Actress Maureen O’Hara, who graced the silver screen with her fiery presence and drop dead gorgeous good looks, died today according to her long time manager. She was 95.
She was known as the “Queen of Technicolor” — a film process that saturated the big screen in brilliant colors. With her red hair, green eyes, and perfect complexion, O’Hara helped make the reintroduction of the process in the late 40’s a success. Ironically, several of her best films, including Oscar winner in 1941 How Green Was My Valley, and her turn as Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame were in black and white.
But it was her body of work for which she will be remembered. She starred alongside every major leading man of her generation, including making 5 films with John Wayne. Wayne reportedly had this to say about O’Hara: “I’ve had many friends, and I prefer the company of men, except for Maureen O’Hara,” he said. “She is a great guy.”
Perhaps the best remembered of her color films was the director John Ford’s “The Quiet Man” (1952), the second of five movies in which Ms. O’Hara starred opposite John Wayne. Her character, the proud, stubborn and passionate Mary Kate Danaher, refuses to consummate her marriage to the Irish-American boxer played by Wayne until he fights for her dowry. And so he does.
As the film historian David Thomson once observed of her screen persona throughout her career, she was “inclined to thrust her hands on her hips, speak her mind and be told, ‘You’re pretty when you’re angry.’ ”
Those hips were likely to be dressed in the fashions of another era. Of the more than 50 films she made, about half were period pieces. She played saloon queens and ranch wives in westerns like “Buffalo Bill” (1944) and “Rio Grande” (1950), with Wayne; Arabian princesses in the likes of “Sinbad the Sailor” (1947), with Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and “Bagdad” (1949); the object of pirates’ affections in swashbucklers like “The Black Swan” (1942), with Tyrone Power, and “The Spanish Main” (1945). She even played a pirate captain herself in “Against All Flags” (1952), with Errol Flynn.
In her first two decades in the United States she made some 40 feature films, including five with Ford, a sometime friend and sometime enemy whom she later described to the Irish newspaper The Sunday Independent as “an auld devil and cruel as hell.”
In 1960 she played the title character in a television remake of “Mrs. Miniver,” and overnight, it seemed, she was transformed from the fiery young love interest to the dependable, well-preserved wife/mother/widow.
There was one last, notable exception: She played a dance hall girl in Sam Peckinpah’s western “The Deadly Companions” in 1961. But her best-known films from that period were “The Parent Trap” (1961), “Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation” (1962) and “Spencer’s Mountain” (1963).
O’Hara played in a lot of period pieces with exotic locales like Baghdad and “Araby.” These historical epics allowed costume designers to create some of the most beautiful gowns ever worn by a Hollywood actress.
But it was the somewhat contemporary The Quiet Man that she believed was her finest work:
“I have often said that The Quiet Man is my personal favourite of all the pictures I have made. It is the one I am most proud of, and I tend to be very protective of it. I loved Mary Kate Danaher. I loved the hell and fire in her. As I readied to begin playing her, I believed that my most important scene in the picture was when Mary Kate is in the field herding the sheep and Sean Thornton sees her for the very first time. It’s a moment captured in time, and it’s love at first sight. I felt very strongly that if the audience believed it was love at first sight, then we would have lightning in a bottle. But if they didn’t, we would have just another lovely romantic comedy on our hands. The scene comes off beautifully.”
They don’t make movies like that any more. Today, “love at first sight” would likely happen right before the couple hops into the sack. And contemporary film makers might want to check out how director John Ford created the sexual tension between Wayne and O’Hara. Censors at the time were very strict about how sex was portrayed on the screen. (It was daring of Ford to show the king-size marriage bed.)
There was nothing overt, no “in your face” nudity or crude dialogue — the subtlety of Wayne’s sexual frustration and O’Hara’s firm but reluctant decision to withhold sex until her dowry is “safe about me” was a brilliant way around the censors of the time. This was a highly charged, sexual story that was handled with taste and eroticism.
The legends of that time are now almost all gone. There was a lot wrong with Hollywood at that time, but the creative energy that brought us films like The Quiet Man and The Black Swan cannot be dismissed. And Maureen O’Hara was right in the thick of it.