In Memoriam: Maureen O’Hara (1920-2015)
Sad news for classic films fans everywhere, as Maureen O’Hara, one of the brightest and most enduring stars of American cinema has passed away today of natural causes at the age of 95. O’Hara was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1920, and dreamed early of becoming an actress. She joined a theatrical troupe at the age of 10 and never looked back. Though her first screen test in the late 1930s was deemed “unsatisfactory,” actor Charles Laughton saw something in her and signed her to a long-term contract. She appeared with him in two films in 1939, as Esmerelda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and in Alfred Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn. When the war severely crippled the British film industry, Laughton sold her contract to RKO.
After a few undistinguished films (although Dance Girl Dance for Dorothy Arzner is an exception), John Ford cast her in the Best Picture-winning How Green Was My Valley, launching a careerlong partnership. Though O’Hara continued to make her share of studio programmers, her films with Ford and frequent costar John Wayne remain highlights for film fans. The trio’s best-known film The Quiet Man is also her top-ranked film on Flickchart.
Her blazing red hair was a perfect fit for Technicolor, a fact not lost on her studio bosses, who cast her in many escapist action epics and richly colored Westerns. Her personality was also fierce and passionate, befitting that hair and the strong characters she usually played. That fierceness was balanced with a deep sense of caring and nurturing, making O’Hara’s screen persona incredibly well-rounded and relatable, even to audiences of today.
Easing comfortably from ingenue roles to powerful wife and mother roles, O’Hara retired from acting in 1973, but returned for a few roles in the ’90s. In the early 2010s, she returned to the public eye once again, to preside over film festivals devoted to her, make public appearances, and receive an honorary Oscar in 2014. Despite being recognized now for her acting prowess, she was never nominated for a competitive Oscar – she and Myrna Loy are the only two actresses to receive the honorary Academy Award without having a competitive nomination.
I was fortunate enough to see her at the 2014 TCM Film Festival, where she chatted with Robert Osborne before a screening of How Green Was My Valley. It’s an experience I will always treasure. She was 94 years old, and looked fantastic. Robert had a set of questions prepared, but Maureen had her own thoughts that evening. Here’s what I wrote at the time:
Robert Osborne started off asking her about John Ford; her response: “I thought I was here to talk about me.” Fabulous, and with a gorgeous Irish lilt. After that, Robert’s planned list of questions fell by the wayside as Maureen clearly had her thoughts on the end of life, the comfort of her faith, and the importance of joy, especially in later life. It wasn’t necessarily what you’d expect of a guest appearance, but the audience didn’t care.
It was clear a year and a half ago that Maureen was prepared for the end of her life. Go in peace, Maureen. We’ll keep enjoying your movies, where you’ll live on forever.
Here are Maureen O’Hara’s Top Ten films according to Flickchart.
The Quiet Man (1952) – ranked #486 of all time
Miracle on 34th Street (1947) – ranked #1057
How Green Was My Valley (1941) – ranked #1329
McLintock! (1963) – ranked #1969
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) – ranked #2131
Rio Grande (1950) – ranked #2295
The Parent Trap (1961) – ranked #2589
Our Man in Havana (1960) – ranked #4901
Only the Lonely (1991) – ranked #5355
The Wings of Eagles (1957) – ranked #7681