That luminous red hair. Those piercing green eyes. No wonder Maureen O’Hara was called the “Queen of Technicolor.” She was a fine actress in any format, but her feisty, fiery radiance was made for color film. And, despite eschewing bimbo/sexpot roles, she was a knockout, as much for the intelligence and spirit she brought to her roles as her striking beauty.
This month marked what would have been O’Hara’s 100th birthday (she died in 2015), and the University Press of Kentucky is reissuing Aubrey Malone’s 2013 biography in paperback as part of its justifiably popular “Screen Classics” series, which recently included the splendid Lady Triumphant: Olivia de Havilland by Victoria Amador.
Born Maureen FitzSimons in Dublin, O’Hara’s acting career was meteoric, scoring her first screen lead at age 18 opposite no less than Charles Laughton and directed by no less than Alfred Hitchcock, in the 1939 adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. Never mind that the film was one of Hitchock’s worst and that du Maurier petitioned to have her name removed from the credits – the newly christened Maureen O’Hara was a movie star. What’s more, she was off to Hollywood immediately thereafter.
O’Hara was also very much her own person. If she didn’t possess the proverbial “Irish temper,” she nevertheless had a backbone of steel. Maureen O’Hara may have been many things, but a shrinking violet was not among them. More than seven decades before #MeToo, she could be considered a pioneer in the movement. She did not tolerate sexual harassment or untoward advances of any kind, once screaming so loud on set when George Jessel – yes, the self-proclaimed “Toastmaster General of the United States,” himself!—made a rude move that the entire soundstage went quiet. “Georgie” behaved impeccably after that.
O’Hara’s screen persona was in many ways determined, even defined, by her own personality: Forthright, self-assured, and strong-willed. In a “man’s world,” she held her own – and then some. Yet by speaking her mind, she might have limited her career. In certain circles, she was considered difficult.
O’Hara’s legacy isn’t as celebrated as those of her contemporaries. She never won an Oscar, nor was she ever nominated (which became a point of contention with her), and there’s also the matter that, even in her classic films, her performance – no matter how strong – isn’t what lingers in the memory.
When one thinks of How Green Was My Valley (1941), O’Hara’s (admittedly wonderful) performance doesn’t jump out at you. With Miracle on 34th Street (1947), another classic, it’s Edmund Gwenn’s Oscar-winning Kris Kringle who dominates. Sitting Pretty (1948) was a big hit,with Clifton Webb’s Oscar-nominated turn as the unflappable “Mr. Belvedere” outshining one and all. Ditto Hayley Mills’s double-act in the original Parent Trap (1961). Consider even her first big Hollywood production: 1939’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. She’s an impassioned and beautiful Esmerelda, but all due respect, it’s Charles Laughton’s superb turn as Quasimodo that remains unforgettable.
Nevertheless, she elevated many an inferior film, and although miscast in some, she tried in all. Her tried-and-true philosophy was to do her best – period. That, ironically, would include her first two (failed) marriages, to George Brown, then Will Price (father of her only child, Bronwyn). Her luck was better with aviation pioneer Charles Blair, although that marriage was tragically cut short when he died in a plane crash in 1978.
Much is made of O’Hara’s relationship John Ford, with whom she made several films. The master filmmaker appeared to alternate between loathing and lusting for O’Hara, and her reaction vacillated from respect to revulsion. (After her death, a parcel of letters Ford wrote to O’Hara were uncovered and caused no little controversy given their contents.)
It was all respect when it came to John Wayne, with whom she made five films. Many speculated there was romance between them, but it’s extremely unlikely, although undoubtedly they were great friends, right up to the end. Anthony Quinn, another frequent co-star, was possibly a more likely paramour, although she steadfastly denied it. Quinn, in his memoirs, did not deny it – and wrote glowingly of her.
O’Hara’s own memoir, ‘Tis Herself (published in 2004), was a best-seller, but seemed surprisingly gossipy, and even self-aggrandizing, for someone who supposedly resented such behavior.
Maureen O’Hara: The Biography is, without question, entertaining, informative, and respectful. The author is an admirer, understandably. It’s an engaging and informative read, but also contains some errors that could easily be rectified, especially in a reprinting.
When listing notable actresses who never received an Oscar nomination, Lauren Bacall is mentioned, despite being nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 1996 (The Mirror Has Two Faces).
Malone writes that Ford won his second (Oscar) statuette for The Quiet Man, which would be accurate had the sentence added “directing Maureen O’Hara” – as he’d also won for directing How Green Was My Valley. But, as is common knowledge among film fans, John Ford won an unprecedented four Oscars as Best Director. What’s more, or less: O’Hara’s first husband, George Brown produced an obscure 1972 espionage thriller Innocent Bystanders starring Oliver Reed. Obscure, yes, but it starred Stanley Baker.
Still and all, the good far outweighs the bad in this affectionate show-biz biography. Perfect would have been better, but good is good enough.
MAUREEN O’HARA: THE BIOGRAPHY by Aubrey Malone. Published by University Press of Kentucky. 312 pages. $19.95 retail
For more information, visit the official University of Kentucky Press website.