Pass­ing of a screen leg­end

Ac­tress Mau­reen O’Hara dies at 95

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY ADAM BERN­STEIN adam.bern­stein@wash­

Mau­reen O’Hara, a flame­haired ac­tress whose screen ca­reer spanned seven decades and was largely de­fined by the sassy fire­crack­ers she played op­po­site lead­ing men rang­ing from John Wayne to John Candy, died Oct. 24 at her home in Boise, Idaho. She was 95.

Her fam­ily is­sued a state­ment con­firm­ing the death but did not dis­close the cause.

Ms. O’Hara, a pre­co­cious the­atri­cal tal­ent in her na­tive Ire­land, be­came a film star at 19 when she played the rav­ish­ing gypsy Es­mer­alda to Charles Laughton’s Quasi­modo in “The Hunch­back of Notre Dame” (1939). She also worked with de­mand­ing masters Al­fred Hitch­cock (“Ja­maica Inn,” 1939) and John Ford (the Os­car-win­ning “How Green Was My Val­ley,” 1941).

Noth­ing if not ver­sa­tile, Ms. O’Hara ap­peared in harem pic­tures,west­erns, cos­tume melo­dra­mas and light com­edy. She maybe best re­mem­bered as the cyn­i­cal work­ing mother to a young Natalie Wood in “Mir­a­cle on 34th Street ”(1947), a peren­nial Christ­mas fa­vorite, and as the smol­der­ingIr­ish beauty pur­sued by Wayne in Ford’s “The Quiet Man” (1952), which airs on tele­vi­sion ev­ery St. Pa­trick’s Day.

Ms. O’Hara con­tin­ued to play strong spouse roles op­po­site ma­jor lead­ing men of the day, in­clud­ing James Stew­art (“Mr. Hobbs Takes a Va­ca­tion,” 1962) and Henry Fonda (“Spencer’s Moun­tain,” 1963). In the orig­i­nal ver­sion of the pop­u­lar Dis­ney com­edy “The Par­ent Trap” (1961), Ms. O’Hara and Brian Keith played the es­tranged par­ents re­united by Hay­ley Mills.

In 1991, Ms. O’Hara was lured from retirement to por­tray a dom­i­neer­ing, big­oted widow who tries to shat­ter her son’s ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship in “Only the Lonely.” Candy played her son, a Chicago cop. Crit­ics lauded Ms. O’Hara’s abil­ity to keep the per­for­mance from turn­ing maudlin.

She told the Chicago Tri­bune that she played her role as “tough, mean, nasty, warm, kind, bossy, rude, ob­nox­ious and very sen­ti­men­tal. So she isn’ t much dif­fer­ent from the char­ac­ters I used to play.”

In 2014, she re­ceived an hon­orary Os­car in recog­ni­tion of per­for­mances that “glowed with pas­sion, warmth and strength.”

Ms. O’Hara’s en­durance was of­ten as­cribed to the feisty in­tel­li­gence she pro­jected on­screen as well as her un­de­ni­able beauty. Her porce­lain skin, green-hazel eyes, coltish jaw and cheek­bones, and cas­cad­ing red hair pho­tographed su­perbly from any an­gle. She was pro­moted as the “queen of Tech­ni­color” — a mo­tion pic­ture process much in vogue in the 1940s and 1950s.

Trained in fenc­ing and fond of do­ing her own stunt work, she held her own in swash­buck­lers op­po­site Er­rol Flynn (“Against All Flags,” 1952) and Tyrone Power (“The Black Swan ,”1942). Those and other­ad­ven­ture yarns set the tem­plate for Ms. O’Hara’s screen per­sona: an in­de­pen­dent-minded woman who knew her way around a sword.

The Mau­reen O’Hara archetype was ce­mented by Ford, who be­came her men­tor and tor­men­tor over two decades of col­lab­o­ra­tion and un­easy friend­ship that be­gan with “How Green Was My Val­ley” and con­tin­ued with “Rio Grande” (1950), “The Quiet Man,” “The Long Gray Line” (1955) and “The Wings of Ea­gles” (1957).

