Monday, May 17, 2010

Checking in with Mysterious Merle

You know, I love my classic actresses… Joan, Bette, Lana, Ava, Olivia… even Liz. However, odd as it may be, I think I get the most pleasure out of them when I’m watching them in their later, declining years, years when they were more apt to headline some awful movie far beneath them. Maybe I just like traffic accidents, who knows? One star from back in the day did everything conceivable to avoid falling into the trap of becoming a horror battle axe or some other type of off-kilter hag, yet she still managed to turn in a couple of howlers near the end. I’m talking about the mysterious and ever-glamorous Miss Merle Oberon.

The facts surrounding Merle Oberon’s birth are still in dispute today. She went to such great lengths to hide her heritage and new information suggests that even she didn’t know the full story of her parents! For decades, she lived within the confines of a carefully constructed lie; that she was born of English parents in Tasmania. With her through many of her early years was a very dark-skinned Indian woman serving as her maid. This was actually Merle’s mother! Or was it? She always knew the woman (Charlotte) to be her mother; her father being a white man who she never knew.

It wasn’t until after her death in 1979 that biographer Charles Higham unearthed Oberon’s Anglo-Indian racial background in the book Princess Merle. Her own widower hadn’t even been informed of the fact! Yet, even later, it was brought forth that Charlotte was actually Merle’s grandmother and that her older daughter Constance (a woman Merle only ever knew - and distantly at that - as a half-sister) was Merle’s biological mother! It seems that Constance was impregnated as a teen and Charlotte took the infant as her own, leaving Constance at a boarding school and darn near forgetting her forever.

Adding to the controversy is that there are still people to this day who claim that they or their relatives knew Merle Oberon when she was a child in Hobart, Tasmania, even though there is no real record that she had ever even been there until many years later when she returned (petrified with fear) for an honorary visit. Yes, Merle’s life was one of extreme deception and familial pain glossed over with satin and jewels. Torn between living the life of a glamorous and successful screen actress or revealing the truth (which would have, in the 30s and 40s, been career suicide), she opted for the former and led a glittering, jet set life.

After working as a hostess in a swanky nightclub and winning walk-on roles in British films, she finally won a real part in Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII, starring Charles Laughton. She portrayed the doomed Anne Boleyn and her striking work made her something of a star. This was followed up a year later by The Scarlet Pimpernel, featuring Leslie Howard (who she was madly in love with and enjoyed an affair with for a time.)

Korda, however, continued to be her movie mentor and was eventually her husband in 1939. She made quite a few films in America, some nearly forgotten and some enduring classics such as These Three in 1936 and Wuthering Heights in that magical year of 1939. She and Olivier didn't get along at all during the filming, but did make up nicely years later. Despite her acclaimed work in these two films, her sole Oscar nomination came for The Dark Angel in 1935.

One of her potentially memorable roles was eliminated when a violent car crash nearly did her face in and the filming of I, Claudius had to be scrapped. She was partway through the shooting, playing Messalina to Charles Laughton’s Claudius, when it all went down the tubes, though the Josef Von Sternberg-directed project was fairly troubled all along.

Oberon was always in questionable health. A heart murmur made it difficult for her to adjust to certain altitudes and climates and she was in possession of a very sensitive emotional makeup. It was not uncommon for certain events or displeasures to send her reeling to her bed for long stretches at a time. That said, she did endure some really horrible circumstances in her life, many involving plane crashes that took loved ones from her. It’s uncanny how many people she knew who met their fate this way.

As her career proceeded forward and her marriages progressed to include a millionaire, she began to overcompensate for her poor, sometimes squalid, childhood by developing a strong sense of luxury. She owned several stunning homes, most of which she practically rebuilt in order to suit her lavish tastes. While married to said millionaire Bruno Pagliai, she fashioned an eye-popping, seaside, Acapulco showplace that was difficult to get to unless one knew the secret route. Her luxurious tastes also ran to exquisite art and mouth-watering jewelry. She evolved into one of the all-time international hostesses, not to mention a glittering attendee at various parties, banquets and (frequently) Hilton hotel openings.

