Friday, March 12, 2010
Merle and Sarah Jane
Imitation of Life and The Oscar lead, in the Siren's convoluted mental Hollywood, to Merle Oberon, the lady who gives out the Oscar in the latter's finale. In her early roles, like The Private Life of Henry VIII and These Three, Oberon had one of the most exquisitely, symmetrically beautiful faces in the history of movies. A perfect oval shape, a nose and mouth balanced just so and breathtaking eyes.
But here is the Imitation of Life twist, no great secret anymore: Oberon's mother was a dark-skinned Ceylonese woman named Charlotte Selby. Some say Charlotte was actually her grandmother, complicating matters; but she raised Merle, and Merle appears to have thought Charlotte was her mother. In any event, Oberon, née Estelle Merle Thompson, spent her life hiding her heritage from Hollywood and the world.
A modern person gazes at the features that columnists called "exotic" and can't figure out how Oberon managed a 40-year career without anyone wising up to the fact that she was half-Asian. And, in fact, she didn't keep it from everyone. The rumor about Oberon's parentage was around for years before it was confirmed in the 1980s by writers Charles Higham and Roy Moseley and by Michael Korda, her nephew by marriage, among others.
Unlike Sarah Jane, Oberon didn't abandon the woman she thought was her mother. She provided for her, stashing her in a flat in London, visiting her and paying all her bills. Oberon lived in glamourous digs that contained no nostalgic pictures of little Queenie, as she was nicknamed in childhood, in her mother's arms. When in London, Merle never said to a friend, "I'd like you to meet my mother." It is said that when visitors asked, Merle pretended Charlotte was the maid.
The Siren likes actors, and even when she doesn't, she admires them. Most of them. When I trouble to write at length about an actor, occasionally I start out rather cool, but I almost always end by feeling affection.
I feel no such affection for Oberon. But she intrigues me no end. How do you reach that point in your ambitions--the point where you'd deny your own mother?
Wikipedia has a odd little phrase in its lengthy and tortuous Merle Oberon entry: "She believed the truth would have destroyed her career prospects." Believed, rubbish. Without question the truth would have kept her from playing leads, thanks to the Production Code's miscegenation clause. No Anglo-Indian woman would ever have played Catherine Earnshaw in 1939. In fact, that casting would cause grumbling in some quarters in 2010, albeit carefully phrased in terms of history and plausibility.
Lena Horne tells of how in her early days, showmen said she was light-skinned enough to play Latina or white. Horne snapped back that she was also dark enough to be what she was. Horne had the courage. But Oberon had the stardom.
If Oberon would not acknowledge her mother in public, neither did she leave her to fate. Her mother was cared for, but concealed. And the Siren will always wonder, how did Charlotte feel, day by day? Was it enough to be provided for by her dazzling daughter, or did that make it worse?
She had a hardscrabble childhood, did Merle, one that she pulled herself out of by becoming a companion to older, wealthy, well-connected men. Whether that extended to outright prostitution is another Oberon mystery. But she worked her way to London and hitched her wagon to Alexander Korda, marrying him some years later.
Oberon became a star, but not a great actress. Oh, she was just right on occasion. Under William Wyler's steel hand she was perfect for These Three, impossibly lovely and poised, the very essence of the things that will always elude Miriam Hopkins. Her character is the sort of woman to whom fate will always lend a hand, because she is beautiful, because men adore her.
She played the same kind of part in The Scarlet Pimpernel, yet made Marguerite more sympathetic than she was in the book. She had a brief affair with Leslie Howard and a more serious one with David Niven. The Siren can't tell you whether Niven, a canny mortal and a world-class gossip, knew. If so, it did nothing to diminish her appeal for him at the time; but he didn't marry her.
During the 1937 filming of I, Claudius Oberon, who'd been cast as Messalina, was in a car accident that sounded the production's death knell and gave us one of the great "what ifs" of movie history. Her face was badly cut and required surgery. In later movies she is still a great beauty, but the pure perfection is gone.
The decade wound down with The Divorce of Lady X and closed with the biggest role of Oberon's career, Cathy in Wuthering Heights. She is appealing in that romantic movie, enough to make Laurence Olivier's love believable, but she lacks the wild, deeply unnerving passion that is the essence of Bronte.
Later good parts for Oberon came in That Uncertain Feeling and Lydia. Some sources claim an allergic reaction to sulfa drugs, compounded by dermabrasion afterward, further marred her looks. She made movies throughout the 1940s, including a preposterous piece of biopic casting as George Sand in A Song to Remember. She also made the very good Jack the Ripper thriller, The Lodger, where she met the great cinematographer Lucien Ballard and eventually married him. He invented a light to help keep the illusion of Oberon's beauty. Still, toward decade's end she began to experience the fading appeal that is the lot of most actresses.
Charlotte Selby, whether mother or grandmother, died in 1937.
As her roles dwindled Merle had compensations. She collected jewelry, she had parties, she painted pictures of flowers. She eased into a jet-set lifestyle, adopted children, and finally moved on to retirement with the Dutch actor who eventually moved on to Audrey Hepburn.
Her filmography consists of roles as love objects of varying degrees of fragility and refinement. You have to look hard in an Oberon performance to find any glint of the iron will that could take a woman from squalid beginnings, to Calcutta nightclubs, then to London, then to Hollywood, and finally to international society, all the while living Sarah Jane's lie. The Siren has never managed to spot it. Each time I see an Oberon movie, I get a thrill from her beauty, but no hint of the riddle's solution. Was she a Scarlett O'Hara who was never going to go hungry again, one to be pitied for the choices racism foisted on her? Or just a Fane-type conniver plying her primary gift, her face, for whatever advantage it would bring?
June Duprez had an opinion, and she expressed it at length in John Kobal's People Will Talk. Duprez had memorable roles in two of the Siren's favorite movies, The Four Feathers and The Thief of Baghdad, but her stay in Hollywood was a miserable one partly, she said, because Oberon backstabbed her. Oberon went out of her way to snub Duprez, and may also have done her best to see that the rest of Hollywood society snubbed the young actress as well. Maybe, said Duprez, it went back to the time that they both showed up at a party in London wearing a white lace dress and a diamond necklace.
Well, Duprez resembled Oberon, but Duprez was seven years younger. That alone could earn an actress's grudge.
Or maybe Duprez needed to cast a single villain in a role that belonged to sheer bad luck. By the time Duprez talked to Kobal, Oberon had been dead for six years, felled by a stroke in 1979.
Now we all hear a lot about the pain and pathos of stardom. Some stories are tragedies by any definition: Wallace Reid, Clara Bow, Rita Hayworth, Gene Tierney, John Garfield, Canada Lee. Other actors' laments leave you thinking that ordinary people make sacrifices, too, only with less fuss and far fewer rewards.
Oberon's life was no tragedy; her mother's, perhaps, was.