She was considered, in the 1950s, the best reason for a movie to be photographed in color.
With deep red hair, and striking green eyes, Maureen O’Hara – dubbed The Queen of Technicolor – projected a comfort in front of the camera that reached through the lens. For more than 60 years, in more than 60 films, she never tried to be a character actress and was never an Oscar nominee. But she was consistently popular in all types of films because she could support any leading man and bring authentic warmth to every situation.
How Green Was My Valley (1941). She had been in the United States – from her native Ireland – for just a few years when director John Ford cast her as the quiet sister in a Welsh family of coal miners in this Oscar-winning tale of sacrifice, challenge and hope. O’Hara carefully subdues her natural energy as a woman who dares to articulate what she wants in life. With subtlety and grace, she makes us believe that home is all that matters to a young woman with many dreams.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947). In her best-remembered role, still in black-and-white, O’Hara willingly covers her natural warmth with an icy coldness that explains why her young daughter needs to believe in Santa Claus. Without trying to make the movie about the mother – or giving into a temptation to exaggerate the negative sides of her character – O’Hara’s grounds the film in a reality that its fantasy chooses to challenge. She makes this woman’s journey credible with a sincerity that could melt any cynic.
The Quiet Man (1952). Back in her native Ireland, again working with John Ford, and stepping before the Technicolor camera, O’Hara is radiant as a strong-willed woman who dares to tame a prizefighter’s affection. Opposite John Wayne, who would become one of her favorite costars, O’Hara is winning and winsome as a woman who wants to believe in happy endings. The Oscar-winning cinematography captures O’Hara’s flaming red hair as well as her ability to convey the character’s heart and drive.
The Parent Trap (1960). In a film tailored to the talents of child star Hayley Mills, O’Hara more than holds her own as a woman who lives a polished life while yearning to express a hearty realism. Without trying to compete with Mills for attention, O’Hara makes us believe that a woman can be a good mother while fighting for the man she loves. And, at that magical age of 40, which some considered “over the hill” in 1960s Hollywood, O’Hara lets us know that she has many years left. And more performances to deliver.
Spencer’s Mountain (1963). In a little-known film based on the novel by Earl Hamner, Jr. – that later became the television series The Waltons – O’Hara fills the screen with her most endearing screen portrayal as a woman forced to be tough so she can hold her family together despite many challenges. While Henry Fonda has the showier moments as the unpredictable father, and James MacArthur engages as Clayboy (later renamed Johnboy for TV), O’Hara binds the film and the family with her contagious warmth. And the edge in her performance suggests how much more she could have played on screen.
Last fall, O’Hara received a special Academy Award for her body of work, she said, “I’ll leave you with this old Irish saying: May the road rise to meet you, the wind be always at your back and may the sun shine warmly upon your face.”
Thanks to the accessibility of the movie archive, we can remind ourselves how magical an actress she could be. And, of course, we always remember Maureen O’Hara at holiday time, each time we see Santa Claus in the Macy’s Parade.
Celebrating Maureen O’Hara (And Other Charismatic Stars)
Maureen O’Hara, who recently died at age 94, illustrates an era in movies when breathtaking looks and seductive presence could compensate for acting depth. While O’Hara consistently brought more to the screen than red hair and green eyes, she rarely got the roles that demanded more than her predictable warmth. And she’s not alone. Here are a few other actresses, from days gone by, who could find themselves hoping to show how much more they could offer.
She casts an intense spell on screen in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. As a mysterious woman who dares to play a complex trick on James Stewart, Novak is ravishing, compelling and unforgettable. The ambiguity of the role works well with Novak’s less than precise acting technique. But, when required to develop a detailed character, the actress can be challenged. Her performance in Picnic barely scratches the surface while her work in The Man With the Golden Arm frustrates with superficiality. Still she can be so good when a role raises more questions than it needs to answer.
She so captivated audiences of the 1940s – as the femme fatale in Gilda and the musical heroine in Cover Girl – that audiences followed her for years despite a series of disappointing performances. But it only takes a couple of strong roles to create a legend. As a musical star opposite Gene Kelly, Haywork is fun, fresh and alluring. And her work as the glamorous lead in Gilda – with the sultry rendition of Put the Blame on Mame – solidified the Hayworth story. Sadly, she couldn’t sustain the magic despite big roles in such films as Pal Joey and Separate Tables. Give yourself a few minutes of Gilda to see what all the fuss was once about.
She brings a 1940s style of superficiality to her performances that remind us of the glamour queens of yesteryear. Her charisma on screen is so commanding that we don’t need to see much depth in her characters. And it only takes one role to solidify a career. In LA Confidential, for which Basinger won a well-deserved Oscar as Best Supporting Actress, she finds the perfect role to capitalize on her mystique without demanding more depth than she can provide. Winning the award prompted her to make some surprising choices on screen and, other than strong performances in The Door in the Floor and Eight Mile, her post-Oscar career has been a letdown.
Few people may remember this actress even though she has made more than 50 films. While she was always a big star, she rarely played the leading role in a film, and only had a handful of movies created to showcase her persona. Perhaps her beauty and sense of humor (often displayed in memorable appearances on television talk shows of the 1960s) overshadowed her acting chops. And she chose to stay at home for many years, to care for her daughter Nikki, rather than work on screen. She brings credibility to her portrayal of a well-meaning physician in The Sins of Rachel Cade and a provocative allure to the opening of Dressed to Kill. And she brightenes any film fortunate enough to include her in the cast.
She began her career in the 1950s as a presence, caught fire as a character actress, and got stuck in a series of bland roles that failed to capitalize on her potential. Today she is known for being married to actor Tony Curtis and the mother of Jamie Lee Curtis. When Leigh played the mysterious Marion Crane in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, she created an instant movie legend for her dramatic sequence in the hotel bathroom that made many too frightened to take a shower. After losing the Oscar that should have been hers – but went to Shirley Jones for Elmer Gantry – she found herself trying to play Chita River’s Broadway role in Bye Bye Birdie and Frank Sinatra’s love interest in The Manchurian Candidate. The actress who could say so much with so little never again found her moment to deliver what so many know was there.
Thank you, ladies, for all the memories of your work on screen.