The car accident, along with two horrifying allergic reactions to sulfa drugs and the special makeup she wore in order to appear more pale onscreen, left her with permanent facial scarring. She underwent excruciating dermabrasion to try to fix this with only mixed results. Her second husband, cameraman Lucien Ballard, developed a special light (dubbed the “Obie”) that went very far in disguising, first, her accident-scarred and, later, her pitted skin on film. The object soon took off for other screen goddesses wanting to disguise wrinkles and/or other facial issues.

In the mid-50s, with her shelf life as a cinematic leading lady eroding, Oberon began appearing in anthology television. She even briefly hosted the unlikely series Assignment Foreign Legion. In 1954, however, an unusual offer came her way. She was approached to play Empress Josephine in the Napoleonic romantic drama Desiree (which starred Jean Simmons as the title character.) Playing Napoleon was none other than the brash, new Method performer Marlon Brando. Onlookers fretted that the dignified and sensitive Oberon would clash with the notoriously unusual and indulgent Brando.

Surprisingly enough, they got along very well! He reined in his customary attitude and behavior and she, by then, had begun to loosen up a little bit. Her part was small compared to what she’d been used to, but she was extravagantly appointed in period finery and some folks feel that she walks off with the picture thanks to her skillful, sympathetic performance. Also in the cast was Michael Rennie, playing Simmons’ husband, and he would rejoin Merle again several years later in another project.
Her final feature film of the 50s, coming out in 1956, was The Price of Fear. This one costarred her with Lex Barker who played co-owner of a racetrack who finds out that his partner is involved with organized crime. He hasn’t even dealt with that not-so-little problem when Oberon enters his life as a beautiful woman who may have a secret agenda. People talk all the time (and I do understand why) about John Barrymore’s profile, but I see nothing wrong with Sexy Lexy’s myself! I do love that tan, blonde hunk (a former Tarzan in five movies.) This film did nothing to resuscitate her career in films, though.
In 1963, having lived a glorious life in Mexico amid the sea, the sand and all the exotic flora, Oberon decided it was time to stage a return to the silver screen. She secured a property with a plum role for herself (though, surprisingly, it was that of a needy nymphomaniac!) and utilized her own property for some of the filming.

Of Love and Desire concerned a beautiful woman with emotional difficulties who finds it hard not to take every available man to bed with her. The list of ex-lovers is long, including her half-brother’s business associate John Agar. (Agar was once the husband of Shirley Temple until their marriage fell apart amid rumors of mental abuse on his part.) Barely done with Agar, she soon has her eye on her half-brother’s latest acquaintance Steve Cochran!

With Cochran, she thinks she can finally settle down and stay monogamously involved with one man. They lead a blissful existence for a while (and in one scene, Miss Merle shows off her 53 year-old body in a two piece swimsuit and she’s lookin’ good!) Cochran wears a pair of brief trunks, too, that show he’s holding up all right at 46 himself. (Incidentally, Mr. Cochran looks quite a bit better in the finished film than he does in almost any of the promotional photos and lobby cards for the movie.)

Things head south when it turns out that Oberon’s own brother, Curd Jurgens, wants her as much as all the other guys do! The emotional turmoil of this revelation sends her reeling. One sidesplitting sequence has her located downtown, frantically trying to get away as man after man after man comes around her. There is scarcely a woman in sight in the entire city! This film, by the way, was directed by the same man who brought us the rapturously bad Bruce Willis thriller Color of Night.

Considering this storyline, the understandably nervous theatre exhibitors slapped a RESTRICTED sticker onto the posters, though there’s really nothing in the film that would raise much of an eyebrow today. As is often the case, the lurid posters promised more than they delivered. Notice the hilarity of the sticker that features a slinky black panther as a mascot for the adult content of the movie! I think there were probably precious few young (straight) boys trying to bust their way in to this Merle Oberon vanity project.
Steve and Merle allegedly got to know each other intimately in real life as well, at least during the making of the movie. Sadly, however, he was dead within just a couple of years. His private yacht drifted into port with several starved, hysterical girls on it along with his quickly decomposing body, which had been lying on board for ten days. Controversy surrounded the incident, but there was a strange tendency among the authorities to not try exceedingly hard to determine any foul play, even after Oberon strove to have her considerable contacts look into the matter further.

