Friday, August 05, 2005

'Tis Exhausting

Maureen O'Hara was not a great actress, but the Siren seldom realizes it when caught by her charm. She had marvelous presence and arresting beauty, and in many of her films that was all it took.

Despite her wondrous looks she has never been a pin-up icon, perhaps because her greatest pictures, with only one or two exceptions, were costumers. She lives in the Caribbean, and last year she published her memoirs. She has much to say about co-stars and directors. Briefly: They were out to get her, but she wouldn't let them.

The Siren has read a lot of Hollywood memoirs, but none weirder than this one. Usually when you read a star's autobiography, it all sounds pretty plausible until you fact-check. Even someone like Errol Flynn presents difficulties only when you must figure out which picture he was filming by seeing who he was getting drunk with that year.

With O'Hara, you wonder about your narrator's reliability by page 4, when she recounts a grievance against two teachers who must have been dead since De Valera was Taoiseach. OK, the Siren thought, I can still remember plenty of schoolroom slights. But that sets the tone. O'Hara was beset, plotted against, undermined, and eventually she emerged triumphant, having either forgiven her tormentor or exposed his perfidy or, on a good day, both. It's exhausting, and it's why it has taken me so long to write this one post.

Always the classic man's woman, O'Hara had a "boys will be boys" attitude that can be endearing at times, infuriating at others. Tyrone Power tricked her into telling dirty jokes to director Henry King during the making of The Black Swan, but Ty was a good guy. Errol Flynn amused himself one night by whispering disgusting innuendos to her at a formal function, but during Against All Flags, she "respected him professionally and was quite fond of him personally." In that scene in The Quiet Man where she is half-marched, half-dragged home, John Wayne and John Ford arranged to cover the hill in sheep dung. She had the warmest feelings for Wayne until the day he died.

If you're a John Ford hater (I know you're out there, probably socializing with the Mozart haters), buy this book. She depicts him as a lying, posing, bullying creep, and that's before the director punches her in the face at a dinner party. O'Hara also thinks Ford was in the closet; at point she catches him kissing a big-time (and unnamed) Hollywood actor. Ford, who spoke almost no Gaelic, would murmur gibberish into O'Hara's ear at public events to pretend they were both conversing in the language of the old country. Did I mention his alcoholism?

The picture of Ford is so monstrous that several reviewers have wondered about its accuracy. I've read enough about him to think much of what she says is true. His humiliation of Wayne, for example, has been well documented. Though she doesn't say so outright, it's easy to surmise that O'Hara's friendship with Wayne had roots in their both surviving Ford's displeasure on set, which she refers to as being "in the barrel."

Long after the reader has decided actors must have worked with Ford to convince themselves Otto Preminger was actually a pussycat, our Maureen insists she considered Ford a good friend. Odd, but consistent with her lifelong habit of excusing male nastiness. She is less believable when she says Ford destroyed the acting career of her brother Jimmy after the young man failed to show up for a meeting, or when she accuses Ford of single-handedly scuttling her chances for an Oscar nomination for The Quiet Man.

O'Hara had a long break with the director after a dismal experience shooting The Long Gray Line and after Ford directed some racial insults at the Mexican man she was dating at the time. But she still went to see the director in his last illness, and the book shows her straining to reconcile the rather loathsome man with his talent. She goes into great detail about the filming of The Quiet Man , and publishes some love letters she received from Ford while he was writing the script for that classic. O'Hara says he never spoke to her about the letters nor acted on his love for her, if love it was. She thinks he loved her character of Mary Kate Danaher, whatever sexuality he may have been repressing.

Throughout the book O'Hara refers to herself as a strong woman, feisty and wilful, one to brook nonsense from no man. The self-portrait goes nicely with her screen image but, as they say in first-year screenwriting class, what you tell and what you show are two different things.

