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Maureen O’Hara and the Road to the Academy Governors Awards

Maureen O'Hara and the Road to the Academy Governors Awards

“This is what it’s all about,” Harvey Weinstein said to Benedict Cumberbatch and director Morten Tyldum on his way out of the Governors Awards on November 9, 2014.

The midnight blue of the bracing Idaho sky was the color of her beaded gown, reflecting the sparkle in her green eyes. The legendary red hair was perfectly coiffed; the tasteful diamond bracelets added a touch of glamour. The high-powered audience, gathered in the heart of Hollywood at the beginning of awards season, suddenly quieted as the evening began with a film tribute honoring the ravishingly beautiful actress who never gave less than a perfect performance in her seven-decade career.  
Martin Scorsese defined her impact: “She started at the very top, at age 18, starring with and working with the best and most brilliant— only to remain there.”

After Liam Neeson reflected on his infatuation in seeing “The Quiet Man,” and Clint Eastwood, as a Universal contract player, told of his attempts to get close to “Lady Godiva,” the audience rose in appreciation as Maureen O’Hara appeared to receive the Oscar that had long eluded her. 
In this case, the standing ovation was more than obligatory. It was heartfelt, because we were in the presence of a movie star whose persona was so individual, distinctive and appealing that her name alone brought a reason for going to the movies.

The Honorary Academy Award is a special honor that I’ve always felt should be presented to film artists who had been overlooked by the vagaries of the competitive awards. The annual Oscars are an honor bestowed by fellow peers but it isn’t an immaculate process. Over the years, results could depend on many factors: studio affiliation, rule changes, personal popularity, membership exposure, campaign budgets.

The Honorary Oscar is given in recognition of a body of work, not a single credit. Greta Garbo, Cary Grant, Alfred Hitchcock, Fred Astaire, Howard Hawks and Barbara Stanwyck are among the movie giants who never won a competitive race but received Honorary Oscar acknowledgement. 

Jean Harlow, Jean Arthur, William Powell, Irene Dunne, Carole Lombard, Ann Sothern, Raoul Walsh, Vincent Price, Joel McCrea, Otto Preminger, James Mason, Montgomery Clift and Marlene Dietrich are among the greats who went Oscar-less to celluloid heaven. 
Like Myrna Loy and Edward G. Robinson, I had felt, Maureen O’Hara could be among the few defining Golden Age actors to receive an Honorary Oscar without having been previously nominated.
I was flabbergasted when I first learned that O’Hara had moved to the Boise, Idaho high desert thirty minutes from where I lived. I thought it impossible. This was so different from the Caribbean, where she had once retired to run an airline with her late husband, General Charles Blair, and her beloved Ireland, for which she was a renowned citizen. It seemed incongruous. And I was in the midst of advocating for Maureen O’Hara to receive an Honorary Oscar.
As a teen growing up in Providence, R.I., I had an understanding with my parents about when I could watch television beyond my strict 10:00 PM bedtime. The first dispensation was for the annual Academy Awards show. The second was on March 27, 1957, when “This is Your Life” aired with Maureen O’Hara as the show’s surprised subject, interviewed on the red carpet about “The Wings of Eagles” prior to the Oscar telecast. That night became a double treat. 
Thirty years later, living in Los Angeles, I flew to New York for a special showing of “The Quiet Man,” which she introduced at The Film Society of Lincoln Center.  I hoped to meet her and see if she’d be interested in playing a key role in my production of “Cashel Byron’s Profession,” based on the novel by George Bernard Shaw. She responded to the idea of a Shaw project, with provisions of script approval. I was tongue-tied, standing next to my formidable teen crush. 
I had brought along a favorite image – a painting by Sergio Garguilo used for the lavish trade ad for “Homestretch,” a romantic horse-racing drama with Cornel Wilde from her peak 20th Century Fox period. Garguilo created more film campaigns in more countries than any other artist and in his airbrush rendering of O’Hara, she never looked more enticing, framed within a gold horseshoe. She autographed the piece, which she had never seen. 
Like any worthwhile recognition– an award, a cause, a political position — nothing happens in a vacuum. Everything requires work and imagination, a combination of creativity and that dreaded word, lobbying. My first award attempt began in 1982, when I was incensed that Lillian Gish had yet to be recognized with the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award. The criteria for that honor states: “the recipient should be one whose talent has in a fundamental way advanced the film art; whose accomplishment has been acknowledged by scholars, critics, professional peers and the general public; and whose work has stood the test of time.”
Gish was knowledgeable about every aspect of filmmaking, having learned the craft from silent pioneer D.W. Griffith, who discovered her and made her the leading lady of his most famous and successful films (“Way Down East,” “Orphans of the Storm,” “The Birth of a Nation”). She was a major star of artistic integrity, with a “wild imagination,” wrote Andrew Sarris. After a screening of “A Clockwork Orange,” Gish described it as “a modern ‘Satyricon.'”

