In Memoriam: Maureen O’Hara

Today we learned of the sad passing of actress Maureen O’Hara, one of the finest of the blazing stars of classical Hollywood. Known for her portrayals of competent and fiercely independent women, she was also known for co-starring with John Wayne in a number of hilarious comedies, including McLintock! 

I’ve long had a deeply personal relationship with the O’Hara. Both my mother and grandmother have long been fans of hers, and I have spent many hours enjoying her finest films with two of the strongest and most amazing women I have been privileged to know. I can still remember watching Disney’sThe Parent Trap and finding Maureen utterly compelling, her independent spirit shining through in all of its radiant glory. Perhaps it was because Maureen reminded me so much of my mother and grandmother–they were both of Irish descent with red hair and independent spirits–that I felt such a strong connection to her.

While her work in classical Hollywood has certainly defined her legacy (and rightly so), I happen to be one of those people who also remembers one of O’Hara’s last films, the TV specialThe Christmas Box, in which she managed to convey that signature blend of steely toughness and caring gentleness, lending her powerful screen persona to a sweet little Christmas story.

Unfortunately, I have not been blind to this formidable actress’s struggles as she has grown older, including both her health struggles and squabbles among her various family members. However, I comfort myself with the knowledge that she carried on despite everything, a pillar of strength even during these incredibly trying times.

As I’ve grown older and my feminist reading skills have developed, I’ve come to both appreciate O’Hara’s feminist works and also to see the full range of the ways in which her star text embodied many of the tensions surrounding female stars. While she embodied everything that is best about female independence, the films she starred in often worked overtime to tame the very aspects of her star text that made her so compelling in the first place. There’s the infamous spanking in McLintock!, the taming of the shrew plot in The Parent Trap, and the softening efforts of Miracle on 34th Street. None, however, manage to fully tame that fiery Irish spirit. Perhaps my favorite role of hers is one I only recently discovered: that of Judy O’Brien in Dance, Girl, Dance, in which she castigates her burlesque show audience.

Maureen O’Hara was truly a magnificent talent, and the film world will certainly be a great deal poorer without her.

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