Remembering the fiery spirit of Maureen O’Hara – and reflecting on the need for more women throughout the moviemaking process

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Maureen O'Hara appears in a scene from "The Quiet Man." Photo provided

Maureen O’Hara appears in a scene from “The Quiet Man.” Photo provided

When I was a little girl, I wanted to be Maureen O’Hara.

Since I grew up on a farm in rural Oklahoma, with parents and two sets of grandparents who were big fans of John Wayne movies and a wide range of Western films and TV series, O’Hara was as much a part of my childhood as Chuck Jones’ Looney Tunes shorts and Disney animated movies.

Wayne was a fun hero to watch in those old movies — although I preferred wise-cracking fellow Oklahoma native James Garner — but it was always O’Hara that I rooted for, a woman tough enough to stand toe-to-toe with The Duke, with a spirit so indomitable and temper so fierce that she could make even the most famous cowboy of the silver screen think twice before engaging her in battle.

Long before I was old enough to comprehend the marital complications of the storyline, The Quiet Man was one of my favorite movies, and the fiery redhead was my kind of heroine. O’Hara was smart and strong but could be soft, too, when the situation called for it.

“I loved Mary Kate Danaher. I loved the hell and fire in her,” she wrote in her 2004 autobiography, ’Tis Herself. “She was a terrific dame, tough, and didn’t let herself get walked on.”

That’s probably why she remains one of my all-time favorite movie characters in one of my all-time favorite films.

Sadly, O’Hara, who was known as the “The Queen of Technicolor” for her flame-red hair, piercing green eyes and milk-white skin, died Saturday at home in Boise, Idaho, at age 95. With the Irish native’s passing, Hollywood’s Golden Age has almost completely faded into history.

Although she worked with a wide range of well-known directors, from Alfred Hitchcock in her first significant Hollywood appearance (1939’s Jamaica Inn) to Chris Columbus in her last big-screen movie (1991’s Only the Lonely), O’Hara is best remembered for her work with legendary director John Ford, especially his films that paired her with Wayne.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, O’Hara starred opposite Wayne in three Westerns —Ford’s Rio Grande (1950), McLintock! (1963) and Big Jake (1971) — and in two more films for Ford: her favorite (and mine) The Quiet Man (1952) and the Navy biopic The Wings of Eagles (1957).

On matching wits onscreen alongside Wayne, O’Hara said in a 2003 interview: “I was tough. I was tall. I was strong. I didn’t take any nonsense from anybody. He was tough, he was tall, he was strong and he didn’t take any nonsense from anybody. As a man and a human being, I adored him.”

During the 1950s, she was paired four times with Ford; apart from her three movies with Wayne, she co-starred with Tyrone Power in The Long Gray Line, according to Variety. She helped the legendarily hard-nosed fellow Irish-American Ford collect two of his four career Oscars by starring in The Quiet Man as well as in 1941’s How Green Was My Valley, which established O’Hara as an A-list star.

“I knew what great directors and great actors were like,” she said of Ford (whom she called “Pappy”) in the 2010 documentary Dreaming the Quiet Man, her last on-screen appearance. “but I have to honestly say he was the best, really the best. The meanest.

“Believe me, I would rather work with the — pardon me — the old bastard than not.”

O’Hara also is remembered for starring with Natalie Wood in the 1947 holiday classic Miracle on 34th Street, with twice the Hayley Mills’ in the 1961 Disney comedy The Parent Trap and Lucille Ball in trailblazing director Dorothy Arzner’s dance drama and proto-feminist film Dance Girl Dance. Although she was never nominated for an Academy Award, she received an honorary Oscar in 2014.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, O’Hara also could sing: She showcased her soprano voice on the albums Love Letters From Maureen O’Hara and Maureen O’Hara Sings Her Favorite Irish Songs and as the star of the 1960 Broadway musical Christine. 

When her third husband, Charles F. Blair Jr., a former U.S. Air Force brigadier general and former chief pilot for Pan Am, died in a plane crash in 1978, O’Hara was elected president-CEO of Antilles Airboats, reports Variety. She became the first woman president of a scheduled airline in the U.S. and later sold the airline.

