records, finally unraveling her life’s enigmas.
The challenges that performers of color faced in Old Hollywood are finally coming to light, as we discover the prevalence of mixed-race actors who passed as white: Frankenstein (1931) star Boris Karloff was of Anglo-Indian heritage; Broadway legend Carol Channing would only disclose her paternal Black heritage in her 2002 autobiography; Fredi Washington of Imitation of Life (1934) found herself accused of passing even though she proudly owned her Blackness.
Oberon’s achievements in such a racist milieu are remarkable. It is easy to pity her as a tragic figure haunted by shame, silencing parts of herself to survive an inhospitable era in Hollywood. But maybe it’s possible to also celebrate her as a pioneer of the screen, one who left a lasting impact on an industry within which her success did not allow her a life true to her identity.
It was the strength of Oberon’s work before the camera, combined with the singularity of her beauty, that first captured the film establishment’s attention, after all—not her parentage, not her upbringing, not her trauma. “Merle Oberon in private life is delightful, but Merle Oberon of the screen is magnificent,” that early Screen & Radio Weekly article concluded. “She must be kept that way.”
Mayukh Sen is the author of Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America, out from W. W. Norton & Company in November. He has won a James Beard Award for his food writing and teaches food journalism at New York University.