Monday, October 26, 2015

Maureen O'Hara: In Memoriam

The Queen of Technicolor

By Ed Garea

She was a mainstay of American movies since her debut in 1939’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and when Technicolor came into use, she seemed born for it due to her bright red hair, sparkling green eyes, and peaches-and-cream complexion, being labeled as “The Queen of Technicolor.”

We often thought of her as married to John Wayne, since they had done so many notable films together, but no matter what part in what film, she always managed to stand out as an independent woman; if not always sure of herself, at least standing on her own two feet and beholden to no one. In fact, her screen persona became not only part of her legacy, but also part of our conception of Irish women, for she seemed to epitomize them with her feisty hands-on-her-hips, right-in-your-face approach.

Though she’ll always be immortal on the screen, we have to say goodbye to Maureen O’Hara, who passed away peacefully in her sleep on October 24 at her home in Boise, Idaho, surrounded by family members. She was 95.

Johnny Nicoletti, her longtime manager, confirmed her death.

During her career, which lasted over 60 years with 65 credits, she played everything from a gypsy dancer in The Hunchback to a Welsh coal miner’s daughter in How Green Was My Valley (1941), to a French resister in This Land is Mine (1943) to a Macy’s department store executive in Miracle on 34th Street (1947).

She also starred in Westerns, period pieces, and even swashbucklers. Her best-known film is perhaps John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952), where she starred opposite Wayne as Mary Kate Dannaher, the proud, passionate and stubborn woman who refuses to consummate her marriage to Irish-American boxer Wayne until he fights for her dowry. He does that in one of the most uproarious fight scenes in film history.

Wayne once paid her his ultimate compliment when he said, “I’ve had many friends, and I prefer the company of men, except for Maureen O’Hara. She is a great guy.”

She was born Maureen FitzSimons on Aug. 17, 1920, and grew up at 32 Upper Beechwood Ave. in Churchtown, a suburb in the Dublin, Ireland, district of Ranelagh, the second of six children of Charles FitzSimons, a clothing-business manager and part-owner of a soccer team, and the former Marguerita Lilburn, an accomplished contralto. Besides his business, her father was also part owner of The Shamrock Rovers, a renowned Irish soccer team.

Maureen’s talents in the performing arts blossomed early. She began appearing in school plays as a child and was so good that she won multiple Feis awards for drama and the performing arts. That directly led to her entry as the age of 14 as a student into the prestigious Abbey Theater in Dublin, where she pursued her dream of classical theater and operatic singing. She won the All-Ireland Cup there for her portrayal of Portia in The Merchant of Venice.

In 1938, she was offered a screen test, arranged by American bandleader Harry Richman (who was then appearing in Dublin and had seen her perform) for a British film called The Playboy at Elstree Studios. A friend convinced her reluctant parents to allow it. In her autobiography, ‘Tis Herself, she recalled being horrified by the results, particularly the way she looked in the heavy makeup and a gold lamé gown with strange, winglike sleeves that she had been given to wear. ("I was mad as hell and disappointed by the whole unprofessional event," she said.)

After appearing in minor roles in two 1938 British musicals, Kicking the Moon Around and My Irish Molly, she was contacted by Charles Laughton and his partner, Erick Pommer. Laughton happened to see the test and although he agreed that it was awful, he was nonetheless taken by her hauntingly beautiful eyes. He and Pommer signed her to a contract and promptly cast her opposite him as the orphaned Mary Yelland in director Alfred Hitchcock's British-made 1939 pirate yarn, Jamaica Innof which he was a producer as well as the star.

Laughton and Pommer, finding her given name of FitzSimons somewhat unmanageable, gave her the choice of either “O’Hara” or “O’Mara” as a surname. She chose the former.

The coming of World War II brought the film business in England to a virtual halt. Laughton signed with RKO and came to California to play Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He brought his protégé along for the part of the beautiful gypsy girl, Esmeralda. The film was a box office smash and RKO bought Maureen’s contract from Laughton. Unlike most stars of her era, she began at the top, and remained there, with her skills and talents only getting sharper with the passing years.

What enabled O’Hara to remain at the top went far beyond her dynamic beauty. She had a lovely soprano voice, developed by signing with her mother and siblings when she was young, and a natural athletic talent, probably inherited and developed by her father, who was an excellent soccer player and believed in physical games for his children. (In fact, she performed many of the stunts in her own films.) This, added to her desire to try anything, expanded her range of parts. She could easily transition from playing Tacey King in the suburban comedy Sitting Pretty (1948) to a diplomat’s daughter who disguises herself as a dancing girl in the 1950 actioner Tripoli to pirate captain Spitfire Stevens in the 1952 Yo-Ho-Ho-Matey pirate adventure Against All Flags with Errol Flynn.