“She is equiv­a­lent to the male hero in a Ford film,” film scholar Jea­nine Basinger said in an in­ter­view. “She ex­udes a kind of pi­o­neer­ing strength of the sort that fits in his movies.”

In her 2004 mem­oir, “’Tis Her­self,” writ­ten with John Ni­co­letti, Ms. O’Hara said that de­spite be­ing one of the most hon­ored di­rec­tors in Hol­ly­wood, Ford was a maze of “se­crecy, lies and ag­gres­sion.”

Ford sent Ms. O’Hara florid love let­ters she found dis­com­fit­ing and once punched her in the face for rea­sons she could never ex­plain. She ac­cepted his be­hav­ior as the price of work­ing near ge­nius.

“He treated Duke [Wayne] the same way he treated me, Ward Bond, Jimmy Stew­art,” she told the Los An­ge­les Times in 2004. “But when you’d think about it go­ing home at night, you were proud of your day’s work. A lot of di­rec­tors, you went home wee ping in mis­ery, ashamed of what you’d done. . . . He was ta­lented, and in­tol­er­a­ble.”

Ms. O’Hara worked as Wayne’s spir­ited ro­man­tic part­ner in “Rio Grande,” “The Quiet Man,” “The Wings of Ea­gles,” “McLin­tock!” (1963) and “Big Jake” (1971).

Her por­trayal of Mary Kate Dana­her in “The Quiet Man” is of­ten held up as one of her fresh­est per­for­mances. Wayne played an Amer­i­can ex-prize­fighter, Sean Thorn­ton, who re­turns to his boy­hood home in Ire­land. Ms. O’Hara was the ob­ject of his de­sire.

The film is an ide­al­ized por­trait of the Ir­ish coun­try­side and the col­or­ful wis­dom of the lo­cals, as when a chap­er­one tells Dana­her while be­ing courted by Thorn­ton, “Have the good man­ners not to hit the man un­til he’s your hus­band.”

Their screen ro­mance blos­soms in one of the most melo­dra­matic movie kisses of the era, with Thorn­ton tak­ing lib­er­ties with Dana her as her wild hair and long skirt blow in a howl­ing wind. Dana­her then tries to sock him.

Off-screen, Ms. O’Hara and Wayne were close friends but never a ro­man­tic cou­ple. He never tried to make a pass. “He wouldn’t have dared,” she in­sisted.

Ms. O’Hara was born Mau­reen FitzSi­mons in Dublin on Aug. 17, 1920, the sec­ond-old­est of six chil­dren. Her mother, the former Mar­guerite Lil­burn, was a trained opera singer and had been a theater ac­tress.

“My par­ents gave us all the con­fi­dence I would need ,” Ms. O’Hara told the Lon­don In­de­pen­dent in 2004. “We were an Ir­ish von Trapp fam­ily, a lit­tle ec­cen­tric but won­der­ful. My mother was a beau­ti­ful, con­fi­dent woman, and she loved the arts. But I was atom boy; I loved foot­ball and boxing like my fa­ther.”

She also ex­celled at fenc­ing dur­ing her many years of act­ing and elocution lessons. She worked on ra­dio, won dra­matic con­tests and in 1934 en­tered the pres­ti­gious Abbey Theatre School in Dublin.

While per­form­ing with the Abbey Play­ers, she signed a sev­enyear con­tract with Laughton’s newly formed pro­duc­tion com­pany. Laughton changed her sur­name to O’Hara, to fit bet­ter on a movie mar­quee.

Af­ter her promis­ing start in “Ja­maica Inn” and “The Hunch­back of Notre Dame,” her con­tract was sold to RKO stu­dios when Laughton’s pro­duc­tion com­pany folded. She lan­guished in tri­fles un­til Ford hired her for a pres­ti­gious 20th Cen­tury Fox pro­duc­tion, “How Green Was My Val­ley.”

