Friday 21 October 2016

Obituary: Maureen O'Hara (an appreciation)

Barry Egan recalls an encounter in 2004 with one of Ireland's greatest - and far from quiet - cinematic legends

Published 01/11/2015 | 02:30

HOLLYWOOD LEGEND: Barry Egan was smitten by superstar Maureen O’Hara
HOLLYWOOD LEGEND: Barry Egan was smitten by superstar Maureen O’Hara

Maureen O'Hara was, in truth, the not so Quiet Woman. A force of Titian-haired nature perhaps. She was uncertainly indomitable.

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Maureen commanded respect internationally, possibly on the back of a certain John Ford movie she did with John Wayne in 1952. When I met her in her suite in The Shelbourne hotel in Dublin 2004, I asked her - not entirely seriously - when her star started to wane? How did she stop herself from turning into the Norma Desmond character in Sunset Boulevard?

The icon flashed me a stern look that she possibly learned from the nuns in convent school in Dublin before answering. "I'll say one thing to you," Maureen O'Hara, then 84 years of age, began, "I was Irish. And I remain Irish. And Irish women don't let themselves go."

She was - and possibly remains forever, especially after her death, aged 95, last weekend - Ireland's greatest cinematic creations. As I and Sunday Independent photographer David Conachy found out, to our distinct pleasure, that October evening 11 years ago, Maureen was a feisty and often hilarious presence to be around (I think David and I got 90 minutes).

She didn't taken prisoners. But then, she never did... In the 1940s, she had the spirit - rare in that age - to knock back the amorous advances of inveterate skirt-chasers Howard Hughes and Errol Flynn, to say nothing of the iron Irish will to stand up to arch-bully Walt Disney, who threatened to destroy her as a result of a contract dispute. (There was the story that when O'Hara's name came up in conversation with Walt before he died, he was heard to utter the words: 'That bitch!').

The young Irish actress turned her back, or some part thereof, on the Hollywood casting couch in favour of integrity. There was a vicious, even nasty, rumour put about by Hollywood leading men and studio bosses, whom she had rejected, that she was "a frigid lesbian".

I asked Maureen O'Hara was she ever a frigid lesbian. As there was a walking stick near her - which she was possibly fully entitled to give me a clatter of if she thought my question too cheeky - I hoped she knew I was joking.

"One person said that about me. But I was then so grown up and full of myself that I just laughed," Maureen O'Hara laughed. "It was just ridiculous."

Spending 90 minutes in the company of Maureen was ridiculously entertaining. She recalled how Errol Flynn, sitting next to her at an awards dinner in Texas in 1942, propositioned her. She won't tell me the exact words Errol - who wasn't 'in like Flynn' with Maureen - said to her.

What about Howard Hughes? He sent an empty TWA jetliner in 1949 to pick the Irish star up and bring her to a party in Houston.

"When I boarded the plane, I was shocked I was the only passenger on the plane," she told me. "There was a crew of five to wait on me hand and foot."

"I was never promiscuous. Ever," she said later.

In her memoir, 'Tis Herself, Maureen referred to escapist films like Bagdad in 1949 and Flame of Araby in 1951 - where the girl from up the road from The Shelbourne in Ranelagh played a Tunisian princess - as "tits and sand" films in which she was cast "decoratively".

Did she find it demeaning that she was - I beg your pardon, Maureen - The Tits?

"I pardon you!" she laughed.

"But you'd be an idiot if you didn't know what they [the studios] were doing. If you refused to do the picture... You have to understand that you were under contract for seven years, and once a year, they examined your contract and decided whether to pick up another year or drop you. And don't forget, every one of us have to pay the groceries at the end of the week. We all need money."

"Of course," she added, "you are cast in a film and you read the script and go: 'Mother of God! This is awful. How am I going to do this?' But you have to do it whether you like it or not. You would be suspended if you turned it down. You would be put off salary."

I joke that she would have got better movies at the time had she slept with some of the directors!

"Maybe not!" the 84-year-old thundered, putting the young pup in his place. "How do you know that? I wasn't about to do that - no way!"

I say that Marilyn Monroe slept her way into roles.

"A lot of them did, but that was their decision of what to do with their lives. It is not something that I would approve or encourage."

"I would encourage them to make it by being excellent at what they were doing," said the actress who was just that in How Green Was My Valley, Miracle on 34th Street, Our Man in Havana, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and, of course, The Quiet Man.

As she wrote herself in Tis Herself: "An Irish woman has guts and stands up for what she believes in."

A few days ago, before Maureen's sad passing, I was, by complete accident, in the part of Mayo where The Quiet Man was filmed. I walked past a picture of her on the wall in Ashford Castle that night to dinner.

There is, I suspect, a picture of Maureen O'Hara in most Irish people's minds that time will never erase.

Sunday Independent

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