It is not being a good time for fans of live-action Disney, and today is a sad loss for fans of just film in general. Actress Maureen O’Hara has died in Boise, Idaho, at the age of 95. It looks like she died of being 95, and she will be buried beside her late husband at Arlington National Cemetery.
I don’t know what the first movie I saw her in was. There are three strong contenders. Any of them would have been a fine legacy for an actress, something to be proud of.
While she made movies before then, including a strong performance as Angharad in How Green Was My Valley, it seems clear that her first performance that lives on in pop culture is in 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street as the pragmatic single mother, Doris Walker, to Natalie Wood’s imagination-deprived Susan. She brought a warmth to a role that could have been stiff and unpleasant—yes, it’s implied that she considers fantasy to be dangerous because of her failed marriage, but it’s also clear that she hasn’t thrown love in general out the window. She showers it on her little girl, and she’s generally pleasant to those around her.
In 1952, she was the fiery Mary Kate Danaher to John Wayne’s Cole Thornton in The Quiet Man. It’s a more challenging role than it might otherwise appear. Mary Kate is once again the practical one in the household; it’s a balancing act that O’Hara was called on to play often, between being the one expected to get things done and holding a small core of romance in her sole. Mary Kate seems to have expected to remain a spinster, and I think she’s as surprised as anyone to have found romance. And, no, she never said what she whispered in his ear at the end; she, Wayne, and John Ford all took that to their graves.
And, of course, 1961 brought Boston matron Maggie McKendrick, mother to separated twins Susan and Sharon in The Parent Trap. She is again a woman who has given up on romance and works hard to get things done. Her life is a whirl of meetings and committees, punctuated only by raising her sweet, dutiful daughter Sharon. By sheer coincidence, Sharon goes to camp with her long-lost twin, Susan, and romance and adventure come back into Maggie’s life.
I’ll tell you, the part I never liked about The Parent Trap was the claim that Maggie had plastic surgery. She didn’t need it. Maureen O’Hara was a strikingly beautiful woman without it. She was also a fine actress; I didn’t like Come Back, Little Sheba much and am deeply annoyed that Shirley Booth won an Oscar for it while O’Hara wasn’t even nominated for The Quiet Man. Maureen O’Hara was one of the actresses who shaped my childhood movie-viewing, and I am the richer for it. The world is slightly the poorer for having lost her.