Michelle Yeoh, whose performance in the sci-fi drama “Everything Everywhere All at Once” has already garnered widespread acclaim, appeared to make history Tuesday as the first Asian woman to be nominated for an Oscar in the best actress category.
But was she?
The reality is a little more complicated. When the Hollywood Reporter tweeted that Yeoh was the “first person who identifies as Asian to ever be nominated” for the award, it set off criticism that such language was too politically correct.
The tweet was, however, more accurate than saying Yeoh was the first – because before Yeoh, there was Merle Oberon: a biracial actress who was nominated for best actress in 1936 for her role in “The Dark Angel” (1935).
Born in what is now Mumbai in 1911, Oberon was the daughter of a mother of mixed South Asian origin and a White British father. In a bid to succeed in an industry that often spurned people of color, especially women of color, Oberon obscured her birthplace and biracial identity. Casting of non-White actors was not only unpopular, but it was also in many cases effectively banned under a set of self-enforced industry rules known as the Hays Code, which, among other things, prohibited interracial romance.
Oberon, born Estelle Merle O’Brien Thompson, was raised in India and started to reinvent herself in the shroud of nightlife in what was then called Bombay. She began wearing white makeup – then a popular tool for other mixed-race Indian women – and acquired a British accent. She also used skin-bleaching products, which employ chemicals to suppress the concentration of melanin that makes skin appear darker, according to the podcast “You Must Remember This.”
The guise continued when she moved to Britain. Oberon took her grandmother, Charlotte Selby, with her and had Selby pose as her maid. Selby was originally thought to be Oberon’s mother, but it was later revealed that her mother was the woman said to be Oberon’s sister, who was a teenager when Oberon was conceived, according to the journalist Halley Bondy, who chronicled Oberon’s life on the podcast.
Oberon told people she was born in Tasmania, the far-flung Australian island state. Her birth records? Destroyed in a fire, she would tell people. Oberon claimed that she moved to India after her British father died. She said that was where her “exotic” nature came from, according to Halley.
Her big break as an actress came after she caught the eye of Hungarian filmmaker Alexander Korda, who cast her as Anne Boleyn in the 1933 film “The Private Life of Henry VIII.” She was nominated for the 1936 Oscar for best actress for her role as Kitty Vane in “The Dark Angel,” which chronicled a World War I-era love triangle between Oberon and two soldiers. But she was perhaps best known for her starring role as Cathy in the 1939 film “Wuthering Heights,” produced by Samuel Goldwyn.
Oberon’s facade lasted after her death, in 1979, until a 1983 biography, “Princess Merle: The Romantic Life of Merle Oberon,” revealed her origins.
The jig was up, but Oberon got a long, storied career and died with her secret intact. For years, even after her guise had dissolved, Tasmanians held her up as a daughter of the island.
And so, with only her family and close confidants aware of her true identity in 1936, it was probable that she was nominated for best actress in 1936 as a White woman. (She lost to Bette Davis.)
Much like how LGBTQ athletes and politicians are often described as the first “openly gay” or “openly bisexual” person of their profession – with many before them later shown to have been closeted – it is correct to say that Yeoh is the first Asian-identifying woman to be nominated for the best actress category.
Should Yeoh, a favorite of many Asians around the world, win the category at the Oscars on March 12, she would be the first to do so, outright, 87 years after Oberon clandestinely started to blaze the trail.