Tis Herself shows us the first marriage, which O'Hara claims happened because, naive and fearful of giving offense, she didn't have the heart to tell the man to buzz off. Well, O'Hara was very young. But then she marries Will Price.

Price is a type anyone who's ever leafed through an actress bio could recognize at fifty paces in the dimmest-lit bar in Los Angeles. Good-looking in a vacuous sort of way. Knows a bunch of celebrities. Hard-drinking. In desultory pursuit of a career. Wants his famous wife to help him out. Needs all kinds of material goods to keep up their golden image. By the time Price showed up with a "financial consultant" and convinced O'Hara to give the goon complete control of her money, the Siren was ready to throw the book down, but didn't. Not even after the night when O'Hara, days from delivering her daughter Bronwyn, got punched in the stomach by her alcohol-fueled mate.

No, the Siren hurled the book when O'Hara stayed with Price, who later tried (so she says) to con her into having an unnecessary and highly dangerous operation. Attempted murder, in other words. And even when she finally divorced the slob--are you ready for this?--she kept the "financial consultant." And was really surprised when years afterward it turned out that all her money was gone.

Strong, feisty woman? You tell me. Those qualities show up more when she's settling accounts with enemies, which she does with a relish that may explain her support for Richard Nixon. Out comes the old story about Rex Harrison's role in Carole Landis's death. (The gossip is that it was a suicide pact that only Landis bothered to go through with.) Walt Disney gets thumped not for his anti-Semitism or other celebrated flaws, but for billing her second to Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap. Jimmy Stewart was a good actor, but not a generous one, and he saw to it that one of her best scenes was written out of The Rare Breed. Later on, O'Hara had a happy marriage to pilot Charlie Blair that ended with his death in a plane crash. The NTSA ruled it was pilot error. Would it surprise you to learn that she thinks it was a conspiracy linked to hubby's CIA activity?

Ordinarily it gladdens me to see frank talk about gay life in Hollywood, as this is the post-Stonewall era, and if your favorite star was or is gay you need to drag yourself into the 21st century and freaking well get over it. Tis Herself has an unpleasant pattern, though: The people who treated O'Hara badly were gay. That means John Ford, second husband Will Price, and Peter Lawford and Richard Boone. O'Hara says she rescued those last two from some bad publicity Down Under when they were caught in a brothel full of beautiful boys.

But Tyrone Power? He spoke to her often about the kids he wanted to have. Roddy McDowall? No mention of his love life. Charles Laughton? He wanted kids too. When Elsa Lanchester wrote they didn't have any because Laughton was gay, O'Hara says that was "rubbish...whether or not Laughton was homosexual." Lanchester couldn't get pregnant due to a botched abortion.

O'Hara has nothing but praise for Laughton, who started her career by casting her in Jamaica Inn. She describes Laughton, in full Quasimodo costume, reciting the Gettysburg Address on the set of Hunchback of Notre Dame the day Germany invaded Poland. I'm not saying I don't believe her, but wasn't that scene in Ruggles of Red Gap? Still, O'Hara's loyalty to Laughton, and clear-eyed observations about his talent, make you love her as you did in her movies. There isn't enough of that in this book.

When you're done with a star's memoirs, no matter what warts were revealed, you can always go back to the pictures. The Siren wants to go back to a shot of O'Hara in Hunchback. As she is carried off by celebrating Parisians, she turns to look up at Quasimodo for the last time. In that instant, she will always be beautiful, always be kindhearted, always be sympathetic.


Diane said...

Interesting... what other memoirs have you found to have comparable inconsistencies, revealing aspects of the writer/star that they did not intend to transmit?

The Siren said...

Many of them do in a small way, but not to the degree of O'Hara. Most stars are so in tune with their images that their memoirs are more of the same, and you have to read carefully to catch the bits where they're off-guard. Katherine Hepburn's Me, however, is similar in that she goes to great lengths to portray herself as a free and independent spirit--but she spent decades as the secret lover of a man who wouldn't marry her and treated her horribly when he was in his cups.

