Merle Oberon : se faire passer pour une blanche et réussir à Hollywood

Noblesse Dusabe

Merle Oberon, star hollywoodienne de l’ère du noir et blanc, est une icône oubliée dans son Inde natale.

Connue surtout pour avoir interprété le rôle-titre du classique “Wuthering Heights” (1939), Oberon était une Anglo-Indienne née à Bombay en 1911. Mais en tant que star de l’âge d’or d’Hollywood, elle a gardé ses origines secrètes, se faisant passer pour une Blanche pendant toute sa vie.

Mayukh Sen, écrivain et universitaire basé aux États-Unis, a découvert son nom pour la première fois en 2009 lorsqu’il a découvert qu’Oberon avait été la première personne d’origine sud-asiatique à être nominée pour un Oscar.

Sa fascination grandit lorsqu’il vit ses films et se plongea dans son passé.

“En tant que personne queer, je comprends ce sentiment que vous devez cacher une partie de votre identité pour survivre dans une société hostile qui n’est pas vraiment prête à accepter qui vous êtes”, dit-il.

Sen travaille sur une biographie pour raconter l’histoire de l’actrice d’un point de vue sud-asiatique.

Une mère qui n’était pas sa mère

Oberon, de son vrai nom Estelle Merle O’Brien Thompson, est née à Bombay en 1911, à une époque où l’Inde était une colonie britannique.

Sa mère était en partie Ceylan – aujourd’hui sri-lankaise – et en partie maorie, tandis que son père était britannique.

La famille a déménagé à Calcutta en 1917 après la mort du père d’Oberon en 1914 et a commencé à jouer par l’intermédiaire de la Calcutta Amateur Theatrical Society dans les années 1920.

Après avoir vu un film pour la première fois dans le film muet de 1925 “Angel of Darkness”, Oberon a été inspirée par l’actrice Vilma Bánky, selon Sen.

Elle part pour la France en 1928, après qu’un colonel de l’armée l’a présentée au réalisateur Rex Ingram, qui lui confie de petits rôles dans ses films.

La mère d’Oberon, Charlotte Selby, qui avait la peau plus foncée, l’accompagnait en tant que femme de chambre.

Merle Oberon avec Laurence Olivier dans une scène de "Wuthering Heights".
Légende image,La performance d’Oberon dans “Wuthering Heights”, face à Laurence Olivier, a cimenté sa place à Hollywood.

Un documentaire de 2002 intitulé The Trouble with Merle a découvert plus tard que Selby était, en fait, la grand-mère d’Oberon.

La fille de Selby, Constance, a eu Oberon à l’adolescence, mais les deux auraient été élevées ensemble en tant que sœurs pendant quelques années.

Le mensonge tasmanien

La première grande percée d’Oberon est venue d’Alexander Korda, un cinéaste qu’elle épousera plus tard, qui la choisit comme Anne Boleyn dans “La vie privée d’Henry VIII” (1933).

Les publicistes de Korda auraient dû inventer une histoire pour expliquer ses origines.

“La Tasmanie a été choisie comme son nouveau lieu de naissance parce qu’elle était loin des États-Unis et de l’Europe (en Australie) et était généralement considérée comme britannique “jusqu’au cœur”, a écrit Marée Delofski, réalisatrice de The Trouble with Merle, dans ses notes sur le documentaire.

Merle Oberon jouant Lady Marguerite Blakeney dans "The Scarlet Pimpernel".
Légende image,Merle Oberon jouant Lady Marguerite Blakeney dans “The Scarlet Pimpernel”.

Oberon s’est fait passer pour une fille de la classe supérieure de Hobart (capitale de la Tasmanie) qui a déménagé en Inde après que son père a été tué dans un accident de chasse, a déclaré Delofski.

Cependant, l’actrice est rapidement devenue une partie intégrante de la tradition locale en Tasmanie, et pour le reste de sa carrière, les médias australiens l’ont suivie de près avec fierté et curiosité.

Elle a même reconnu la Tasmanie comme son origine et a rarement mentionné l’Inde.

Merle Oberon dans le rôle d'Anne Boleyn dans "La vie privée d'Henri VIII".
Légende image,L’un des rôles les plus notables d’Oberon était celui d’Anne Boleyn dans “La vie privée d’Henri VIII”.

Mais Calcutta se souvenait d’elle. “Dans les années 1920 et 1930, il y avait des mentions en passant dans les mémoires de nombreux hommes anglais” qui vivaient dans la ville indienne, explique le journaliste Sunanda K. Datta Ray.

“Les gens disaient qu’elle était née en ville, qu’elle était opératrice au central téléphonique et qu’elle avait gagné un concours au restaurant Firpo”, ajoute-t-elle.

