In 1935, Merle Oberon became the first Asian actress to be nominated for Best Actress Oscar — except, nobody in Hollywood knew Oberon was Asian.
As a star in Hollywood’s Golden Age, Oberon told people she was born in Tasmania, Australia. In fact, she was actually born in Bombay, India in February 1911 to a Sri Lankan mother (part-Sinhalese and part-Maori) and a Welsh father. When Oberon was nominated for her movie ‘The Dark Angel’, no one in Hollywood knew her true origins.
Her family moved to Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1917 after Oberon’s father died in 1914. This is where she started acting through the Calcutta Amateur Theatrical Society in 1920.
Her biographers — it wasn’t until after her death, her biographers found old photos, birth records, her baptismal certificate and letters that her true origin story was revealed, which is documented in ‘Princess Merle: The Romantic Life of Merle Oberon’ — claimed that Oberon’s mother Charlotte Selby, who had darker skin, supposedly followed her in her travels as her maid.
However, a 2014 documentary ‘The Trouble With Merle’ later revealed that Selby was, in fact, Oberon’s grandmother. Selby’s daughter Constance had given birth to Oberon as a teenager but the two were reportedly raised together as sisters to avoid scandal.
Oberon didn’t publicly identify as Asian. Up until her death, she hid her Asian identity to navigate the racist entertainment industry, which at the time, even had self-imposed rules called the Hays Code, which forbade showing interracial romance.
Merle Oberon was one of the most influential actors of her time and her legacy lives on today amidst controversy. Her performances were praised for their emotional depth and realism, and she was a trailblazer for female actors in Hollywood.