Maureen O’Hara, 95, swashbuckling leading lady

25 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Hollywood legend Maureen O’ Hara dies at 95.

Often described as “fiery”, Maureen O’ Hara displayed her versatility in films like “How Green Was My Valley” and Carol Reed’s “Our Man in Havana”. Dublin suburb-born Maureen O’Hara, whose green eyes, porcelain skin and flaming red hair made her the reigning queen of the Technicolor costume dramas of Hollywood’s Golden Age, has died at age 95. She worked with directors ranging from Alfred Hitchcock to Chris Columbus, but is best remembered for her works with John Ford, particularly in her pairings with John Wayne.

The Abbey Theatre-trained ingenue was discovered by English actor Charles Laughton with whom she starred in the 1939 version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” a memorable adaptation of the Victor Hugo classic, featuring Laughton in disfiguring makeup as Quasimodo and the striking O’Hara as the beautiful gypsy girl Esmeralda. Her longtime manager Johnny Nicoletti has confirmed that she died in her sleep at her home in Boise, Idaho. “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.

O’Hara starred opposite Wayne in five films including, “Rio Grande”, “McLintock!”, “Big Jake”,”The Quiet Man” and “The Wings of Eagles”. The film was in regular circulation on 1950s television when I was a child, and while Laughton’s pitiable Quasimodo made a more lasting impression, O’Hara’s beauty and kindness also left their mark as the girl Quasimodo loves and rescues. O’Hara was legendary for holding her own alongside some of the most formidable male stars of all time, including Errol Flynn, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda.

Wayne once quipped that he preferred to act with men “except for Maureen O’Hara; she’s a great guy.” She has been most acclaimed for her work with legendary director John Ford. “She is equivalent to the male hero in a Ford film,” film historian Jeanine Basinger told the Washington Post. “She exudes a kind of pioneering strength of the sort that fits in his movies.” She was born in Dublin and relocated to Hollywood in 1939. Born Maureen FitzSimons, on August 17, 1920, in a suburb of Dublin, she received training in drama and dance and went on to perform in amateur theatre at the age of 10.

Apart from her powerful acting, O’ Hara was also a decent singer and showcased her soprano voice on the albums Love Letters From Maureen O’Hara and Maureen O’Hara Sings Her Favorite Irish Songs. The film secured O’Hara regular roles in such films, most notably perhaps the 1947 Technicolor Arabian Nights extravaganza “Sinbad the Sailor,” in which O’Hara plays mysterious harem girl Shireen opposite a dashing Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in the title role. O’Hara was dubbed the “Queen of Technicolor” because of her striking complexion, fiery red hair and distinct on-screen persona. “As an actress, Maureen O’Hara brought unyielding strength and sudden sensitivity to every role she played. The highlight of the film is O’Hara silencing a boorish audience of men at a burlesque show, in which she says, basically, go ahead and smirk because we performers are smirking right back at you. As the all-too pragmatic Macy’s executive and mother of Natalie Wood in Christmas season favorite “A Miracle on 34th Street,” O’Hara enjoyed her perhaps most cherished role.

More important was her screen collaboration and simmering chemistry with legendary leading man John Wayne, including the John Ford-directed films “Rio Grande (1950) and most of all the 1952 Irish-set drama-romance “The Quiet Man.” In the latter, O’Hara, who referred to Ford as “Pappy,” is the prize in a titanic struggle between Wayne’s Irish-American prize fighter and her brutish screen brother, played by Victor McLaglen (if you can believe it). 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. “I do like to get my own way,” O’Hara said in an interview with the Associated Press in 1991. “But don’t think I’m not acting when I’m up there.

She was living proof beauty and goodness could go hand in hand, and she was just as capable playing attractive mothers of a certain age in such box-office hits as “The Parent Trap” (1961) with Haley Mills and a John Wayne-like Brian Keith, and in “Mr. Her movie career began thanks to Charles Laughton: While she was still a teen, he viewed a screen test she had made, and he and partner Erich Pommer signed her to a seven-year contract with their company, Mayflower Films. She had small roles in a couple of English films made in 1938 but made her first significant bigscreen appearance was in Hitchcock’s Gothic actioner “Jamaica Inn,” starring Laughton. When WWII began and he realized lensing would no longer be possible in London, Laughton sold O’Hara’s contract to RKO, which cast her in a trio of B pictures.

She still seemed somewhat uncertain of herself in a remake of the Katharine Hepburn vehicle “Bill of Divorcement” but made a big impression in “Dance, Girl, Dance,” while “They Met in Argentina” was a musical trifle. Hollywood legend says that RKO planned to film “Spanish Main” in black and white but switched to Technicolor because of O’Hara’s beautiful red hair, green eyes and porcelain-white skin. In addition to Westerns, the swashbucklers and the musicals, O’Hara made a film noir, 1949’s “A Woman’s Secret,” with Melvyn Douglas and Gloria Grahame. O’Hara and Wayne, however, would work together again in 1963 Western comedy “McLintock!” and 1971 Western “Big Jake.” Films had not provided an outlet for her love of singing, and in the late 1950s and early ’60s she guested on TV variety shows. Hobbs Takes a Vacation” in 1962 and with Henry Fonda in “Spencer’s Mountain” in 1963 (a precursor of the TV series “The Waltons,” both autobiographical works by Earl Hamner Jr.).

After appearing in a number of tributes to fellow actors and Hollywood-focused documentaries over the years (including projects devoted to Wayne and to Ford), O’Hara made her last screen appearance in the 2010 Irish docu “Dreaming the Quiet Man.” O’Hara’s autobiography, “’Tis Herself,” was published in 2004.

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