|Left to right: Maureen O'Hara and Walter Pidgeon in How Green Was My Valley|
On October 24, 2014, actress Maureen O'Hara passed away at the age of 95 from natural causes while in her sleep. The actress was best known for being a fierce and confident redhead who worked alongside such great directors as John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock. Over the years, she starred in films ranging from westerns to holiday movies such as the iconic Miracle on 34th Street. While she doesn't have the most prolific legacy in her later years, she is nonetheless one of the most iconic actresses of the Golden Era of Hollywood - serving as one of the finest performers of her time as well as one of the best Irish actresses in film history.
O'Hara was born as Maureen FitzSimons on August 17, 1920 in Ranaleigh, Ireland. Ever since she was little, she wanted to be an actress, even attending Irish Sisters of Charity with her five siblings, of which she was the second oldest. From the ages of 6 to 17, she studied drama, music, and dance. By the age of 10, she was part of the Rathmines Theater Company; at which point her dream of being an actress was realized.
Movies weren't too far off in her future. In a moment of fate, she did a screen test in London that was considered an utter failure. With garish outfits and ornate hair styling, she was immediately dissuaded from the profession, and her final performance showed it. Yet it was actor Charles Laughton who rescued her from the abysmal failure because he realized that she had potential. Maureen claims that Laughton also inspired her to change her name from FitzSimons to O'Hara (or O'Mara) due to her birth name being too complicated for people to spell. While she had done two films as FitzSimons, she had her breakout in 1939 in director Alfred Hitchcok's Jamaica Inn and later that same year in director William Dieterle's The Hunchback of Notre Dame as Esmerelda - both of which co-starred Laughton.
It didn't take long for her to become popular among film circles. In 1941, she starred in director John Ford's How Green Was My Valley; of which would win Best Picture. It was the start of her work with her most noteworthy collaborators. Ford's other big actor, John Wayne, would go on to star in five films with her. This included four westerns and the boxing drama The Quiet Man. In special features for a later DVD release of The Quiet Man, a story is told that states that O'Hara likely quit acting temporarily due to Ford and Wayne making fun of her for being married (to aviator Charles F. Blair) but not being a good housewife. That didn't stop her from playing one of the most iconic mothers in film history in Miracle on 34th Street, where she starred as Doris Walker, Susan Walker's (Natalie Wood) mother - of which received a Best Picture nomination.
Following 1973, she took a long absence until 1991 with the John Candy comedy directed by Christopher Columbus called Only the Lonely. To say the least, her career was never able to gain the heights that she had prior to her hiatus. Over the course of her career, she also starred on Broadway in a production of Christine, as well as released two music albums called "Love Letters from Maureen O'Hara" and "Maureen O'Hara Singers her Favorite Irish Songs." In May of 2013, she attended the opening of a John Wayne memorial museum in Winterset, Iowa. It was such a big deal that May 25 became Maureen O'Hara Day in Iowa.
In 2014, at the age of 94, she received an Honorary Academy Award for her career in film. Despite her age and private disputes regarding elder abuse, she was very upbeat and humble for the award. During her acceptance speech, she paid tribute to Laughton, Wayne, and Ford; of whom her career would be nothing without. She is only the second woman after Myrna Loy to win an Oscar without having won a competitive acting Oscar. In the closing of her speech, she gave an Irish proverb - proving just how proud of her heritage she has remained for over the course of her career.
While didn't long afterwards, it remains a tribute to her legacy and reflects why she was one of the best actresses of early cinema. With her radiant energy and iconic red hair, she controlled the screen in almost every genre. With a handful of iconic films, she leaves behind something special and entertaining for film fans of every age. Even as she aged, she maintained her grace and was able to be upbeat and lively. Along with being one of the definitive Irish actresses, it's impossible to find another performer that quite lives up to that impressive of a legacy. She worked with some of the best directors of the time, and for good reason. She brought her A Game and turned in many great performances that prove why she will be missed.