Name at birth: Estelle Merle O'Brien ThompsonMerle Oberon was an Oscar-nominated movie star in both England and the U.S., most famous for her role as Cathy in the 1939 movie Wuthering Heights. Since her death, Oberon has gained a new kind fame for her mysterious origins. Before she was Merle Oberon, “Queenie” Thompson broke into movies in England, with a big assist from established filmmaker Alexander Korda. Korda set out to make her a star — and he did, beginning with 1933’s The Private Life of Henry VIII (Oberon played Anne Boleyn). Dark-eyed and “exotic” by movie standards, Oberon’s unusual looks — and new stage name — gave off a vaguely European feel, and her regal bearing helped add to the mystery. Oberon starred in The Private Life of Don Juan and The Scarlet Pimpernel (both 1934), and Korda sold a share of her contract to Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn, who needed a leading lady. In the U.S., Oberon was nominated for an Oscar for 1935’s Dark Angel. A taxi accident in 1937 left scars on her face, but that didn’t slow her career, thanks to lighting and camera angles. A bona fide star on both sides of the Atlantic, it was considered a significant snub when Merle Oberon wasn’t nominated as best actress for 1939’s Wuthering Heights (the movie had 8 other nominations). Oberon eventually married Korda, but it didn’t last long. During her life she was married four times and was known to have had many love affairs. Oberon continued to be a leading lady into the 1950s, though her films were not as celebrated as before. Years after her 1979 death, biographers tried to discover the truth about her past. During Oberon’s career, the story was that she was born in Tasmania but raised by British parents in India. Then it was discovered she was born in Bombay (Mumbai), and that her mother was from Sri Lanka and her father was British. Oberon’s films include Folies Bergére de Paris (1935), The Cowboy and the Lady (1938, opposite Gary Cooper), Berlin Express (1948), The Oscar (1966) and Interval (1973).
Merle Oberon was raised with an older sister by her mother in India (Calcutta), and eventually made her way to England by the time she was 17. Oberon discovered later in life that her older sister was in fact her mother, and kept that secret. Meanwhile, in Tasmania there is a contingent that continues to believe Obereon was born there, the daughter of a Chinese immigrant and a British soldier. In either case, Merle Oberon was not white, she was mixed race and “passed” as white, not only through cosmetics and lighting, but through chemical “bleaching” as well… Merle Oberon produced her last movie, Interval, which is the story of a woman trying to hide her past but falling in love with a younger man. After completion of the film, Oberon married her co-star, Robert Wolders, 25 years her junior.
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