Dame in the Game: Maureen O’Hara

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This month’s “Dame in the Game” returns to actresses who left an indelible mark on Hollywood history. Known for her flaming red hair that earned her the moniker “Queen of Technicolor” and her onscreen pairings with John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara was a feisty presence both on-screen and off. She broke ground with her portrayals of strong, determined women only matched by her own grit and endurance in her personal life, all of which she attributed to her Irish-ness.

“Above all else, deep in my soul, I’m a tough Irishwoman,” she said in her 2004 memoir ‘Tis Herself. “Being an Irishwoman means many things to me. An Irishwoman is strong and feisty. She has guts and stands up for what she believes in. She believes she is the best at whatever she does and proceeds through life with that knowledge. She can face any hazard that life throws her way and stay with it until she wins. She is loyal to her kinsmen and accepting of others. She’s not above a sock in the jaw if you have it coming. She is only on her knees before God. Yes, I am most definitely an Irishwoman.”

This Irish-ness led to a vibrant life that makes her this month’s “Dame in the Game.”

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Maureen O’Hara, was born Maureen FitzSimons, in August 1920, the second of six children, to an Irish Catholic family in Dublin. Her mother was a singer and her father a part-owner of an Irish football club, leading to a happy childhood full of music, performing, and athletic activity. O’Hara took an interest in acting from a young age, winning numerous amateur contests and taking the stage at the National Abbey theatre in Dublin from the age of fourteen.

At the urging of an American singer, O’Hara traveled to London with her mother when she was only eighteen to make a screen test. The test caught actor-director Charles Laughton’s eye, who signed her to a seven-year contract with his production company Mayflower Pictures. Laughton devised the surname O’Hara, believing that FitzSimons was too long for the marquee. O’Hara would play her first major role opposite Laughton in one of Alfred Hitchcock’s lesser films Jamaica Inn (1939).

Following this, Laughton brought O’Hara to Hollywood to play Esmeralda to his Quasimodo in 1939’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. O’Hara’s sensual and nuanced portrayal of the young gypsy made her an instant movie star, and the outbreak of World War II prevented her from returning to Europe. O’Hara would eventually seek dual citizenship, and when she refused to swear allegiance to Great Britain, she became the first individual to be named a dual citizen of the United States and Ireland.

After Hunchback, O’Hara’s contract was sold to RKO pictures where she would remain until the late ‘40s. There, she appeared as a chorus girl in Dance, Girl, Dance (1940). The film is notable among feminists as a studio picture directed by a woman, Dorothy Arzner, and for O’Hara’s monologue where she admonishes the male audience members who leer at her. While filming, O’Hara also helped make television history, introducing her co-star Lucille Ball to her friend Desi Arnaz.

On a loan-out to 20th-Century Fox, O’Hara made her first film with director John Ford, with whom she would build a lifelong friendship, alternately referring to him as “Pappy” and an “old bastard.” In Ford’s Best Picture winning tale of a Welsh mining village How Green Was My Valley (1941), O’Hara had the chance to prove her dramatic chops as Angharad Morgan, a woman torn between a marriage of financial security and her love for the local preacher.

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It was during the 1940s and 50s, as Technicolor and her professional relationship with John Ford boomed, that O’Hara made her most significant screen contributions. She starred in numerous swashbucklers opposite male stars like Tyrone Power and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. One of the first actresses to do her own stunts, O’Hara learned to sword fight, earning herself the nickname “The Pirate Queen.” She noted that “many said she [was]a better swordsman than Errol Flynn himself.”

This athleticism carried over into her films with John Wayne, leading to memorable sequences such as her mud fight in McClintock! (1963) and the iconic scene where she slaps him in The Quiet Man (1952). In that particular scene, she smacked Wayne with such force that she broke her wrist. O’Hara appeared opposite Wayne in five films, most memorably as the Irish lass Mary Kate Danaher in the location shot The Quiet Man. In all of her films with Wayne, she plays a worthy adversary to his all-American hero — a woman who stands up for her rights and values, whether it’s as an estranged military wife protecting her son in Rio Grande or a new bride fighting for her dowry in The Quiet Man.

O’Hara’s inherent fire and strength made her an equal to Wayne onscreen that led to crackling chemistry, which developed into a fast friendship offscreen.  He appreciated her for the qualities that endeared her to movie audiences, saying “There’s only one woman who has been my friend over the years, and by that, I mean a real friend like a man would be. That woman is Maureen O’Hara. She’s big, lusty, absolutely marvelous—definitely my kind of woman.” She, in turn, remarked, “I was the only woman that could match him. I was his equal in hell and fire.”

