All About Merle Oberon, the First Asian Best Actress Oscar Nominee Who Hid Her Heritage from Hollywood

Another Asian woman would not be nominated for Best Actress again until 2023 — 87 years after Oberon's nod for her 1935 film The Dark Angel

Merle Oberon Studio Portrait.
Merle Oberon. Photo: George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty

Before Michelle Yeoh made history as the second Best Actress Academy Award nominee of Asian heritage, there was Merle Oberon.

Born in India, Oberon is perhaps best known for her roles in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) and 1935's The Dark Angel — the latter of which nabbed her a Best Actress nod in 1936, making her the first Asian woman to do so.

Meanwhile, Yeoh, 60, just received her first-ever Oscar nomination for Best Actress, for her role in Everything Everywhere All at Once — making her the second actress of Asian descent to hold the honor, 87 years later.

Read on to learn more about Oberon's life, career and legacy.

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THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL, Merle Oberon, 1934; THE DARK ANGEL, Merle Oberon, 1935,
From left: Merle Oberon in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) and The Dark Angel (1935). Courtesy Everett Collection (2)

Oberon was born Estelle Merle O'Brien Thompson in 1911 in Mumbai (then Bombay), India, to a mother of mixed South Asian heritage and a White British father, according to The Washington Post. She later moved to Calcutta (now Kolkata) and, eventually, France and England, the latter by 17.

She began her career in British films, starting with bit parts before a bigger break as Anne Boleyn in 1933's The Private Life of Henry VIII.

Oberon would soon star as Lady Blakeney in The Scarlet Pimpernel and Kitty Vane in The Dark Angel. The latter role landed Oberon her Best Actress Oscar nomination. (She lost the award to Bette Davis.) She also starred as Cathy in 1939's Wuthering Heights.

The actress — who was married four times and had two children — had more than 50 screen credits to her name before retiring from acting following a final film role in the 1973 romantic drama Interval. Oberon died in 1979 at age 68, after suffering a stroke.

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Oberon's biracial heritage is not widely known because she herself hid it from the public during her life.

According to the Post, which cites the podcast You Must Remember This, Oberon used white makeup and products to help bleach her skin, as well as a British accent, to try and obscure her origins. She also claimed she was born in the Australian state of Tasmania, per the Post.

In his 2008 book Merle Oberon: Face of Mystery, historian Bob Casey said in part, "Merle Oberon set out as a charming, good-looking girl with a lovely smile who made the most of her looks and her luck," according to Australian outlet the Herald Sun.

"But she kept painting herself into a corner with these lies about being born in Tasmania, which I believe she paid a heavy price for," he added.

Merle Oberon
Merle Oberon. Kobal/Shutterstock

Following her own Oscar nomination announcement earlier this week, Yeoh told Deadline, "I think what it means to me is all those Asians out there go, 'You see, it's possible. If she can do it, I can freaking well do it as well.' That is the most important thing."

"I'm very ordinary. I just work very hard," she added. "There are so many brilliant actresses, actors out there who know that they have a seat at the table. All they have to do is find an opportunity and get there."

The Malaysian-born actress — who is considered a Best Actress frontrunner at the upcoming Academy Awards for her performance as Evelyn Wang in Everything Everywhere All at Once — told TIME last month that she has "thought about" the fact that no Asian woman has ever won Best Actress at the Oscars, adding, "And not just me — I feel like my full Asian community has thought about it."

"They come up to me and they say, 'You're doing it for us,' " Yeoh told TIME.

The 95th Academy Awards will air live on ABC March 12.

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