Sunday 18 March 2018

How Sean O'Fearna won four Best Director Oscars

Between the jigs and the reels: Damian Corless on the movie genius we can claim as our own

John Ford
John Ford
My Left Foot
The Quiet Man

Damian Corless

And the award for the Greatest Hollywood Director of all time goes to. . . the man who gave his name as Sean Aloysius O'Fearna.

To the wider world he was known as John Ford, and his four Academy Awards for Best Director remain unmatched. The first, for the man born to parents from Spiddal and the Aran Islands, arrived in 1935 for The Informer, based on Liam O'Flaherty's tale set in Ireland's War of Independence.

Ford picked up the Oscar again for The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley, but missed out in 1939 with Stagecoach, now regarded as the definitive Hollywood western.

Back on home soil after a stint acting at Dublin's Gate Theatre, the upstart Orson Welles was on hand to see Ford passed over for Stagecoach. Welles studied that movie some 40 times as preparation for his own masterpiece, 1941's Citizen Kane.

Ford's western gave John Wayne his big break, and Wayne was the central figure of the greatest Irish night at the Oscars, up to that point, when Ford lifted his fourth Best Director award in 1952 for The Quiet Man. Sharing the plaudits that night were Maureen O'Hara from Dublin's Liberties, and Barry Fitzgerald, born a mile from O'Hara in the suburb of Portobello.

The triumph of The Quiet Man was all the more satisfying for Ford because when he pitched the plot to his studio bosses they dismissed it as "a silly Irish story that won't make a penny".

Ford finally won the go-ahead from Republic Pictures, but only on condition that he would first make the western Rio Grande with the two leads pencilled in for The Quiet Man, Wayne and O'Hara. The studio's case was that Rio Grande would be a sure-fire hit and that the money it made at the box office would subsidise the losses The Quiet Man was doomed to rack up.

The Quiet Man was Ford's labour of love, but the studio bosses at Republic Pictures had warned him from the start that it must not run to more than two hours because that was as much as audience attention spans would bear.

When he had "trimmed all the fat", in his own words, the movie was still nine minutes over the limit. Ford summoned the executives to view what he told them was "the final print". They watched, bewitched, up until the 120th minute when, just as the climactic fight scene reached fever pitch, the screen went blank and the house lights went up. Left wanting more, the moguls relented and The Quiet Man took its place in popular culture as the idealised picture-postcard image of Ireland.

Orson Welles, meanwhile, had nasty things to say about another of Irish-America's Oscar greats, Spencer Tracy. Nine-times nominated, Tracy won one Best Actor award for his portrayal as Father Ed Flanagan in Boys Town. Welles dismissed Tracy as "a bitchy Irishman", adding that Irish Americans had, through the Hollywood viewfinder, "invented an imitation Ireland which is unspeakable. The wearin' o' the green. Oh my God! To vomit!"

Born and bred in Ireland, Barry Fitzgerald also picked up an Oscar as a priest in Going My Way (1944). Fitzgerald had the unique distinction of being nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for the same role. He had to make do with the second, and the rules were changed to avoid the duplication happening again.

Roscommon's Maureen O'Sullivan never got an Oscar nomination for her recurring role as Jane in the early Tarzan movies, but her daughter Mia Farrow was much fancied to land the gong for her electric title role in 1968's horror flick Rosemary's Baby. Farrow, then aged 23, was going through a messy break-up with husband Frank Sinatra (52) and it's widely believed that the singer spitefully spiked Farrow's rightful award. But the greatest Irish Oscar night of all came in 1990 when a truly homegrown production took the limelight. Daniel Day Lewis and Brenda Fricker lifted acting awards, when My Left Foot was feted.

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