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Maureen O’Hara bio tells of fiery lass who defied Hollywood temptations

Dennis King Published: February 10, 2014
In Hollywood’s Golden Age, she was hailed as the “Queen of Technicolor” but was said to have lived such a normal and wholesome life off screen that apparently no one ever thought it worthwhile to write a full-length biography of her career.

That is, until now, with “Maureen O’Hara: The Biography” (University Press of Kentucky, $29.95), in which Irish film critic and journalist Aubrey Malone turns back the veil on O’Hara’s closely guarded private life to reveal a truly fascinating, spirited and down-to-earth woman behind the glamorous movie star.

O’Hara, now 93, did not live a life of extravagance, outrageous behavior, sexual dalliances and other excesses that are the stuff of tell-all Hollywood biographies. She didn’t smoke or drink; she didn’t go to parties, raise hell or have affairs with her numerous handsome co-stars.

But that doesn’t mean she was a bland, goody two-shoes.  Malone provides plenty of anecdotal evidence to prove that O’Hara had a fiery temper to match her fiery red hair and sassy Irish temperament.

Drawing on new information from the Irish Film Institute, film production notes and articles in newspapers, fan magazines and historical film journals, Malone follows the star’s life from her stable upbringing in a cozy, Catholic family in Dublin (with parents who tolerated her acting aspirations but encouraged her to study bookkeeping as a backup), to her journey to Hollywood under the watchful, fatherly eye of Charles Laughton (with whom she had her first hit in 1939’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”), through her lifelong and often contentious relationships with co-star John Wayne and demanding filmmaker John Ford.

Known for such signature films as “How Green Was My Valley,” “Miracle on 34th Street” and “The Quiet Man,” O’Hara also acted in loads of run-of-the-mill programmers and costume swashbucklers opposite heartthrobs such as Tyrone Power, Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks.

While Malone spends much time examining her long, sometimes rowdy, friendship with Wayne (she one cracked a hand bone trying to punch him after he annoyed her on the set of one of their five films together), he expends his deepest analysis on O’Hara’s complex, often dark, relationship with grumpy Irish-American genius Ford (with whom she also made five pictures), which seemed to have some very edgy, psycho-sexual dimensions and lots of emotional flare-ups.

Not that O’Hara was easy prey for any director’s casting couch. Malone relates one pithy story in which married director John Farrow made sexual advances, and O’Hara responded by socking him in the jaw.

Whether suffering through a terrible 10-year marriage, bad investments or mediocre roles, O’Hara seemed, in Malone’s telling, to have emerged as feisty and independent as many of the strong women she played on screen. Although she tried to live a normal life away from the camera, she seemed always to speak her mind and behave honorably. And that, as this highly entertaining biography proves, makes her a rare and honestly wholesome Hollywood icon.

- Dennis King