For a teenage actress in 1937, as now, getting a lead role in the Abbey Theatre in Dublin was a glamorous thing. But so was going to England to be screen-tested for the movies.
As she sat sipping coffee in Bewleys in Dublin with her mother Marguerita, a 17-year-old Maureen FitzSimons agonised over whether to take the stage role or try to be a film star. Bold and ambitious, but not lacking in naivete, Maureen took the plunge and sailed to London with her mother. Marguerita was a dressmaker by trade but had a knack for the stage.
She was beautiful and well-heeled, and had a contralto voice, having performed opera and theatre in the Gaiety Theatre and elsewhere. She was hell-bent on her daughter doing well.
Maureen had agreed to go to London in spite of herself, as she had a snobbish preference for the theatre. And she felt her preference was justified when she was stylised for Elstree Studios, looking, she says, “like a ten-dollar hooker”. She hated it, but they loved her.
Back home in Ranelagh, Dublin, her local priest was called in for the signing of a seven-year contract with Mayflower Pictures. Charles Laughton and Erich Pommer, the bosses of Mayflower, both had a cute eye for fledgling talent. Laughton was a maverick English actor who had fought in World War I and who achieved great fame with Les Miserables (1935) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939).
Laughton changed her name from FitzSimons to the more marketable, easy-on-the-ear ‘O'Hara'. Then everything was whipped into action.
Maureen O'Hara made her first big picture, starring alongside Laughton, in Alfred Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn (1939). Filming in England she met and briefly courted the producer George Brown. He fell obsessively in love with her and, on the cusp of her departure for Hollywood and of World War II, he arranged a seedy and furtive ceremony. She accidentally married him.
This thorn was fresh in her side on the morning she boarded the Queen Mary ocean liner with Laughton and her mother in tow. When Marguerita discovered a hidden wedding ring her daughter revealed all: George Brown had cheated her.
O'Hara was told by her travelling companions to say nothing about the marriage: she had more important fish to fry than domestication or divorce. It turned out the union didn't count — it was never consummated — and was annulled in 1941.
In the meantime, she got along with things. In Hollywood she made The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), a spectacular success. O'Hara shone as the Gypsy Esmerelda, with Laughton himself playing the inimitable hunchback.
It was the second of 65 films for the precocious actress, as her career came to span six decades. The camera loved her beauty, her charm and her often bombastic energy.
As O'Hara prepares to turn 90 today, she's now caught up in meetings, suppers, a backlog of fan letters and she is the honorary president of the Glengarriff golf club in Co Cork; she attends film festivals, fashion shows, she goes to Mass; and she watches soccer and gaelic football.
Her newest venture is the Maureen O'Hara Legacy Centre, an acting school in Glengarriff, which will open in 2012. These days she has a certain punchy, streetwise self-mockery when reflecting on her talent and the astral beauty that propelled her to fame. In an interview with Larry King, she admitted that her zest for work came from “plain old nasty ego”, while she told Ryan Tubridy on RTE that she was a “ham” of an actress.
But in 1940s Hollywood, romance and high-drama required a certain style of performance, and in the fight-or-flight politics of studio contracts O'Hara had to do this seamlessly, again and again, three or four times a year.
Ham or no ham, with looks like her's she was soon the most desired actress in Hollywood, a pin-up girl in 1940s army barracks and known proverbially as ‘Big Red' and ‘The Queen of Technicolor'. Yet O'Hara has said that her biggest source of pride is her Irishness.
She also said that her most treasured film is John Ford's The Quiet Man (1952). Many would concur. The Oscar-winning ‘Irish western' has a cult status that far outstrips any other film made in Ireland — so much so that they've made a romantic comedy about the eventful filming of The Quiet Man, called Connemara Days. The film stars Brendan Gleeson, Aidan Quinn and Geraldine Chaplin and will be released next year.
If funding goes to plan, perhaps Connemara Days will provide another 60 years of tourism revenue like the original classic has kindly done. The Quiet Man might justifiably be seen as the first ‘brand Ireland' commodity in pictures.
It sprang from the emigre nostalgia of John Ford, the Irish-American film director of parents born in Spiddal, Co Galway, who made westerns with groundbreaking skill and creativity.
If Laughton was a patriarchal aide to O'Hara in her delicate teens, Ford was daftly paternal — she even called him ‘Pappie'. Pappie, however, was also notorious for temper tantrums, drinking and making outlandish demands on his actors — an “ole divil to work with”, according to O'Hara.
Ford cherished his Irish-American identity. He had begun visualising The Quiet Man one morning in 1933 when he discovered a story of the same name by Maurice Walsh in The Saturday Evening Post.
It was the perfect crime. Staying with O'Hara's parents in their family home in Churchtown, Dublin, nearly two decades later he began sending love letters incongruously addressed to “mo darlin' cailín rua”, aka Mary Kate Danaver, the heroine that O'Hara would play. Through the blinding technicolor hues of The Quiet Man, he could shape an image of a romantic, pre-industrial Ireland that only Maureen O'Hara could trick people into believing.