The film, set in a Welsh min­ing com­mu­nity, won Academy Awards for best pic­ture and best di­rec­tor, and Ms. O’Hara earned strong re­views as a young woman who set­tles for a love­less mar­riage with the mine owner’s son.

She fol­lowed in anti-fas­cist wartime dramas that in­cluded Jean Renoir’ s“This Land Is Mine” op­po­site Laughton and“The Fallen Spar­row” with John Garfield. Both movies were re­leased in 1943.

Ms. O’Hara, who be­came a U.S. cit­i­zen in 1946, also had a long reign in Tech­ni­color ac­tion films such as “The Span­ish Main” (1945) with Paul Hen­reid, “Sin­bad the Sailor” (1947) with Dou­glas Fair­banks Jr. and “At Sword’s Point” (1952) with Cor­nel Wilde.

Ms. O’Hara, who had a sturdy singing voice, claimed the swash­buck­ling films sank her chances when she was be­ing con­sid­ered to play Anna in the 1956 film ver­sion of “The King and I.”

She said com­poser Richard Rodgers sent word to film pro­ducer Dar­ryl F. Zanuck :“Our Anna played by a pi­rate queen? Never!”

From there, it was along ex­ile in or­na­men­tal roles in such un­de­mand­ing films as “Bag­dad” (1949) as the daugh­ter of an Ara­bian sheik and “Lady Go­diva” (1955) as the most fa­mous bare­back rider in his­tory.

A re­prieve for Ms. O’Hara was di­rec­tor Carol Reed’s “Our Man in Ha­vana” (1959), based on Gra­ham Greene’s Cold War satire. She played a “han­dler” sent to pre-rev­o­lu­tion Cuba to check on a vac­uum cleaner sales­man moon­light­ing as a Bri­tish se­cret agent, por­trayed by Alec Guin­ness.

That film also marked one of her first re­turns to cin­ema af­ter her tri­umph over a scan­dal sheet that had ac­cused her of hav­ing all but sex with her “south of the bor­der sweetie” in the back of Grau­man’s Chi­nese Theatre in Hol­ly­wood. At the time, she was ro­man­ti­cally linked to Mex­i­can busi­ness­man En­rique Parra.

Con­fi­den­tial mag­a­zine, which had mil­lions of read­ers, ran a story in 1957 ti­tled “It Was the Hottest Show in Town When Mau­reen O’Hara Cuddled in Row 35.” She sued for $5 mil­lion and set­tled out of court af­ter pro­duc­ing a dat­es­tamped pass­port to prove she was not in the coun­try at the time of the al­leged tryst.

Ms. O’Hara’s first mar­riage, to Bri­tish pro­ducer Ge­orge H. Brown, ended in di­vorce. She said her sec­ond hus­band, Amer­i­can di­rec­tor Will Price, was a phys­i­cally abu­sive al­co­holic who drained their fi­nances. They di­vorced in 1952, and Ms. O’Hara was granted cus­tody of their daugh­ter, Bron­wyn. Sur­vivors in­clude her daugh­ter.

Ms. O’Hara said the hap­pi­est pe­riod of her life came af­ter she mar­ried a third time, in 1968, to com­mer­cial avi­a­tor Charles Blair. They lived in the U.S. Vir­gin Is­lands. Af­ter his death in a plane crash in 1978, she took over his sea­plane busi­ness. She later sold it to Re­sorts In­ter­na­tional.

Af­ter her re­turn to oc­ca­sional TV roles fol­low­ing “Only the Lonely,” Ms. O’ Hara spoke of her dis­taste for the style of act­ing that seemed to pre­vail: ac­tors mum­bling their lines to ap­pear more nat­u­ral.

Her ad­vice to those younger per­form­ers was flinty and di­rect. “If you re­ally want it, go af­ter it,” she told an in­ter­viewer in 2010, “and learn how to speak prop­erly, for God’s sake!”


Mau­reen O’Hara and John Wayne, shown in 1952’s “The Quiet Man,” ap­peared to­gether in sev­eral films dur­ing a golden age.

For more pho­tos, go to­n9PH

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