Saturday, October 24, 2015
Maureen O'Hara (1920-2015)
It's tempting to say that O'Hara was ahead of her rightful time. Watch her cut loose in At Sword's Point or Against All Flags and it's easy to imagine her today as a Katniss Everdeen or a Black Widow or simply kicking ass on a regular basis. The world could be hers -- our actual Katniss's warnings about enduring inequality notwithstanding -- in a way it could not have been, we presume, in O'Hara's heyday. Clearly she was an exceptional figure in her own time, as those films I mentioned earlier, among others, testify. Other actresses played pirate queens occasionally but O'Hara was clearly the Queen of Technicolor Action, to differentiate her from just plain Queen of Technicolor Lucille Ball, with no real rivals for her throne. She established herself as a swashbuckler before she was firmly established as John Wayne's mythic consort, and that role (sustained through five pictures) complemented her action-heroine status on the implicit assumption that only a mighty woman could stand up to, if not master, the Duke. That might and will were recognized in her last theatrical film, Only the Lonely, which closes with septuagenarians O'Hara and Anthony Quinn thwarting an airplane hijacking. There may be an Irish stereotype at the bottom of all this, but the result was a primitive form of female empowerment. Of course, she was never primarily an action hero for fans of her time, and while her fencing prowess may be noted in the retrospectives to come you'll more likely see her wedding train lifted by the breeze from How Green Was My Valley, or watch her debate Santa Claus with little Natalie Wood in Miracle on 34th Street, and you'll certainly see a hell of a lot of John Wayne. It may have rankled her a little late in life to have to answer questions about Wayne, but Wayne's enduring relevance, along with the Christmas movie, ensures her relevance today and earns her a degree of recognition on her passing that dwarfs the parting honors this year for the likes of Lizabeth Scott or Joan Leslie. If anything, O'Hara may loom larger now than she actually was in her heyday, but there's still that nagging thought that she could have been bigger now, when presumably she could carry blockbuster tentpole movies on her own. That's presentism, of course, and as Maureen O'Hara was a creature of classic Hollywood, who can say that action-hero stardom was what she'd want? To her, today's tentpole pictures must have looked like bloated B movies, and she probably had more ambition as an actress than that. She wouldn't have wanted a career that was all At Sword's Point, I'm sure. It's fun to imagine her getting the best of both worlds, using the action pictures to bankroll what she might consider more serious acting. In the end it's all idle speculation, but I think that imagining the career O'Hara could have today testifies to the success of the career she had. You look at her then and you wish she were still around now, still in her prime, playing a lover, a fighter, or both, or anything she pleased.