In 1925, she signed an exclusive contract with MGM which gave her creative control in choosing story, cast and director. For her deathbed scene in “La Boheme,” she prepared by observing tubercular patients, not drinking for three days and placing cotton in her cheeks to convey her fatal illness. Director King Vidor thought she had actually died when filming it. Gish combined curiosity with commitment. Her mantra, which she stated on important occasions: “What you get is a living. What you give is a life.”
It was outrageous that there should be any question about Gish receiving that recognition. Orson Welles, after being the third recipient, told Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show” that Gish was the person most worthy of being so honored, not him. Not only had she created the art of film acting but she was the tireless spokesperson and catalyst for film preservation. 
Nevertheless I was being discouraged by AFI board members who felt that the full board would never agree on Gish, who was most famous for her superb silent film output, but silents weren’t a ratings draw for CBS. Setting aside two months to campaign in the third year of my Gish compulsion, we approached important film names to write letters on behalf of “the first lady of film,” and in a final effort, I mentioned the oversight to Charles Champlin, the influential film critic and arts editor of The Los Angeles Times. 
Champlin’s column appeared on the morning the decision was to be made. While he persuasively listed the many reasons Miss Gish should be chosen, he wrote that a noble campaign was being waged by me. This was a red flag; acknowledging “a campaign” could alienate board members. I worked behind the scenes and believed in silent strategy. I felt it was now a lost cause.  
In 1984, Lillian Gish became the American Film Institute’s 12th Life Achievement Recipient.
By 2005, Robert Altman had been nominated five times for directing films that had reinvented nearly every movie genre. His previous ensemble piece, 2001’s “Gosford Park,” revitalized the classic British mansion whodunit, was a popular success and received seven nominations, including Best Director. It was a near miss. His newest film, “A Prairie Home Companion,” would be released later that year, but was more challenging than “Gosford Park” and unlikely to get Academy attention.
He was also 80 years old, and I was concerned about his health. The previous year, I began marshaling support but it was too late. Paul Newman advised that there was already a substantial movement for Sidney Lumet. So I vowed to get a head start in spearheading his recognition for the 2005 awards, assisted by PR maven Lois Smith and New York agent Boaty Boatright. There was no question that Altman, who had not only influenced but changed how films could be made, was a choice the Governors had to acknowledge.