In 1966, Oberon had a cameo role as herself in the stunningly campy film The Oscar. The movie, sure to merit its own tribute here in time, concerned an actor hell bent on winning an Academy Award and Miss O had the distinction of presenting the Best Actor Oscar within the faux ceremony depicted. Done up in an Edith Head gown, hair piled to the rafters and dripping in sparkling jewels, she certainly adds the requisite dollop of glitz to the proceedings.
Having gotten one toe wet with that film, she then entertained an offer to take part in a multi-character drama based on an Arthur Hailey novel. Hotel focused on the goings on at a New Orleans hotel called The St. Gregory. Rod Taylor (who had years before enjoyed a clandestine affair with Merle) played Peter McDermott, the manager of the opulent hotel, who has to juggle a variety of issues from a hostile takeover to a cat burglar to a Duke and Duchess harboring some sort of secret. After briefly considering Joan Fontaine to play the Duchess, the director Richard Quine set his mind on Oberon. Her association with The Hiltons also helped make her seem a natural for the part. (If Peter McDermott and The St. Gregory sound familiar, this was later adapted into a hit TV show starring James Brolin.)

Warner Brothers had Wilfred Hyde-White under contract and wanted him to play the Duke, but Merle flatly refused to do the role with someone she didn’t feel would supply at least some degree of height, stature and handsomeness in order to help explain her devotion to him. She also didn’t want to appear like a trophy wife next to the aged and short Hyde-White. Her former costar from Desiree, Michael Rennie, was brought in to take his place and everyone was happy, for the moment.

For the film, Merle looked unbelievably stunning, especially considering that she was 56. Every time she appeared, there was another show-stopping outfit, another ornate hairstyle and shovelfuls of her own amazing jewelry. I do back-flips for the crazy, insane hairdos of the 1965-69 (give or take) era that frequently looked as if medium-sized furry animals have been decorated and adhered to the heads of the women. The ladies seemed to compete to see who could get her “hair” the tallest and many a neck seemed to bend under the strain! Miss Oberon was right in there swingin’ with a huge crown of dark curls.

Wardrobe still photos exist of her standing near a chair (for support?) as she demonstrates how her outfit will appear. In the color one, cropped at about the knee, she maintains the glamour and stature she was by then renowned for. Digging deeper into the archives, however, turns up a black and white shot that includes her all the way to the feet. Oddly, she looks squatty and somehow less regal. Her wrist looks really thick and she has on, perhaps, the world’s worst panty hose. (If you notice in the shot from Of Love and Desire above, where she’s draped in a sheet on the bed, she has her feet hidden under the covers. Methinks that maybe her ankles and footsies were among the first things to go?)

By this time, Miss Oberon had been taking expensive and controversial beauty treatments in Switzerland that required injections into her buttocks. According to Higham’s bio, the allegedly rejuvenating procedure involved the (unbeknownst to her) brutal bludgeoning of pregnant animals on site in a soundproof room, whose fetus’s cells were then transferred to her system. Reportedly, the results were spectacular, allowing her a whole new level of energy, vibrancy and physical “youth.” Oberon retained the Hindu belief that all life was sacred and never killed even an insect, so it is unlikely that she knew the details of the treatments. Then again, Charles Higham’s books have been known to include wildly out of control information that has later been disproven (such as the nasty and damaging tale that Errol Flynn sympathized with and worked for the Nazis during WWII!)

In any event, there was a disagreement between Oberon and the director Quine over a scene in Hotel that she wanted included. He felt that it was not only unnecessary, but also inappropriate, but she was insistent upon it. The melodramatic scene depicted Rennie and her discussing their relationship in the wake of the calamity that has befallen them. Quine filmed it but couldn’t bring himself to include it in the final cut. He escorted her to the glitzy premiere and could feel himself tightening as the moment where the scene ought to be approached. He turned to make some sort of apology to her for cutting it, but she was not in her seat. She had exited the theatre, flagged a cab, returned to her hotel, checked out and left, never to speak to him for any reason again! I’m ashamed to say I can picture myself doing something like that. Ha Ha!