Arrivée à Hollywood

Alors qu’elle tournait plus de films à Hollywood, Oberon déménagea aux États-Unis et en 1935, elle fut nominée pour un Oscar pour son rôle dans une nouvelle version de “The Angel of Darkness”.

Mais c’est sa performance dans “Wuthering Heights”, face à la légende Laurence Olivier, qui a cimenté sa place dans l’industrie .

Merle Oberon dans une scène de danse de "Jack the Ripper" (1944).
Légende image,Merle Oberon dans une scène de danse de “Jack the Ripper” (1944).

Ils l’ont soi-disant choisie plutôt que Vivien Leigh, une autre actrice d’origine indienne, parce que l’équipe derrière le film pensait qu’elle était un nom plus important, dit Sen.

Une critique du film publiée dans le New York Times lors de sa sortie a déclaré qu’Oberon avait “parfaitement capturé l’esprit changeant et agité de l’héroïne de (Emily) Brontë”.

La fin des années 1930 a catapulté Oberon dans la cour des grands, raconte Sen. Son cercle intime comprenait des personnalités telles que le compositeur de musique Cole Porter et le dramaturge Noël Coward.

Merle Oberon avec son premier mari, le producteur de films Alexander Korda, lisant un scénario vers 1939-1945.
Légende image,Le cinéaste Alexander Korda était le premier mari d’Oberon.

Korda et le producteur vétéran Samuel Goldwyn ont aidé Oberon à changer des choses comme son accent, ce qui aurait révélé ses origines sud-asiatiques, dit Sen.

Mais le secret d’Oberon lui pesait beaucoup, même si sa couleur de peau claire lui permettait de passer facilement pour blanche à l’écran.

“Elle ressentait encore souvent le besoin de faire taire les murmures fréquents selon lesquels elle était métisse. Les journalistes de cinéma de son époque ont noté son teint plus bronzé”, explique Sen.

Certains rapports affirment que la peau d’Oberon a été endommagée par des traitements de blanchiment.

Après un accident de voiture en 1937, le directeur de la photographie Lucien Ballard a développé une technique qui l’a éclairée d’une manière qui a déguisé ce qui s’était passé (Oberon a divorcé de Korda et épousé Ballard en 1945).

Merle Oberon à Acapulco (Mexique) en 1966.
Légende image,Merle Oberon à Acapulco (Mexique) en 1966.

“Certaines sources ont suggéré que la technique était aussi un moyen de blanchir le visage de Merle devant la caméra”, explique Sen.

Le neveu d’Oberon, Michael Korda, qui a publié un mémoire familial intitulé “Alexander Korda : A Dream Life” en 1979, a déclaré qu’il n’avait pas divulgué les détails de son passé car elle l’avait menacé de le poursuivre en justice pour avoir mentionné son véritable nom et son lieu de naissance.

Merle Oberon au volant d'un bateau à moteur dans son film My Heart Guides You.
Légende image,Oberon et ses patrons ont fourni des efforts concertés pour garder son passé caché.

“J’ai pensé que tout cela était dans le passé, mais elle se souciait toujours beaucoup de son passé”, a-t-il déclaré dans une interview au Los Angeles Times.

Fuir les questions

Au fil du temps, la farce est devenue plus difficile à soutenir.

En 1965, Oberon a annulé des apparitions publiques et a écourté un voyage en Australie après avoir appris que les journalistes locaux étaient curieux de connaître ses antécédents.

Les rapports de cette époque affirmaient qu’elle était bouleversée lors de sa dernière visite en Tasmanie en 1978, alors que des questions sur son identité revenaient sans cesse.

Mais elle n’a jamais admis la vérité en public. Elle est morte en 1979, d’un accident vasculaire cérébral.

Merle Oberon avec l'animateur de télévision Mike Walsh en 1978.
Légende image,Merle Oberon avec l’animateur de télévision Mike Walsh lors d’une remise de prix en 1978.

En 1983, son héritage anglo-indien est révélé dans une biographie, Princesse Merle : La vie romantique de Merle Oberon.

Les auteurs ont trouvé son acte de naissance à Bombay, son acte de baptême, ainsi que des lettres et des photographies détenues par ses parents indiens.

À travers son livre, Sen espère transmettre les énormes pressions auxquelles Oberon était confrontée en tant que femme sud-asiatique “naviguant dans une industrie qui n’a pas été conçue pour lui convenir et produisant un travail aussi émouvant tout en menant ces batailles”.

“Faire face à ces luttes n’aurait pas dû être facile. Il est plus utile de sympathiser avec elle que de la juger.”

source:bbc

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