Merle Oberon – ours, or theirs?

OUR MERLE? Merle Oberon (1911-1979) whose career has come to be eclipsed by speculation about her birthplace.
OUR MERLE? Merle Oberon (1911-1979) whose career has come to be eclipsed by speculation about her birthplace.

A Writer’s first profile.

BETWEEN 2000 and 2003 I co-produced Screen Me! The Blue Mountains Short Film Festival, at Scenic World, Katoomba, with my partner Jonathan Rosten. With the support of the NSW Film & Television Office, AVID Australia, film critic David Stratton, and a host of local sponsors, we exhibited over 100 short films by Australian film-makers.

When a local film-maker with a film of international significance submitted her work for exhibition, the job of writing a profile fell to me. The ensuing interview was published by Fairfax Regional, and was probably my first real piece of print journalism …

The Trouble with Truth

Was Hollywood’s Merle Oberon a girl from Tassie, or was she from the streets of Calcutta? On the eve of screening her film ‘The Trouble With Merle’ at the Blue Mountains Short Film Festival, Marée Delofski spoke with Michael Burge.

Down a leafy laneway more reminiscent of a country town than the faded ‘honeymoon capital’ style of Katoomba’s main drag, Marée Delofski talks of her love for The Blue Mountains.

“I write best here,” she says, “I get very good mental space”. Such feelings are not uncommon amongst local artists escaping the speed of the city, so I ask if there is a deeper connection to the local landscape?

Like one of the many people interviewed in her hour-long award-winning documentary The Trouble With Merle, Marée is on the brink of a journey to answer a question that cannot be addressed in a minute. The real answer is about an hour and two cups of tea away.

Marée Delofski is a very open person – this must be how she extracts such personal depth from her subjects. Indeed, The Trouble with Merle is a personal journey to the heart of a mystery, the kind of mystery common in the Australian experience – the kind that may never be solved.

Inspired to adapt Welcome Back, Thea Welsh’s novel about an Australian actress who creates a false past, becomes successful overseas, and returns home only to find that her cover has been blown, Marée recognised the story as Oberon’s.

Merle Oberon was a prolific star of films in England and America throughout the 1930s and 1940s, most notably in William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights, in which her dark beauty embodied Emily Brontë’s Cathy opposite Laurence Olivier’s Heathcliffe in 1939.

HEIGHTS OF FAME Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier in William Wyler's 'Wuthering Heights' (1939).
HEIGHTS OF FAME Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier in William Wyler’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ (1939).

Like her contemporary Errol Flynn, Merle Oberon was from Tasmania. Fifty years before ‘our’ Cate Blanchett was Tassie-girl ‘our’ Merle Oberon, Academy Award nominee and trans-Atlantic toast of the movies.

After her death in 1979, however, it was reported that Oberon was not from Tasmania at all – the actresses’ cover had indeed been blown. She was actually an Anglo-Indian born in Calcutta (unacceptable to the Hollywood movie machine) and certainly not from a small island at the bottom of the world.

Some bizarre facts about this dismissal of Merle’s life story sparked the interest of Marée Delofski. Not long before her death, Merle Oberon travelled from California to Hobart to be honoured at a gala ceremony, and a range of ‘Merle Believers’ (Delofski’s term for believers of the Merle-born-in-Tasmania-theory) had some convincing oral histories about Merle as a young child. Truth proved to be stranger than fiction for Maree Delofski, and the ‘actress’ project became a documentary.

Inspired to juxtapose images of Merle-as-Cathy on the Yorkshire Moors in Wuthering Heights with the weather-beaten trails of north-eastern Tasmania where the Merle Believers hold their tales, Marée wrote her film here in Katoomba.

When copyright restrictions prevented the use of Wyler’s film for her symbolic plan of Brontëan longing, Maree was forced to think again.

Apparently this often happens when making docos, when the content of the film emerges from the film-maker’s journey – crossing the barriers of geography and culture to connect with the subject, a process that Marée describes as “a privilege”.

Such strong connections were made on a previous doco, A Calcutta Christmas, that a letter and photos from a participant in that film sit on Marée’s kitchen table. Discussing the interviewees from The Trouble With Merle she refers to them by their first names, like they might live around the corner. I get the feeling that what we see on the screen is about as unfiltered as is possible with film-making.

The personal interviews with the Merle Believers are some of the most riveting moments in Delofski’s film – they are a living album of memories, truths and untruths. You seem to know when they are talking from their hearts and when they are downright lying.

One woman is interviewed with the framing including her dog. This regal, well-coiffed Merle Believer uses language around matters of racial identity which borders on the politically incorrect, a fact which the dog amusingly seems to notice but she does not.

Another claims to know where Oberon’s birth certificate is, but she will not produce this document (which could clear the whole matter up) because: “Maree, it’s mine,” she asserts, with the controlled desperation of a child.

THE REAL MERLE Oberon in the 1970s.
THE REAL MERLE Oberon in the 1970s.

The Trouble With Merle is not a sycophantic Hollywood biog. Delofski follows her nose from Tasmania to India, and finally to Canada where some truths about Oberon’s origins answer most of the mystery. Marée adds that since the film has been completed and distributed, more stories and leads have come out about this enigmatic life. The truth will not be pinned-down in this case.

The film goes beyond Merle Oberon to the two mothers who poignantly claim the one daughter, the two cultures who lost her to Hollywood, and to Western popular culture who could not accept her as anything but an exotic-looking Commonwealth girl. Then it goes back to Merle herself, ageing and facing an event in Hobart which exhausts her enough to contribute to her death soon after.

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Back in Marée’s kitchen, it’s just after she tells me she “doesn’t mind being treated like an idiot” when she’s film-making, that she realises she herself wasn’t entirely truthful about answering  my earlier question. Does the Blue Mountains landscape impact on her inspiration for film ideas? It’s that question which took two cups of tea to answer via discussion about The Trouble With Merle, truth, myth, memory, identity, race and landscape.

The answer is “yes” – a project she’s currently seeking inspiration for called Darjeeling Dreaming will marry themes from India and The Blue Mountains. This one is conceived as a piece of fiction, but after telling me a few stories of local characters she encountered recently, I’d guess Marée mightn’t be prepared to let a good story get in the way of the truth.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

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