Altman knew I wanted this to happen but we never talked about it. During the next three months, everything seemed to fall into place. Then a well-intentioned spoiler questioned whether Altman would be able to accept the award. He was afraid that, like Peter O’Toole, who wanted to win a competitive Oscar, Altman would feel the Honorary Award would be a consolation prize as he was still active and competitive.
Lois Smith woke me with the news that Altman had been asked by an intermediary and declined. He was directing an Arthur Miller play, “Resurrection Blues,” in London and couldn’t be in Los Angeles for the ceremony. He’d rather collect the award at another, more convenient time. 
I couldn’t believe that anyone would force his hand, asking Altman, “Do you want the Honorary Oscar?” I was in a state of shock; Smith, a counselor of calm, moved on. “What can we do?” Kathryn Altman, Bob’s all-knowing wife, confirmed that he had gotten the call and “turned it down instantly. He said he couldn’t be there; it wasn’t the right time. You’ve got your work cut out.”
My call would be among the most difficult I’d ever make – I had to turn Altman around. He was in a rehearsal break when we spoke.  Impassioned, I told him how important it was for filmmakers who looked to him for inspiration…and there was no assurance the circumstances would be the same the following year. He listened without interruption. I recounted our 30 years of friendship. He kept referencing the play; he wouldn’t forego the opening night party.  “Let me worry about the logistics,” I told him. He thanked me for my concern and sincerity, but remained unmoved. 
I needed a practical solution that he couldn’t refuse. “A Prairie Home Companion” was being released by Picturehouse,  the indie subsidiary of Warner Bros., headed by sharp distributor Bob Berney. He understood that Altman being honored at the Oscars could be a significant factor in the film’s release. “Can you get the Warners jet to fly Bob and Kathryn from London to LA?” I asked him. “It would save hours; he could be at the play’s party and then sleep on the plane, refreshed.”
“Done!” was Berney’s answer within the hour. 
More impassioned than ever, I re-stated to Altman why he had to be there; that the jet was eliminating his logistical objections, and, crucially, it was vital for the release of his film. “I’ll keep an open mind,” was all he’d give away. But there was movement. I called Academy president Sid Ganis to alert him that whatever he had heard about Altman not accepting the award wasn’t the case.
Shortly after the Warners jet landed in Los Angeles, Altman directed Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin in a playful, overlapping verbal duet, an Altman trademark. Their introduction ushered in the maestro to a cheering audience. He was thankful for the honor, touching in an appreciation for everything he had experienced in his stormy career and blew a kiss to Kathryn. And then he revealed he had received a young man’s heart in a transplant operation 10 years before, enabling him to continue making movies. It was one of the more entertaining, surprising and dramatic Oscar presentations ever.
Unlike Robert Altman and Lillian Gish, whom I had been close to for many years, I was an unknown to Maureen O’Hara and her family. I thought our proximity would bring us together immediately. Despite the charming picture of O’Hara with her great-grandchildren, Everest and Bailey, that ran on the front page of the Idaho Statesman, the family was very protective of her welfare. She was 92, with troubling arthritis.
Bill Roberts, the Statesman journalist, forwarded my letter of introduction; I tracked down June Beck, who created her website; spoke to a nephew in Sweden; called the John Wayne Birthplace Memorial, where O’Hara was scheduled to appear at a fundraising festival of the five Wayne-O’Hara films. Conor emailed, thanking me for the kind words about his grandmother. No one thought an Oscar would ever happen; she had been discouraged to expect one for decades. A meeting was not in the offing.
Every Academy member I spoke to seemed enthusiastic about her candidacy, but it was important for me to meet her. I needed additional, personal ammunition. Then a message came from Johnny Nicoletti, the co-writer of O’Hara’s best-selling autobiography, “‘Tis Herself,” and a former Silicon Valley innovator. He had become her manager, savvy in industry ways. I repeated that whatever O’Hara had been told in the past, times had changed; the Board of Governors had a different composition. It seemed impossible that O’Hara’s uniqueness had to be re-defined. She had proved her versatility in every conceivable genre, playing mothers, daughters, ingénues, heroines, spies, adventurers.  Hers was the only framed autograph in Scorsese’s office. Spielberg said she gave one of the most memorable female performances in motion picture history in “The Quiet Man.” Lily Tomlin sat through “Sitting Pretty” twice, she laughed so hard. Helen Mirren, Taylor Hackford, Mary Steenburgen and Illeana Douglas were among those entranced by her at the dinner parties hosted by Roddy MacDowall, O’Hara’s great friend since “How Green Was My Valley.”  

I was determined that the Honorary Oscar had to be in her hands.

