Saturday 27 December 2014

Magnificent Maureen

Maureen O'Hara conquered Hollywood with her beauty and charm. On Tuesday, she turns 90, writes Maggie Armstrong

For a teenage actress in 1937, as now, getting a lead role in the Abbey Theatre was a glamorous thing. But so was going to England to be screen-tested for the movies. As she sat sipping coffee in Bewleys with her mother Marguerita, a 17-year-old Maureen FitzSimons agonised over whether to take the stage role or try to be a film star.

Bold and ambitious, but not lacking in naivete, Maureen took the plunge and sailed to London with her mother. Marguerita was a dressmaker by trade but had a knack for the stage. She was beautiful and well-heeled, and had a contralto voice, having performed opera and theatre in the Gaiety Theatre and elsewhere. She was hell-bent on her daughter doing well.

Maureen had agreed to go to London in spite of herself, as she had a snobbish preference for the theatre. And she felt her preference was justified when she was stylised for Elstree Studios, looking, she says, "like a ten-dollar hooker". She hated it, but they loved her.

Back home in Ranelagh, Dublin, her local priest was called in for the signing of a seven-year contract with Mayflower Pictures. Charles Laughton and Erich Pommer, the bosses of Mayflower, both had a cute eye for fledgling talent. Laughton was a maverick English actor who had fought in World War I and who achieved great fame with Les Miserables (1935) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939).

Laughton changed her name from FitzSimons to the more marketable, easy-on-the-ear 'O'Hara'. Then everything was whipped into action.

Maureen O'Hara made her first big picture, starring alongside Laughton in Alfred Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn (1939). Filming in England she met and briefly courted the producer George Brown. He fell obsessively in love with her and, on the cusp of her departure for Hollywood and of World War II, he arranged a seedy and furtive ceremony. She accidentally married him.

This thorn was fresh in her side on the morning she boarded the Queen Mary ocean liner with Laughton and her mother in tow. When Marguerita discovered a hidden wedding ring her daughter revealed all: George Brown had cheated her.

O'Hara was told by her travelling companions to say nothing about the marriage: she had more important fish to fry than domestication or divorce. It turned out the union didn't count -- it was never consummated -- and was annulled in 1941.

In the meantime, she got along with things. In Hollywood she made The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), a spectacular success. O'Hara shone as the Gypsy Esmerelda, with Laughton himself playing the inimitable hunchback.

It was the second of 65 films for the precocious actress, as her career came to span six decades. The camera loved her beauty, her charm and her often bombastic energy.

As O'Hara prepares to turn 90 this Tuesday, she's now caught up in meetings, suppers, a backlog of fan letters and she is the honorary president of the Glengarriff golf club in Co Cork; she attends film festivals, fashion shows, she goes to Mass; and she watches soccer and Gaelic football.

Her newest venture is the Maureen O'Hara Legacy Centre, an acting school in Glengarriff, which will open in 2012. These days she has a certain punchy, streetwise self-mockery when reflecting on her talent and the astral beauty that propelled her to fame. In an interview with Larry King, she admitted that her zest for work came from "plain old nasty ego", while she told Ryan Tubridy that she was a "ham" of an actress.

But in 1940s Hollywood, romance and high-drama required a certain style of performance, and in the fight-or-flight politics of studio contracts O'Hara had to do this seamlessly, again and again, three or four times a year.

Ham or no ham, with looks like her's she was soon the most desired actress in Hollywood, a pin-up girl in 1940s army barracks and known proverbially as 'Big Red' and 'The Queen of Technicolour'. Yet O'Hara has said that her biggest source of pride is her Irishness.

It sprang from the emigre nostalgia of John Ford, the Irish-American film director of Spiddal-born parents, who made westerns with groundbreaking skill and creativity.

If Laughton was a patriarchal aide to O'Hara in her delicate teens, Ford was daftly paternal -- she even called him 'Pappie'. Pappie, however, was also notorious for temper tantrums, drinking and making outlandish demands on his actors -- an "ole divil to work with", according to O'Hara.

Ford cherished his Irish-American identity. He had begun visualising The Quiet Man one morning in 1933 when he discovered a story of the same name by Maurice Walsh in The Saturday Evening Post.

Irish Independent

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