“She passed peacefully surrounded by her loving family as they celebrated her life listening to music from her favorite movie, The Quiet Man,” her family said in a statement on her death, reported by The Hollywood Reporter.

May her fiery spirit remain as vibrant as ever in film, and may she rest in peace.

Sandra Bullock appears in a scene from "Our Brand Is Crisis." Photo provided

Sandra Bullock appears in a scene from “Our Brand Is Crisis.” Photo provided

The ‘spanking’ of Hollywood over sexism

In last week’s blog, I weighed in on Jennifer Lawrence’s essay for Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter e-newsletter, which was a response to the Sony hack that revealed emails showing Lawrence, 25, had earned significantly less on her caper film American Hustle than her male co-stars Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper, despite the star power afforded her by her excellent work as The Hunger Games heroine Katniss Everdeen.

Fellow Oscar winner Sandra Bullock tells Time in an interview that she believes the Sony hack was a blessing in disguise.

“Thank goodness Hollywood got a spanking,” she says. “It’s hard because why should I complain? Very few people get to do what we get to do. I know as a woman in the business, the likelihood of me still working at my age was almost impossible, and yet here I am.”

“Other women felt exactly the same way,” she adds. “And we felt shame because of it. Now something has shifted. All the women started bonding and going, ‘Wow, why don’t you get this? You did an amazing job. Why aren’t you getting part of the merchandising?’ We came together, shared this information and supported each other.”

The Time interview focuses on Bullock’s upcoming film political comedy-drama Our Brand Is Crisis, in theaters Oct. 30. Her lead character, “Calamity” Jane Bodine, is a ruthless political consultant based on James Carville, and as previously reported, it originally called for a male character, with producer George Clooney once attached to the role.

Despite her best actress Oscar for The Blind Side and a worldwide box-office take of nearly $5 billion, Bullock, 51, struggled in recent years to find challenging scripts, so she tells Time’s Eliana Dockterman she asked her agent to start sending her parts written for men.

“I thought of it a couple years ago before I did The Heat, when I was looking for comedies,” Bullock says. “I said, ‘I want to do what Jim Carrey’s doing.’ I was looking for something he didn’t want.”

I could hug Dockterman for this observation: “Consider that sentence: despite being one of the most bankable actresses in the world, Bullock wanted to scoop up the crumbs from Carrey’s banquet table. Imagine the parts women merely nominated for Oscars must be offered.”

The writer cites the now-familiar but no less frustrating statistics: Among last year’s 100 top-grossing films, 12 featured female protagonists. Of all the speaking characters, only 30 percent were women, according to research from Martha Lauzen at San Diego State University, who began issuing an annual “Celluloid Ceiling” report in 1998 to lay bare Hollywood’s gender gap.

Bullock tells Time she didn’t have much to lose by approaching producers with her flip-the-script scheme.

“I figured, What are they going to say? No? I hear no a lot. I’m used to it.”

Dockterman notes Bullock isn’t the only actress taking on roles: Julia Roberts will star as a vengeful FBI agent in Nov. 20’s Secret in Their Eyes, based on an Argentine novel and subsequent film in which her character was named Ricardo. After shaving her head and thrilling audiences in this summer’s Mad Max: Fury Road, Charlize Theron is in talks to play an assassin in The Gray Man, a role previously offered to Brad Pitt.

And Emily Blunt’s role as a federal agent fighting a Mexican drug cartel in Sicario is currently building Oscar buzz, but she almost never got the chance to take it on.

“When Taylor (Sheridan, the film’s screenwriter) was shopping the script around, he was approached by one financier who said, ‘It is a done deal if you just make her a guy. We will up your budget,’” Blunt tells Time. “This is the sort of sad state of affairs when films are trying to get made with a female protagonist at the core. Taylor just kept walking out of the room, and walking out of the room, and thank God he did.”

Actress and advocate Geena Davis of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media points out in the Time article another depressing statistic: Only 11 percent of writers on top-grossing films are women, which means fewer roles are likely to be written for women – and those that are may not be as realistic, multi-dimensional or complex as those for men.