Finally, Nicoletti called with a date to meet at her home. The family had now accepted what I was doing but didn’t want me to discuss the Oscar possibility with her. Neither did I. I’d work as always – behind-the scenes. Now that I was actually going to visit her, I began to feel like an awkward teenager. I decided to bring along some vintage film posters from my collection, certain she hadn’t seen the artistic European images which captured her beauty and intelligence. A poster show could soothe my tension, break the ice, and entertain her with something new.
I drove towards O’Hara’s house in a new Boise community separated between developments by large areas of open, mountainous space. Was I on the right road? I turned back and began again from the main highway; anxiety stress. Then panic struck: my wallet and drivers license were missing, left behind on the kitchen counter.
It was mid-afternoon when Nicoletti greeted me. Maureen had just finished a three-hour interview and was resting. When I entered her living room, her face was down. All I could see was red hair and a patterned magenta dress. Then O’Hara lifted her head and we locked eyes. Her magnetic eyes dazzled. I was in familiar territory, feeling her charisma.
“This Land is Mine,” Jean Renoir’s American-made drama of French resistance during World War II had recently been televised. It was O’Hara’ third film opposite her mentor Charles Laughton, who launched her career. Renoir held the camera for an extended period on her emotional, varied reactions to Laughton’s courtroom testimony . It transported the audience into that room. Her performance was transcendent.

I asked her about that scene. But as I soon learned, she never spoke of the power of her own work, preferring to discuss the people she worked with, their talent and personalities and the technical details and physical demands she had to conquer.
And there were plenty. For besides being manhandled by her friend and frequent costar John Wayne in “The Quiet Man” and “McClintock!,” she was the first A-list female action star, “The Queen of Technicolor,” the foil in a series of exotic entertainments in which she held her own opposite Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. John Payne, Paul Henried and Olympic fencing champion Cornel Wilde. The president of Technicolor sent her dozens of roses each time she began another adventure film, for he knew her presence ensured box office success. 
It seemed the right time to begin the poster show from my collection. She reacted to each one. I began with French artist Jacques Bonneau’s pastel portrait from the 1940s, showing Maureen with her hair swept back. Next, the Italian poster of Nicholas Ray’s “A Woman’s Secret”  (1949), a fascinating drama of duality captured by Ercole Brini in his signature watercolor style. There was a large image of O’Hara in the foreground, shadowed by a similarly sized Gloria Grahame. Maureen said she didn’t like working with Ray, but was absorbed by the poster, which featured an insert of the classic fight between the two women.
The Italians also came through with the large two-panel for “The Fallen Sparrow” (1943), an underrated film noir in which she’s the villain. Olivetti’s representational portrait of a stunning O’Hara dominates a threatened John Garfield. O’Hara didn’t agree with Garfield’s politics but thought him “a terrific actor whom I liked a lot.”
Something had been gnawing away at her as she kept returning to the first poster, the studio portrait. Then it clicked, “That’s the way I wore my hair in ‘Ten Gentlemen from West Point.’” The Swedish poster for Henry King’s “The Black Swan” was bathed in reds. Shirtless pirate Tyrone Power was the predominant figure, with O’Hara positioned in the right corner, her redder hair accenting the background. I proposed that Gosta Aberg, the Swedish artist, had purposefully used red to re-enforce O’Hara’s presence and that it was the most prominent use of red in any of her posters.
Whether I was sounding too sure of myself or her humor was brewing, she countered, “You’d be surprised!”
I saved “The Quiet Man” for last; it was a three-poster presentation. Clement Hurel’s French poster captured the dynamic between Wayne and O’Hara. She was running away from him, running out of the poster while he held her back by her hair. It had automatic impact. It spoke for itself. She studied it and smiled. Next the small Belgian poster with the two stars facing each other in profile. The bottom third was a portrait montage of Wayne and O’Hara and the three supporting actors – Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen and Barry Fitzgerald. In describing the layout, I chose my words poorly, noting  Maureen was “included again” in those images. 
She called me on that, “what do you mean ‘again?’” I had meant to say the designer had selected a beautiful full face image for the montage portrait, complementing her profile in the poster’s upper third. I was embarrassed but energized to have experienced Maureen O’Hara’s spunk. Saving the Danish “Quiet Man” for last, she viewed the green picturesque Irish landscape that evoked the film’s magical quality. “Sean Thornton” and “Mary Kate Danaher” were poised by the brook in front of their cottage.  Miss O’Hara was pleased…with one caveat, “the cottage may be a bit too modern.”
She said, “I could do this all day.”
Before leaving, I asked if I could kiss her. 
“Of course,” she said.
She then asked me to flatten my hair, which had been mussed up during the poster show.
“You look much better that way.”
John Ford starred Maureen O’Hara in five films: “Rio Grande,” “The Long Grey Line,” “The Wings of Eagles,” “The Quiet Man” and “How Green Was My Valley.”  Ford was notoriously mercurial, a great artist who could be kind, generous and inspiring as well as mean, difficult and sadistic. In a later meeting, she said, “Ford wanted to outdo everyone, wanted to be the best singer, hoofer, fighter, conniver, scoundrel…and he was. He had the devilment.”
We had a Ford connection via Lindsay Anderson, the British critic, filmmaker and provocateur who called Ford “the poet of the cinema.” He had written an esteemed critical analysis — “About John Ford”—and later conducted a rare interview with O’Hara for his Ford documentary. I directed Malcolm McDowell’s portrait of Anderson, “Never Apologize,” in which Anderson described visiting a dying Ford, who cited two close friends who had visited him, Howard Hawks and Henry Fonda, and two who sadly, could not–John Wayne (“in San Francisco making some damn police picture”) and Maureen O’Hara (“she’s in the Caribbean”). In his eulogy to Ford, Francois Truffaut wrote, “Because of him, a splendid actress like Maureen O’Hara was able to play some of the best female roles in American cinema between 1941 and 1957.”

