We’ve lost one of the last remaining stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age with the passing of Maureen O’Hara, aged 95. Sad times indeed, and I suppose it’s fair to say that just about any fan of classic cinema is also a fan of Maureen’s. I ignore David Thomson’s comment that she came with limited talent; for me she was a fiery presence in every movie she made and very memorable. Her performances always left an impression. It was as though she approached every part with a determination not to be billed as the token female but to stamp her authority all over it. More often than not, she did just that.
Her 65 appearances across a career than spanned from 1938 – back when she was Maureen FitzSimons and carving out a role within the British film industry – to TV work as recently as 2000 often seemed carefully chosen, and it’s incredibly likely you’ve seen her in something. She was in one of the best known Christmas flicks, 1949’s Miracle on 34th Street, and appeared in a number of John Ford productions, often alongside John Wayne, most famously in The Quiet Man. My favourite of her Ford roles, perhaps of them all, was as Angharad in How Green Was My Valley. Initially entering a tragically loveless marriage with the mine owner’s son rather than wait eternally for Walter Pidgeon’s kindly minister to propose, she later shows her mettle when confronting the bullying and cowardly church deacons after they have treated an unwed mother harshly. The part suited O’Hara’s screen persona down to the ground and defined the characters she would come to portray.
It’s impossible to discuss O’Hara without noting her beauty. Her green eyes and red hair were legendary to the point of helping to get the Technicolor process off the ground, all the better to capture her natural colours, it’s said. She was certainly striking, though just as important was her flexibility, her appearances in comedies – her sparring with Wayne in McLintock! is the film’s highlight – and dramas, notably in swashbucklers, to which she brought a level of natural grace, as in The Black Swan.
O’Hara definitely had a good innings, knowing when to retire from acting and restrict her appearances in later years. Her last showing in Hollywood was when she collected her Honourary Oscar in 2014, recognition for a career of no little significance. She’ll be missed, though we have some excellent films to look back on and significantly a series of landmark performances.