Friday, August 17, 2012

Happy Birthday to My Mother's Favourite Actress, Maureen O'Hara

Today is Maureen O'Hara's birthday. Quite naturally, this makes it a very special day for fans of classic film. Miss O'Hara was one of the top stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood. She starred in such classic films as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), The Black Swan (1942), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), and many others. What is more, she had an extraordinarily long career. Her first role in 1938 in The Playboy. Her final role was in the television movie The Last Dance in 2000. What is more, she is one of our remaining links to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Indeed, in 2011 her hometown of Glengarriff, County Cork, Ireland held the first Maureen O'Hara Film Festival at which Miss O'Hara appeared. 

For myself there is another reason Maureen O'Hara is special to me. Besides being one of my favourite actresses, she was probably my mother's favourite actresses of all time. Oh, my mother also loved Marilyn Monroe and Meg Ryan, but I think Maureen O'Hara was her absolute favourite. She always wanted to watch any film in which Miss O'Hara starred and she always had to comment on how beautiful Miss O'Hara was and how much she liked her. 

I suspect aside from the fact that Maureen O'Hara is obviously beautiful, my mother always admired Miss O'Hara and saw things in her that she herself lacked. My mother, gods rest her soul, was always a nervous woman, one who constantly worried over things. I remember her as constantly being anxious. While my father was alive she often had to rely on him for support and after his death on her children. I think she would like to have been like Maureen O'Hara's characters. If ever there was an actress who played strong, self sufficient women, it was Miss O'Hara. Her characters seemed to be made of steel.

Indeed, if there is one word one would use of Maureen O'Hara's characters, I think it would be "feisty." Her characters were women who could hold their own with any man. A perfect example of this is The Quiet Man (1952), in which Mary Kate stands up to both her husband, American born Sean Thornton (John Wayne), and her brother, Will "Red" Danaher (Victor McLaglen). Her character in McLintock! (1963), Katherine, keeps G.W. McLintock (John Wayne) and the other male characters on their toes throughout the movie. In The Parent Trap (1961), her character Maggie is a match for her ex-husband Mitch (Brian Keith) and far more than a match for his none too bright girlfriend, Vicky (Joanna Barnes).  Whether in comedies or dramas, Maureen O'Hara played strong, intelligent women, often with fiery tempers.

Given the sort of characters Maureen O'Hara played and her striking beauty (flame haired and green eyed), it should be little wonder she would star in several swashbucklers. There she was no less a match for the men. In what may be the greatest pirate movie ever made, Maureen O'Hara played Lady Margaret, a woman who remains defiant towards pirate and hero Jamie Waring (Tyrone Power) until she learns the truth about various matters. Such is Maureen O'Hara's ability to play powerful women that in some of her swashbucklers she got to play what can rightfully be considered the prototype for such female adventure characters as Emma Peel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In Against All Flags (1952) she played Prudence Stevens, a lady pirate appropriately named Spitfire and one who is as good with a sword as the men. In At Sword's Point (1952) she played Claire, the daughter of Athos of The Three Musketers, who is as good with a blade as the legendary  D'Artagnan (Cornel Wilde) and The Three Musketeers themselves. Indeed, when she meets D'Artagnan for the first time she engages him in a swordfight!

To a degree Maureen O'Hara's characters reflect her personality in real life. Miss O'Hara once said, "I was tough. I was tall. I was strong. I didn't take any nonsense from anybody," and there is nothing really to contradict that quote. She stood up to John Wayne, a fact which forever endeared her to him. She was known to stand up even to director John Ford, with whom she made several movies, on more than one occasion. She even stood up to Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of 20th Century Fox, several times. She even stood up to a gossip magazine that few others would have. In 1957 Confidential published a story claiming that Miss O'Hara had made out in a balcony of Grauman's Chinese Theatre. Against the advice of her parish priest and with little support from the movie industry, Maueen O'Hara successfully sued Confidential for libel (she had been in Spain on the date they claimed and so could easily prove the story false). Confidential was known to destroy actors' careers, but in tangling with Maureen O'Hara they guaranteed their decline.

Not only does Maureen O'Hara have nerves of steel when it came to dealing with others, but she also did her own stunts, few male actors did in the Golden Age of Hollywood, let alone actresses! In At Sword's Point, Maureen O'Hara did her fencing, having been trained by legendary fencing master Fred Cavens. Over the years Miss O'Hara rode horses, leaped, jumped, and even engaged in fisticuffs on the big screen. When shooting the movie McLintock! the stuntmen were nervous about a scene in which many of the characters had to slide down a hill into a mudhole. John Wayne told the stuntmen he would prove to them it wasn't dangerous and then asked Maureen O'Hara to help him. Miss O'Hara asked Chuck Roberson, who played Sheriff Lord in the film and had worked as a stuntman and stunt coordinator on several films, if it was safe. When Mr. Roberson said it was safe, Miss O'Hara looked to John Wayne and said that was good enough for her. The Duke and Miss O'Hara then slid down the hill. There should be little wonder Maureen O'Hara was John Wayne's favourite actress with whom to work and that the two of them were close friends.

Both on screen and in real life Maureen O'Hara displayed strength and resolve about which many women of her generation could only dream. On screen she played heroines who were not afraid to speak their minds, stand up for themselves, or even face down men with swords. In real life she stood up to everyone from producers to directors to leading men to interviewers (when asked by Larry King in a 2003 interview why John Wayne had never served in the military, she bluntly told him, "That's none of your business."). It is little wonder then that she was my mother's favourite actress. While there were many other actresses who played powerful women in the Golden Age of Hollywood, few did it with the regularity or the flair, for that matter, that Miss O'Hara did. I do believe my mother saw in Maureen O'Hara something she would like to be. Indeed, I think a lot of us, even men, would like to be a lot more like Maureen O'Hara.

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