A certifiable star at Fox by the late 1940s, O’Hara transitioned to roles as noble, defiant wives, most notably as the cynical, divorce-hardened Macy’s employee who comes to believe in Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Over the course of her career, O’Hara would play mother to over forty children onscreen. She loved the bond she formed with her young costars and cited 34th Street as a favorite for the impact it made on other children. In her autobiography, she recounted stories of children asking her “Are you the lady who knows Santa Claus?” and her enduring reply, “Why, yes I am. What would you like me to tell him?”

As her acting career slowed, O’Hara continued to perform in various avenues. She released two albums in 1960, Love Letters from Maureen O’Hara and Maureen O’Hara Sings Her Favorite Irish Songs. Like her characters, O’Hara stood up for herself, becoming one of the first actresses to take on the tabloids. In 1957 when Confidential magazine published a story about O’Hara canoodling with a man in Grauman’s Chinese Theater, she sued, using her passport stamp to prove she was out of the country on the night in question, and effectively put the magazine out of business.

With the immense success of Disney’s original The Parent Trap (1961), in which she played the sassy, yet still sexy, mother to Hayley Mills’ twins, O’Hara experienced a resurgence in her acting career. She would play another resistant wife opposite John Wayne in McClintock! (1963) and take on an older romantic pairing with Henry Fonda in Spencer’s Mountain (1963).

Despite this, with her marriage to pilot Charles Blair in 1968, O’Hara retired from acting to run a commuter sea plane service, Antilles Airlines, while living with him in the Virgin Islands. When Blair died in an aviation accident in 1978, O’Hara continued to break barriers and became the first female president of a scheduled airline in the United States.

She would, occasionally, return to Hollywood, most notably in 1991’s Only the Lonely as John Candy’s devout Catholic mother, but she largely maintained a more private life with her family, temporarily relocating to Ireland in 2005.

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At one of her last public appearances at the Turner Classic Movies film festival in April 2014, O’Hara shared memories and her legendary feistiness with audiences. She initially appeared frail in a wheelchair, her Technicolor red tresses unmistakable. O’Hara occasionally wandered, overcome by the enormity and adoration of the crowd, but her indomitable spirit remained. When TCM host Robert Osborne opened with a question about John Ford, she replied with a wicked grin, “I thought we were here to talk about me.”

Much has been made of her beauty, specifically her red-hair and emerald eyes, which were once described as “more significant than a setting sun” when shown at their full glory in Technicolor. Yet, O’Hara was ahead of her time. Though always ultimately forced to submit to conventions of her era, O’Hara played willful women with an inner fire who dared to stand up to the men in their lives. Playing a divorcee or estranged wife in numerous films, she imbued her characters with both a no-nonsense approach to life and an underlying tenderness. Her honorary Oscar, awarded in November 2014, celebrated a lifetime of performances that “glowed with passion, warmth, and strength.”

Well beloved by her peers, including director John Ford who called her the “best ‘effin actress in Hollywood,” O’Hara was also an inspiration to contemporary talent. At the 2014 Governors Awards, Liam Neeson confessed to having a crush on O’Hara and noted, “For anyone anywhere around the world who loves movies, she is more than simply an Irish movie star, she is one of the true legends of cinema. A woman whose skill and range of talent is unsurpassed.”

Neeson’s words still ring true two years after that ceremony and nearly a year after her death — O’Hara was unforgettable for her onscreen fire and offscreen determination– a true Dame in the Game.

For more on Maureen O’Hara (and the source material for this article), read her autobiography “‘Tis Herself” co-written with John Nicoletti.

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Maureen Lenker

About Maureen Lenker

Maureen Lee Lenker is a writer, actress, director, and producer. She has written for Turner Classic Movies, Stage Raw, @ This Stage, LA Weekly, and more. She is also working towards an MA in Arts Journalism at USC, reporting on arts, theatre, and entertainment. When not at USC, she works on theatre productions throughout Los Angeles (primarily as an assistant director). She is a native Angelino who hates driving and cites peacoats and scarves as her favorite clothing items. An Anglophile, she attempted to fulfill her dream of attending Hogwarts by completing her master’s in British History at the University of Oxford. She is a cock-eyed optimist, rom-com aficionado, classic movie buff, musical theatre geek, and general pop culture enthusiast.