Sunday, February 6, 2011

Merle Oberon -- Aquarian

I have always thought Merle Oberon was one of the most glamorous of the early Hollywood stars. She was able to carry off those glorious costume dramas, like Wuthering Heights or The Scarlet Pimpernel, without looking out of her element.

She was born in India. She grew up in Bombay and then Calcutta, raised by her grandmother--who she thought was her mother--in poverty. A 17 she and her "mother" moved to Britain and she began working unbilled in films. Eventually she met, became involved with, and eventually married Alexander Korda, who was 18 years her senior.

In the early 30s she worked in British films, then came to Hollywood.

She had romances with several co-stars, including Leslie Howard and David Niven. In 1937 she had a car accident that left her facially scarred, but she continued to work. Her second husband actually invented a lighting instrument that completely hid or disguised her facial scars on camera.

She divorced Korda, and went on to have three more marriages, including last husband Robert Wolders, who was 25 years younger than she. After her death in 1979, Wolders became the companion of Audrey Hepburn.

Throughout her life, Oberon maintained she was born in Tasmania, Australia. She hid her father's parentage (Irish) and her mother's (Ceylonese, now Sri Lanka). In Britain, when living with her grandmother, she often pretended her grandmother was her maid, probably because the older woman was dark-skinned (relative to Merle).

She worked steadily in Hollywood throughout the 1940s, and into the 1950s, when work slowed down. Some films and TV followed in the 60s and 70s, but essentially she retired after 1954's Desiree.

Sadly, the fact that she hid her background behind fairy tales (lies) is not surprising, given the times and the fact that she was struggling to become a legitimate--or respectable--actress. Many actresses of the 19th and early 20th century did the same, including Sarah Bernhardt.

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