Sand said...

What a facinating review! It's amazing how we confuse the actor for the characters that they portray, even in life.

Uncle Gustav said...

An excellent article, C!

girish said...

Wow what a terrific piece.
The siren could run rings around the writers of the Toronto arts-weekly publications (like "NOW" magazine).

Anonymous said...

This is so interesting, Siren. We expect our heroes and heroines to have feet of clay, but not Jello. What I sense in many of these books is the use of that old strategy: dead men/women can't talk.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article! It is indeed fascinating to read memoirs and find glimpses of the person that they did not intend to reveal. I read autobiography of Michelle Mercier (remember, Merveilleuse Angélique?), and I threw the book down after yet another story of abusive relationship that she tolerated (the reason she ended up getting the plastic surgery is because one of these relationships resulted in a broken nose among other things).

Annieytown said...

F: I always thought that it was puzzling that Katherine Hepburn put up with the affairs. I think I might have went nuts knowing that he was having an affair with Grace Kelly. She did not. She just stood there and waited for it to end. I believe she stated that she never felt like she had any right to ask him to stop. He was married to someone else.
I would have clocked him. But thats just me.

The Siren said...

Thanks so much for the kind words, everybody. V & A: It's incredible how many beautiful, wealthy and talented women put up with appalling behavior from the men in their lives. Annie, what struck me was not so much the infidelity (though that was bad) as Tracy's sheer nastiness to Hepburn on occasion. He was a terrible drunk.

Gloria said...

Hi Siren,

You have written "She describes Laughton, in full Quasimodo costume, reciting the Gettysburg Address on the set of Hunchback of Notre Dame the day Germany invaded Poland. I'm not saying I don't believe her, but wasn't that scene in Ruggles of Red Gap?"
Indeed, laughton recited -famously- the Gettisburg Address in "Ruggles of Red Gap"... in a scene of the film. what Ms. O'Hara says -as I understood it- is that he recited it on the set of "The Hunchback" to the cast and crew of the film.
As for his delivery of the famous text, but he did it so well, that he was often requested to do so (which he did with pleasure as he was in love with the text. No wonder). In one memorable occasion when he was visiting the Radio with Norman Corwin, he met Carl Sandburg -poet and Lincoln biographer-. Sandburg said that he had heard about his reading of the Gettysburg Address, but, unfortunately, he had not seen the film: so Laughton earnestly recited it to him right there.

And yes, I love maureen's Loyalty to Laughton: she's certainly more loyal that CL's wife herself (pity she doesn't speak about their work in "This Land is Mine" What a grand Film!)


Mrs. R said...

Yes, I agree, O'Hara's book is all over the place! I will take issue with one thing - Tyrone Power did want children, and I have no doubt he told her that. I have done research on him for years, appeared on television about him, worked with the family, seen the will, talked to people he was in the service with, people he worked with, people he knew on Broadway, plus I have a 94-year-old aunt who dated him.

He and Annabella divorced because she couldn't have any more children. He told Linda that he wanted to be a father before he was old enough to be a grandfather. She miscarried three children before finally being able to give birth to their two daughters. Taryn, his younger daughter, and I recently participated in the annual memorial tribute to him at Hollywood Forever cemetery.

When he did Jesse James, he got one of the extras pregnant. She gave the baby up for adoption. He found out too late and spent a fortune trying to find the child, whom I believe was a boy, and never did.

So I don't have any doubt he told O'Hara that. Also, the John Ford thing is nothing new either, though I never quite bought it.

The Hepburn thing is very interesting as well. People are a study in contradictions, movie stars no exception.

The Siren said...

Hi Mrs R.! I am always happy to see a new name in my comments, especially one with personal knowledge of old Holllywood. Re-reading the post, I realize the sentence indeed can be read as implying that O'Hara lied about Power's desire for kids. Not good, and not my intention, since I knew from reading a biography of Power that he wanted children. I wanted only to point out that O'Hara didn't mention Power's oft-chronicled attraction to men at all--whereas the men she disliked, well, they were gay. That pattern rankled.