Now soured on the entire idea of Hollywood filmmaking, she laid low for several more years, traveling and encountering a new love in her life. She met Dutch actor Robert Wolders, who had a season of the western show Laredo under his belt along with some other credits, and left her millionaire husband for him. (She had adopted two children with Pagliai as well.) He was 25 years her junior, but then she was also magically preserved with the animal cells, so it was almost even. The couple had an intense fascination with nature and each other and spent countless blissful moments together traveling and enjoying one another’s company.

She made an appearance at the 1972 Academy Awards, this time presenting for real, in order to honor The Poseidon Adventure with a Special Achievement in Visual Effects award. In a moment that I want to pop up on so badly that I lie awake at night, she emerged on the stage atop a moving facsimile of the deck of The S.S. Poseidon and it malfunctioned, almost sending her overboard! Please, SOMEONE!

Still not entirely ready to abandon her legacy as a film star, she set out to make one more movie. This time, she incorporated many of the aspects of her own life into the plot. She played a lonely woman, one very much in tune with nature, who falls for a younger man amid the ruins of Mexico. Called Interval, quite a few critics and viewers would probably have considered Interminable a far more apt title! Some of the more cruel observers drew similarities between the Mexican ruins and the brittle remains of the star herself!

Determined not to allow any interference from anyone in realizing her project, she edited the film herself (!) using knowledge she had gained through her years with the talented and exacting Alexander Korda. It was a vanity project to end all vanity projects as she continued to appear in the film with one flashy blouse after another, almost always paired for some reason with white slacks, hair inordinately done up or, in some cases, down, giving her an unintentional vampire hag sort of look. She does pop up in one delicious lilac chiffon ensemble, looking pretty great.

The sappiness of the film cannot be underemphasized. There’s even a godawful scene in which she’s standing on an ancient ruin with her hands thrown out as Wolders runs to her hollering “I’m somebody!” Umm…. Maybe not. His own acting, despite his having a modicum of experience on TV, was eviscerated by critics. His biggest problem seemed to be a lack of decent posture and a lack of confidence. He knew almost from the start that he really wasn’t suited to the part and that it could be a virtual minefield for his costar and her reputation.

It turned out to be a debacle, losing most of the money it cost to make and effectively slamming the lid on Oberon’s screen career forever. It’s hard to even catch this flick on TV at 2:45am it’s so obscure and unloved. A VHS copy I found once at a flea market has two armed Pinkerton guards surrounding it all times. Every once in a while, I will enter the decompression chamber, become air-cleaned, don my white gloves, remove the videocassette from its sleeve and have a cackle or two.

Personally, I don’t care all that much about age differences in relationships. Joan Collins has certainly made it work for her! There is something just a tiny bit icky, though, about the fact that Wolders went from Oberon to Audrey Hepburn and then to Leslie Caron. Someone needs to warn Mitzi Gaynor! One thing, though, that impressed me greatly about him is that when Miss Oberon died in 1979, he received nothing, nada, zilch from her considerable estate and it was at his own request. He and Merle had already begun to disassociate themselves from worldly objects as part of their spirituality prior to her death. Still, ya gotta eat! I don’t understand how people get by when I barely make it working full time. He was there, too, through the very worst of her final days (as was her close friend and fashion designer Luis Estevez, who always reveled in dressing the very tan Merle in white.)

A very weakened and deteriorated heart required surgery for Miss Oberon and though she survived the operation, she was left with painful and severe scars down her torso. An appearance in September of '79 had a sort of sad Margo from Shangri-La tinge to it. Finally, she was taken one night by a severe stroke in November. She left behind not only a treasure of art, jewels and property, but also the legacy of her better film work. She also left a jigsaw puzzle for her widower and two adopted children to figure out about what her origins were and how she was able to keep her secrets for all those decades.


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