Michelle Yeoh Isn’t The First Asian Woman Nominated For Best Actress — That Would Be Merle Oberon
Michelle Yeoh made history this week as the first Asian-identifying nominee for the Best Actress Academy Award. But film historians and fans were quick to bring up Merle Oberon, the 1930s leading lady with her own hidden Asian background.
Oberon was a South Asian actress with multiracial heritage — she had an English father and a mother with Sri Lankan and Māori ancestry. Oberon rose in the motion picture industry of the 1930s, initially playing characters defined by their Eastern origins before being rebranded as a high-class English actress.
She was actually born in Bombay. Oberon began acting in France, before continuing in the United Kingdom and eventually making her way to Hollywood.
The controversy over her origins was a byproduct of British colonialism, according to Academy Awards expert and UCLA doctoral candidate Monica R. Sandler. Oberon was stuck in an awkward middle ground when it came to how she was cast in films.
“When she tried to be in white spaces, she was rejected,” Sandler said. “Before she was in France or anything, people would find out who she was, and that she was a mixed-race individual. This did not go well for her.”
The Cover Story
There was widespread speculation about Oberon’s origins at the time, but she had a fabricated history she would share when asked.
“She always had this story that she was from Tasmania,” Sandler said. “Historically, she’d been there two or three times in her life — including after she was already saying that.”
The story made Oberon popular with Australians, who saw her as one of their own, according to Sandler.
“But there were moments where they would ask her about growing up in Tasmania. And she’d be like, ‘uhhh…’” Sandler said.
The parts she played helped to back up her cover — as Babli Sinha notes in a 2016 issue of the academic Journal of Popular Film and Television, Oberon was playing roles both on- and off-screen.
“Through her performances, Oberon was also trying to render herself opaque in the wake of doubts regarding her claims of whiteness,” Sinha writes.
That cover story would change over time, according to Sandler.
Early on, Oberon played several parts that were considered "exotic" (a description common at the time for non-white characters), but she played just one specifically Asian character: Marquise Morasaka in the film Thunder In The East.
A year later, movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn decided to reshape her image when he cast her in Dark Angel, her first lead role. (She earned a Best Actress nomination for that film, but ultimately lost to Bette Davis.)
“She was able to transform herself,” Sandler said.
In the publicity for Dark Angel, Oberon pushed the narrative that she’d used makeup to play non-white races in earlier parts. In a 1935 interview with Picture-Play Magazine, she claimed that she was being allowed to be her real self now.
“If I’m terrible, I shall have to go back to my wigs and gold paint,” Oberon said, claiming that this was what she used in her previous roles. “It seems to me that how I screen is more or less a make-up problem. … With each succeeding picture it was accentuated more.”
“[She] talks about how she’s been playing these parts where she looks a certain way, and people have perceived her as being this way, but she’s really this high-class British woman,” Sandler said.
Hollywood’s Racial Ban
Oberon came from a hard background, according to Sandler. The woman who she thought was her mother was actually her grandmother — the woman she thought was her sister, 12 years old at the time of her birth, was her actual mother.
“At that time, there wasn’t much of an option for her,” Sandler said.
One reason that’s the case: the Motion Picture Production Code, aka the Hays Code. The limitations at the time included a ban on depicting interracial relationships.
“During this period of time, if she’d been openly Asian, she wouldn’t have been allowed to be in a lead role,” Sandler said.
Such rules sharply curtailed the career of L.A.'s Anna May Wong, who struggled to find roles that were not stereotypical. As early as 1933, Wong told an interviewer she was tired of the roles she was offered in Hollywood.
Most of the information about her true origins didn’t come out until after she died, Sandler noted.
Oberon’s full reasons for keeping her background hidden aren’t known, but speculation has included a combination of doing so to get ahead as an actress, along with fraught feelings about her family of origin.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to say that someone coming from poverty does not really want to reflect on coming from poverty,” Sandler said. “She’s coming from this really, really complicated place in this really complicated historical moment.”
White Women Playing Asian Leads
Sandler juxtaposed Oberon with actress Luise Rainer, “who is this notorious example of, I would say, the most shameful Academy Award win in history,” Sandler said.
Rainer was the white actress who would win an Academy Award for 1937’s The Good Earth, in which she played a Chinese farmer in yellowface — the makeup technique used to make a white person appear Asian. There's been an ongoing discussion about how that part should have gone to Anna May Wong, according to Sandler.
But she wasn't strongly considered for the role and was relegated to a secondary part. That's because the film’s lead was white actor Paul Muni, and due to the Production Code, his lead actress couldn’t be played by an actual Asian woman, Sandler noted.
“There are a number of yellowface nominations during this period,” Sandler said.
The 1987 TV miniseries Queenie was loosely inspired by Oberon, based on a novel by writer Michael Korda, who was Oberon’s nephew. (Her first marriage was to Alexander Korda, a prominent director, screenwriter, and producer.) The lead character in Queenie was played by… Mia Sara, a white actress.
“There are these figures who were passing in Hollywood during that period, who completely transformed where they came from,” Sandler said.
The most successful of the time was likely Rita Hayworth, Sandler noted, who changed her name from Margarita Carmen Cansino in the process of obscuring her Romani Hispanic background.
Now, nearly 90 years later, a lead actress nominee can finally claim her own Asian heritage.
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