O’Hara also had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of director John Ford, who cast her as Angharad in his 1941 multi-Oscar drama about Welsh coal miners, How Green Was My Valley. It was the first of five films she made with Ford, with whom she had a love/hate relationship, as exemplified later by her description of him in a interview with the Irish newspaper The Sunday Independent as “an auld devil and cruel as hell.”

As with any other major celebrity in the ‘50s, she was the feature of a slanderous article in the tabloid magazine Confidential. That article claimed she and a lover engaged in "the hottest show in town" in a back row in Hollywood's Grauman's Chinese Theater. She sued for libel, presenting her passport as proof that she had not been in the country when the activity was supposed to have taken place. In a later interview with the Associated Press, she said, "I was making a movie in Spain, and I had the passport to prove it." The case was eventually settled out of court, and would be another nail in the magazine’s coffin that would lead to its eventual demise.

In 1960, just as it seemed that her career was winding down, she breathed new life by playing the title character in a television remake of Mrs. Miniver. Overnight, it seemed, she transformed herself from the fiery young love interest to the dependable, well-preserved wife/mother/widow, a career course she stayed with until retiring for good in 2000.

Some of her best-known roles in the ‘60s were as the mother of twins, both played by Hayley Mills, who conspire to reunite their divorced parents in the 1961 Disney comedy The Parent Trap; John Wayne’s feisty wife in McLintock, a 1963 Western adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew; the 1963 family drama, Spencer’s Mountain, with Henry Fonda, a precursor to TV's The Waltons; and a 1966 Western, The Rare Breed, with James Stewart. She said that one of the biggest thrills in her life was being inducted into the Western Hall of Fame.

O’Hara was married three times. In 1939, just before leaving for the United States, she married George H. Brown, a British film producer who later became the father of the magazine editor Tina Brown. He remained in England and the marriage was annulled in 1941. Later that year, she married her second husband, Will Price, a writer and director with whom she had her only child, a daughter, Bronwyn FitzSimons, born in 1944. They were divorced in 1953.

In 1968, she married Gen. Charles F. Blair, an Air Force aviator who operated Antilles Air Boats, a small Caribbean airline, and whom she had known as a friend of her family for many years. O’Hara always said there was no man quite like Wayne, and in marrying Blair she wed the real-life version of what John Wayne had been on the screen: He had been a Brigadier General in the Air Force, a Senior Pilot with Pan American World Airways, and held many incredible record-breaking aeronautic achievements.

In 1973, O’Hara retired from films after making the TV movie The Red Pony with Henry Fonda. (The film went on to win the prestigious Peabody Award for Excellence.) The couple relocated to St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, where they managed Antilles Airboats, a commuter seaplane service in the Caribbean, building it into a 27-plane commercial fleet covering the upper Caribbean and grossing $5 million a year. She also owned and published a magazine, The Virgin Islander, writing a monthly column called "Maureen O'Hara Says." After Blair’s tragic death in a plane crash in 1978, O’Hara took over Antilles after General Blair’s death in September 1978. As President and CEO, she was the first woman in that position for a scheduled American airline.

She sold her controlling stock the next year to Resorts International, though she remained as company president until 1981. A year earlier, she sold the Virgin Islander magazine to Gannett publishing, then split her time between her 25-acre estate overlooking Ireland's Bantry Bay and her home in St. Croix, until moving to a home in Boise, Idaho, near her grandson and his family after her retirement in 2000.

O’Hara eventually returned to film in 1991 as the overbearing mother of John Candy’s character in Chris Columbus’s 1991 comedy/drama Only the Lonely. In the ‘90s, she starred in three television movies: The Christmas Box (1995), Cab to Canada (1998) and her final screen appearance, The Last Dance (2000), in which she played a retired teacher helped by former student Eric Stoltz.

In 2004, she received an Irish Film and Television Awards lifetime achievement honor and published her autobiography, ’Tis Herself. In 2011, O'Hara was inducted into the Irish America Hall of Fame. On Nov. 4, 2014, she received an honorary Oscar for "Lifetime Achievement" at the annual Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Governors Awards.

Survived by her daughter, Bronwyn FitzSimons of Glengarriff, Ireland; her grandson, Conor FitzSimons of Boise, and two great-grandchildren, Maureen O’Hara  is to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, in Washington, D.C., alongside her husband, Blair, who was a U.S. Navy pilot.

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