Just before the film was made, O'Hara was living in Los Angeles through the worst phase of her second marriage. Maureen and the director Will Price had one child together, but he had become a squandering and abusive alcoholic. She tells candidly in her memoir 'Tis Herself (2004) of how she was financially cleaned out and sleeping beside a baseball bat in order to protect herself and her daughter Bronwyn.
In the heat of it all she had to turn out The Flame of Araby (1951), an inconsequential historical drama that would fund The Quiet Man.
When she returned to Ireland in June 1951 to make what would be the biggest sensation of her career she was 31, jaded and weary. But it was like entering a halcyon retreat.
The film tells the story of Irish-American Sean (John Wayne), who returns to Innisfree (Cong), the village of his birth, keeping a dark secret of his career as a pugilist.
He falls in love with Mary Kate (O'Hara), a flighty, obstinate local belle. Mary Kate's boorish brother Red Will (Victor McLaglen) causes strife with the dowry.
The townsfolk get involved in a punch-up between Sean and Red Will that becomes one of the most epic brawls in cinematic history. This involves Sean's ‘taming' of Mary Kate via the scruff of her neck, a stick and a barbarian mob. It ends in a slightly questionable strain of revelry and slapstick jest.
O'Hara's beauty is the film's stand-out quality: her burnished red hair, her porcelain skin, her voluptuous figure clothed in Virgin Mary blues.
John Wayne, on the other hand, is just plain old ‘Duke': a little chauvinistic, wooden and superannuated.
The most iconic moment of Wayne and O'Hara's romantic frisson is when Mary Kate is discovered cleaning Sean's cottage on a stormy night. Sean pulls her to him and they perform an unrivalled ‘movie kiss'.
Her wild hair and billowing skirts are blown about by the hidden deployment of airplane propellers. She then socks him in the jaw, kisses him and runs colourfully into the deluge. This, along with all the other interiors, was shot in Hollywood.
After several battles with Duke on and off set, including in Cong when O' Hara sprained her fingers punching him in the jaw, he notoriously classed her “the greatest guy I ever met”.
Only half of The Quiet Man was actually made in Connemara. So the film's authenticity is a little remiss: it's a Hollywood projection of pastoral fantasy, largely responsible for the image of bawdy, elfin drunkenness that enshrines Ireland's image abroad. Festooned for an American audience, its comedy of fey Irishry has been seen as degrading by many on this side of the pond.
“All poppycock, but she did all right in the States,” a 91-year-old childhood pal of Maureen's has observed.
The Quiet Man earned two Oscars, seven nominations and another five wins in the USA and Europe.
“It was so exciting to be making a movie here in Ireland, my own country, and being excited with the people of Cong when the electricity was coming in for the first time. I thank God for the popularity it has received throughout the years,” O'Hara recalled.
After the film's huge success, she continued to work alongside the pick of directors and actors from Hollywood's golden age.
She worked with Anthony Quinn in Buffalo Bill (1944) and Sinbad the Sailor (1944), and with Henry Fonda, John Candy and James Stewart among myriad other stars, some of whom are now forgotten.
Other films included How Green Was My Valley (1941), Rio Grande (1950), as well as more maternal roles, such as Miracle On 34th Street alongside Jean Lockhart (1947) and The Parent Trap (1961) with Hayley Mills. The fabled red hair and intriguing green eyes were only amplified by the arrival of these colour pictures. She describes herself accurately as “the first woman swashbuckler ... I was tough. I was tall. I was strong. I didn't take any nonsense from anybody.”
This tenacity and a strong, deep-set religious faith helped her during the most traumatic aspects of her private life: separations, illness and early widowhood.
In 1953, O'Hara divorced Will Price and in 1968 married the renowned aviator General Charles Blair. The couple lived in St Croix, Virgin Islands, for a period in which O'Hara withdrew from the acting scene. Charlie was the love of her life, and died tragically in an air crash in 1978.
Maureen became CEO and president of Antilles Airboats, making her the first woman to be president of an airline. She continued to make films and television dramas almost until she came back to Ireland in 2004 to live in Glengarriff.
Today, Maureen will celebrate her 90 years. Her sisters, her daughter Bronwyn and grandson Conor Beau will be among an elect group of friends at the private gathering.
“I understand that a big fuss is going to be made of my 90th and I will be spending some nice time with my family and friends,” she said.
In December, a larger celebration will mark her career and showcase plans for the aforemetioned new academy in her honour.
“I am retired but the Legacy Centre is a passion for me and, God willing, I will spend a lot of my time helping to make a wonderful centre here in Ireland.
“Ireland has given great talent to the world in the past and it continues to bring up great actresses, actors, directors, cameramen, and all the technical people it takes to make a great movie.”