Maureen O'Hara, and the way she might look at you
No one who saw the feisty and fearless Maureen O'Hara on the big screen could forget her, writes Robert Jablon
Published 25/10/2015 | 02:30
THE death of Maureen O'Hara - the flame-haired Irish film star who appeared in classics ranging from the grim How Green Was My Valley to the uplifting Miracle on 34th Street and bantered unforgettably with John Wayne in several films - will make most of us pause to remember her.
O'Hara died in her sleep yesterday at her home in Boise, Idaho, said Johnny Nicoletti, her longtime manager. She was 95.
"She passed peacefully surrounded by her loving family as they celebrated her life listening to music from her favorite movie, The Quiet Man'" said a statement from her family. "As an actress, Maureen brought unyielding strength and sudden sensitivity to every role she played. Her characters were feisty and fearless, just as she was in real life. She was also proudly Irish and spent her entire lifetime sharing her heritage and the wonderful culture of the Emerald Isle with the world," said a family biography.
O'Hara came to Hollywood to star in the 1939 The Hunchback of Notre Dame and went on to a long career.
During her movie heyday, she became known as the Queen of Technicolour because of the camera's love affair with her vivid hair, pale complexion and fiery nature.
After her start in Hollywood with Hunchback and some minor films at RKO, she was borrowed by 20th Century Fox to play the beautiful young daughter in the 1941 saga of a coal-mining family, How Green Was My Valley.
The film went on to win five Oscars, including best picture and best director for John Ford, beating Orson Welles and Citizen Kane, among others. It was the first of several films she made under the direction of Ford, who grouchy nature seemed to melt in her presence.
The popularity of How Green Was My Valley confirmed O'Hara's status as a Hollywood star. RKO and Fox shared her contract, and her most successful films were made at Fox.
They included Miracle on 34th Street, the classic 1947 Christmas story in which O'Hara was little Natalie Wood's skeptical mother and among those charmed by Edmund Gwenn as a man who believed he was Santa Claus.
Other films included the costume drama The Foxes of Harrow (Rex Harrison, 1947); the comedy Sitting Pretty (Clifton Webb, 1948); and the sports comedy Father Was a Fullback (Fred MacMurray, 1949).
Often she sailed the high seas in colourful pirate adventures such as The Black Swan with Tyrone Power, The Spanish Main with Paul Henreid, Sinbad the Sailor with Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Against All Flags with Errol Flynn.
With Ford's Rio Grande in 1950, O'Hara became Wayne's favourite leading lady. The most successful of their five films was 1952's The Quiet Man, also directed by Ford, in which she matched Wayne blow for blow in a classic donnybrook.
With her Irish spunk, she could stand up to the rugged Duke, both on and off screen. She was proud when he remarked in an interview that he preferred to work with men - "except for Maureen O'Hara; she's a great guy."
"We met through Ford, and we hit it right off," she remarked in 1991. "I adored him, and he loved me. But we were never sweethearts. Never, ever."
O'Hara's other movies with Wayne were The Wings of Eagles (1957), McClintock! (1963) and Big Jake (1971).
After her studio contracts ended, she remained busy. She played the mother of twins, both played by Hayley Mills, who conspire to reunite their divorced parents in the 1961 Disney comedy The Parent Trap. She was also in Spencer's Mountain with Henry Fonda (1963), a precursor to TV's The Waltons; and a Western, The Rare Breed, with James Stewart (1966).
In 1968, she married her third husband, Brig. Gen. Charles Blair. After Big Jake, she quit movies to live with him in the Virgin Islands, where he operated an airline. He died in a plane crash in 1978.
"Being married to Charlie Blair and traveling all over the world with him, believe me, was enough for any woman," she said in a 1995 interview. "It was the best time of my life."
She returned to movies in 1991 for a role that writer-director Chris Columbus had written especially for her, as John Candy's feisty mother in a sentimental drama, Only the Lonely. It was not a box-office success.
Over the following decade, she did three TV movies: The Christmas Box, based on a best-selling book, a perennial holiday attraction; Cab to Canada, a road picture; and The Last Dance.
While making The Christmas Box in 1995, she admitted that roles for someone her age (75), were scarce: "The older a man gets, the younger the parts that he plays. The older a woman gets, you've got to find parts that are believable. Since I'm not a frail character, it's not that easy."
Maureen FitzSimons was born in 1920 in Ranelagh, Dublin. Her mother was a well-known opera singer, and her father owned a string of soccer teams. Through her father, she learned to love sports; through her mother, she and her five siblings were exposed to the theatre.
"My first ambition was to be the number one actress in the world," she recalled in 1999. "And when the whole world bowed at my feet, I would retire in glory and never do anything again."
Maureen was admitted to the training programme at Dublin's Abbey Theatre, where she was a prize student. When word of the beautiful Irish teen reached London, she was offered a screen test, and a friend convinced her reluctant parents to allow it.
Maureen considered the test a failure, but it led to a few small roles in English films. The great actor Charles Laughton, who was producing and starring in films made in England, saw the test and was intrigued by her dancing eyes. At 17 she co-starred opposite him in a pirate yarn, Jamaica Inn, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Laughton gave her a more manageable name: O'Hara.
With the onslaught of World War II, filmmaking virtually halted in England. Laughton moved to RKO in Hollywood and starred as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with O'Hara as the beautiful gypsy girl, Esmeralda.
Her first husband was director George Hanley Brown, whom she met while making Jamaica Inn. When she moved to Hollywood, he remained in England and the marriage was annulled.
In 1941, she married a tall, handsome director, Will Price, and they had a daughter, Bronwyn, in 1944.
"The marriage was a terrible mistake, and we divorced in 1952," she said. She remained unmarried until the wedding to Blair in 1968.
After his death, she continued living for many years in St Croix, Virgin Islands, spending summers in Ireland. More recently, she lived much of the time with a grandson in Scottsdale, Arizona, though she also kept a condominium in St Croix.
O'Hara's career was threatened by a manufactured scandal in 1957, when Confidential magazine claimed she and a lover engaged in "the hottest show in town" in a back row in Hollywood's Grauman's Chinese Theatre.
But at the time, she said later, "I was making a movie in Spain - and I had the passport to prove it." She testified against the magazine in a criminal libel trial and brought a lawsuit that was settled out of court. The magazine eventually went out of business.
On the screen, O'Hara always played strong, willful women. In a 1991 interview, she was asked if she was the same woman she appeared in movies.
"I do like to get my own way," she said. "But don't think I'm not acting when I'm up there. And don't think I always get my own way. There have been crushing disappointments. But when that happens, I say, 'Find another hill to climb.'"
Maureen O'Hara is survived by her daughter, Bronwyn FitzSimons of Glengarriff, Co Cork; her grandson, Conor FitzSimons of Boise; and two great-grandchildren.