Thanks for the clarification. Stop by again sometime. :)

Mrs. R said...

Hey, like the site, happy to stop by. I think Power's attraction to men has been vastly, vastly overrated and exaggerated throughout the years. Bisexual, yes, I think very possibly. But into women - a good reference for this is "All Those Tomorrows" by Mai Zetterling (her autobiography) - it has great insights into Power and some of it is quite funny. She was involved with him for two or three years and they broke up, I think, when he met his third wife, though she doesn't state that.

Zetterling absolutely detested everything about Hollywood, but adored Power. She describes Power being taken aside at a party and invited for a threesome involving her and whomever this was, and he declined (probably because he knew she'd never go for it). When she goes to meet Ingmar Bergman, he wants to accompany her, stating that the two of them could commisserate on how women had ruined their lives. Anyway, of all the things I've read about Power, I found this book the most fascinating about him. He made love with the lights on, but when they talked about serious things, it was always with the lights off. Thus her chapter "Tyrone the Magnificent: Night Messages."

Just about all of the rumors about Power's sexuality stem from Hector Arce's trash book which has nothing but anonymous sources and then has things like Tyrone's thoughts when he was alone - now, I ask you - think about it. When he was alone? Where was Arce? In a computer chip in his brain? And who publishes a book with anonymous sources? And that book I think started the trend for Errol Flynn being a Nazi spy and Humphrey Bogart having an affair with a hairdresser. When I interviewed Lauren Bacall, she said not to mention the book because she didn't want to give this woman any publicity, and then she said, "It's not true. But if i were true - it would be against every single thing that Bogie stood for."

I became interested in Tyrone Power many, many years before Arce's book. I interviewed hundreds of people, looked at studio papers, his personal papers, his will - and here's the thing. I think most of these guys were so gorgeous and narcissistic, and had so many opportunities available to them, that they certainly tried everything. Show biz is just that kind of world - lots and lots and lots of people go both ways. I just don't think it was a big deal.

And just a side note - how could anybody believe that he'd have anything to do with Mr. Blackwell? Easy to claim it, though, with no one to refute it.

Also, I know Maureen's book is out there - way out there - but it's entirely possible that she knew nothing of Power's sex life. When they worked on The Long Gray Line, he had a new girlfriend and it made the papers, so his wife found out about it. He was basically a newlywed during The Black Swan, and at that time, there was a lot of chaos as far as getting Annabella's daughter and mother out of France, so that may have occupied him then. Don't know. Take care.

Nikki said...

I think you guys are just jealous because your not clkassy as Maureen O'Hara is. You probably like the trashy actresses don't hate..

Junebug101 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
tomas said...

Ok the book was a bit allover the place but there is nothing bad about her. I loved the film "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and was always mesmerised by the acting of that girl. I never knew it was Maureen O'Hara. After finding out who she was I was deleighted to discover more of her work. I met her recently at her film festival and can say she is as feisty and beautiful as she ever was. Ok Age is there but could not believe teh resevoir of beauty at 89.

Unknown said...

most of the guys she talk about with the exception of Lawford were not gay

Unknown said...

"What a facinating review! It's amazing how we confuse the actor for the characters that they portray, even in life."

Exactly, that's why I even take actor's memoirs with a huge chunk of salt.

I've read once that stars' autobiographies are more like alibiographies. :)

Unknown said...

actor's = actors'


Unknown said...

Great post. I haven't O'Hara's book yet, but is sounds very strange indeed. Another strange autobiography was Ginger Rogers'. Especially when she insists upon sharing how she removed a boil from hubby Jacques Bergerac's backside by praying over it (she was a Christian Scientist). Talk about "too much information!"