I admit I thought Maureen O’Hara had died long ago, until I learned she’d be receiving the 2014 Governors Award given by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for her stellar contributions to Hollywood. She was then 94, but her hair was still a flaming red (with, doubtless, a little help from her friends) and her fiery spirit was still intact. Word is that toward the end of her speech, as her words became garbled and disjointed, her microphone was quickly unclipped—and she made her displeasure abundantly clear. Good for her! Old age demands its privileges, and being long-winded should be one of them. In any case, she’s beyond all that now. Maureen O’Hara, pride of the Emerald Isle, died in her sleep on October 24, 2015, in (of all places) Boise, Idaho.
My late parents, who had little use for war movies or westerns, were hardly big John Wayne fans. Nor did they idolize Golden Age director John Ford. But they made a big exception for The Quiet Man, the 1952 romantic comedy—filmed in County Mayo in glorious Technicolor—that won Ford his fourth Oscar and filled the screen with his love for the Auld Sod. It’s a wild and wooly romp about an Irish-born American boxer who (having accidently killed a man in the ring) has hung up his gloves for good. Which sparks great outrage when he refuses to go to battle for his new wife in order to secure from her cantankerous brother (Victor McLaglen) the dowry to which she’s entitled. O’Hara, of course, was cast as the wife, a tempestuous free spirit who prizes her independence and her heritage above all. Others in the cast include such Irish treasures as Barry Fitzgerald and Jack MacGowran. And the film, of course, ends in a knockdown dragout brawl to end all comic brawls. It’s an ending that even a confirmed pacifist can enjoy.
In all, O’Hara played opposite John Wayne in five movies. It’s been widely quoted that he paid her the ultimate John Wayne compliment: “I’ve had many friends, and I prefer the company of men, except for Maureen O’Hara,” he said. “She is a great guy.” Most moviegoers, though, would hardly think of her as a “guy.” Her green eyes, red hair, and creamy complexion gave her the Hollywood nickname The Queen of Technicolor. Ironically, though, some of her best-known roles were in black-and-white films. Like the poignant How Green Was My Valley (1941), another John Ford production, this one set in a Welsh coal-mining village but filmed in the decidedly un-Welsh Santa Monica Mountains. (I’ve been lucky enough to visit the old Los Angeles Welsh church, once a synagogue, that contributed its choir to the soundtrack of this film.) In 1947, O’Hara starred in another memorable black-and-white movie, playing little Natalie Wood’s unhappy mother in the original Miracle on 34th Street. Fourteen years later, this time in living color, she was mom to one incarnation of Hayley Mills in the first go-round of The Parent Trap.
I encourage Maureen O’Hara fans to check out a wonderful Huffington Post reminiscence by Mike Kaplan, a former Hollywood jack-of-all trades whom I was lucky to meet at a Santa Monica coffeehouse when his legendary poster collection was being displayed at the Academy. He’s worked as a producer, director, and publicist, and has been closely linked to the works of Stanley Kubrick and Robert Altman. Kaplan met O’Hara, his boyhood crush, in Boise, and it sounds as if he had a lot to do with making her honorary Oscar a reality. Thanks, Mike!