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.