“I always say to male writers, ‘Write me as a guy, and I’ll do the girl stuff. Write me as you would a guy–as complicated, as conflicted, as at fault,’” Blunt tells Time. “Often a male writer writes female roles to protect a feminine ideal in some ways.”

But as The Hollywood Reporter points out, more women screenwriters, directors and lead roles are all great steps, but to make the biggest strides to equality, we also need more women in the boardrooms of the entertainment industry.

The trade publication reports that women comprise 16 to 19 percent of about 50,000 seats at public companies in the U.S. (the percentage is far lower for women of color), according to nonprofit group Catalyst, which is dedicated to expanding opportunities for women in business. Hollywood falls squarely within this spectrum, with women filling only 17.6 percent of the seats on boards of companies (Comcast, Sony, Viacom, etc.) that own major studios.

Barry Diller, whose 13-member IAC board includes Chelsea Clinton and NBCUniversal Cable chairman Bonnie Hammer, tells THR’s Kim Masters he has no doubt about the benefits of diverse perspectives.

“You’d think it would have been obvious from the get-go,” he says. “But boards have moved from being somewhat clubby in terms of atmospherics to being more of a professional body.”

Time for that to change, too.

Director Sarah Gavron works on the set of her new film "Suffragette." Photo provided

Director Sarah Gavron works on the set of her new film “Suffragette.” Photo provided

Quick hitters

Suffragette  director Sarah Gavron talks role models: In a Q&A with Fast Company’s Co.Create, director Sarah Gavron talks about the six-year process to make her period drama Suffragette, which not only features an unusual number of women in front of the camera but also had an uncommon number of women behind the camera, as well as about the importance of role models in her career.

“It’s difficult for me to know whether the reason it’s hard to make films is because it’s hard to make films or because I’m a woman,” Gavron says. “But I’m certainly aware of how few women there are. I decided to, or dared, rather, to put myself forward, to train as a director, only because I saw other work by women directors. That was what inspired me. It was, kind of, ‘If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.’ Role models were really crucial to my own journey. In my mid-twenties I was looking at the work of Mira Nair and Jane Campion and Kathryn Bigelow and others who made it feel possible.

In case you needed one – at this point, why would you need yet another one? – that’s another good reason to have more women directing films.

Empire writers take on “Mother of Hip-Hop”: Carlito Rodriguez and Malcolm Spellman, writers on the hit Fox music drama series Empire, have been tapped to pen a movie about the late Sugar Hill Records co-founder Sylvia Robinson, an influential rap pioneer and producer known as the “Mother of Hip-Hop,” according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Kate Winslet to play Lee Miller: Kate Winslet will play American fashion model, photographer and war correspondent Elizabeth “Lee” Miller in an untitled film to be produced by Troy Lum and Andrew Mason of Hopscotch Features, reports Variety.

Based on her son Antony Penrose’s biography, The Lives of Lee Miller, the biopic will detail some of the highlight’s of Miller’s extraordinary life as a muse and collaborator to famous artists such as Pablo Picasso and Man Ray, an acclaimed photojournalist, a witness to wartime atrocities and one of the most glamorous women of her time.

Spectre star Daniel Craig takes down Hollywood’s sexist ageism: Kudos to 007 Daniel Craig, who called out Hollywood’s sexist double standards on aging in a recent interview for the upcoming James Bond movie Spectre, opening Nov. 6.

In a Q&A for Red Bulletin (the Red Bull brand’s official publication), Craig was asked how he felt about his character James Bond “succumbing to the charms of an older woman.” His Spectre love interest, Italian actress Monica Bellucci, 51, is just four years older than Craig, 47.

Craig’s answer was pretty much as perfect as one of Bond’s tailored tuxedos:

“I think you mean the charms of a woman his own age. We’re talking about Monica Bellucci, for heaven’s sake. When someone like that wants to be a Bond girl, you just count yourself lucky!” Craig said.

Smart, very smart.

-BAM

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