Oscar Actors: Oberon, Merle–First Asian Nominee (Ethnicity Hidden by er)(“The Dark Angel,” 1935)

Oscar Nominee Merle Oberon Blazed a Trail in Secret

When the star of The Dark Angel earned Oscar nomination for best actress in 1936, she became the first Asian to do so, though no one knew it at the time.


If Everything Everywhere All at Once‘s Michelle Yeoh wins the best actress Oscar on March 12, she will become the first Asian to do so. But she’s not the first to be nominated: Merle Oberon preceded Yeoh 87 years ago — though no one knew it at the time.

The star of 1935’s The Dark Angel, for which she was nominated, kept her Indian heritage hidden her entire life.

Born in Bombay to a Sri Lankan-Maori mother and white father, Oberon grew up in poverty in Calcutta.

When she was 17, she moved to England to pursue acting.  Fearing backlash from a racist entertainment industry, she claimed she was born in Tasmania and that her birth certificate was lost in a fire.

She broke out playing Anne Boleyn in director Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII in 1933, which led to her being cast in Sidney Franklin’s World War I drama The Dark Angel, produced by Samuel Goldwyn.

While the 1936 Oscar went to Dangerous‘ Bette Davis, Oberon’s career flourished, with starring roles opposite Laurence Olivier in 1939’s Wuthering Heights and Marlon Brando in 1954’s Désirée.

In 1983, four years after she died from a stroke at 68, her ethnicity was revealed in Charles Higham and Roy Moseley’s biography.

tearsheet from a 1935 issue of The Hollywood Reporter