Maureen O’Hara, the beloved star of The Quiet Man, Miracle on 34th Street, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Against All Flags, McLintock! and many other great and entertaining movies, has died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 95. She was one of those enduring stars who, in my experience, first meant so much to my movie-loving Grandma Rina, which meant, of course, that I would hear plenty about her, see all of her movies as they appeared on TV as I was growing up, and that she would eventually come to mean so much to me as well.
Two years ago I attended the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival, where my friend and fellow O’Hara enthusiast Richard Harland Smith and I were lucky enough to be in the audience at the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood to see Maureen O’Hara, seated in a wheelchair, lively and funny as ever, interviewed by TCM guru Robert Osborne as a prelude to a screening of John Ford’s Oscar-winning How Green Was My Valley, in which, of course, O’Hara memorably appeared.
Upon hearing of her death (from Richard), I immediately flashed on this experience and remembered my own reaction to seeing O’Hara there on stage, written for Slant magazine and their blog The House Next Door. No words I could write in this current moment could better capture my genuine amazement at this actress’s spirit than the ones I wrote in the wake of that festival appearance. So I repost them here now, comforted in the conviction of Maureen O’Hara’s well-lived life and her own conviction of a peace to come which she is undoubtedly enjoying now.
In the shadow of the recent death of Hollywood icon Mickey Rooney, who passed away just four days before the festival opened, the actors who could be glimpsed at various Turner Classic Movies Film festival functions and on stage before the films they starred in were especially appreciative of the attention lavished on them.
But one legendary Hollywood actress interviewed by TCM's own iconic headmaster, Robert Osborne, seemed to be looking as much forward as back toward the past, openly acknowledging and even embracing her own slow approach to the end of the line. Maureen O'Hara, wheelchair-bound at 93, joined Osborne on stage before the screening of How Green Was My Valley (1941), and she, too, was somewhat awed by all the reverence and love directed her way. The Queen of Technicolor, a sobriquet bestowed upon her for her many appearances in splashy, intensely hued swashbucklers like Flame of Araby (1951), At Sword's Point (1952), and Against All Flags (1952), was feisty right out of the gate too. When Osborne began with a question about John Ford, she played the audience like a well-tuned fiddle by responding with mock indignation: “I thought this was supposed to be about me!”
But further sincere inquiry from the host was more often politely sidelined by the actress, who seemed far more interested in conveying to the audience her deep satisfaction with a life well-lived and also, more importantly, her acceptance of its close and inevitable end. She frequently implored the audience to take stock of their own paths and assured us that this known life was not the last stop, even singling out one woman whose cough O'Hara, a good Irish Catholic with a lovely brogue to match, insisted with seriousness and delight was a happy noise that was floating directly up to God.
In such a pristine, digitally restored state as we would witness, How Green Was My Valley itself would even add a bit of convincing evidence to O'Hara's conviction. As O'Hara's unspeakably lovely Angharad, daughter of the Morgan clan, leaves the chapel after her wedding to a man she does not love, the wind picks up the train of her veil, causing it to dance and reach skyward with such gorgeous, fortuitous choreography that one could be forgiven for imagining its movement providential, as if God himself was laying the groundwork for the actress's own heavenly assurance with an invitation that would only be accepted some 50 or so years later.