“She brought spirit and humor, unyielding strength and sensitivity even to roles that as written could be as flat as a slice of soda bread,” wrote screenwriter and critic Jay Cocks. “She is a vital part of the greatest poetry of the cinema. There is no one like her or has ever been.”

Yet if one hadn’t been exposed to classic movies, one could have been unaware of O’Hara, impossible as it seems.  She had retired from films in the 70’s and hadn’t appeared on the big screen for another twenty years until director Chris Columbus convinced her to accept the role he created for her in 1991’s “Only the Lonely.” 

Turner Classic Movies and the TCM Festival rectified the omission, recognizing her importance that spring, when Maureen O’Hara became their star attraction. A journalist who had covered every TCM Festival since its inception wrote that the longest festival line he had ever seen was the one waiting for Maureen O’Hara to introduce “How Green Was My Valley.” 

When VANITY FAIR’s “Proust Questionaire” asked what was her most marked characteristic. Her answer: “The hell and fire in me – they came as a set.” In July, she was TCM’s “Star of the Month,” with twenty six of her sixty films on view, interspersed with her interviews with Robert Osborne. New audiences were now able to bask in the O’Hara fire.

Arthur Hamilton, an Academy Governor from the Music Branch, nominated Maureen O’Hara for the Honorary Academy Award.
A former officer of the Board, his words set the tone for her candidacy. The composer and lyricist of “Cry Me A River,”
“Sing A Rainbow,” “He Needs Me” and many other songs, he was expert at conveying meaningful emotion through imaginative imagery. The board was aware of many testimonial letters from Academy members and Oscar winners over the three years we had assembled support. This was the third time Arthur placed her name in nomination. He summed up his feelings with simplicity, recognized Maureen O’Hara’s allure and reminded his fellow Governors that his wasn’t a first-time endeavor.
So the third time was the charm. During the Governors Awards’ career compilation, film clips and photographs flashed by amid tributes from Nicole Kidman and Steven Spielberg, who paid homage with his “Quiet Man” sequence in “E.T.”  O’Hara’s work could have been taken for granted, overlooked by her beauty, which made Melvyn Douglas forget his lines during “A Woman’s Secret.”  Like all the great ones, she made it look easy.
An amalgam of images emerged that night — fury, beauty, passion, romance, sparkle. If there is a common denominator, it’s the bounty of her spirit.  That was joyful to witness at the Governors Awards.
The year’s Oscar contenders were in abundance, attending to the red carpet, mingling with each other at the rear of the Dolby Ballroom during the reception period which spilled into the awards timetable. 

READ MORE: Things I Learned at the 2014 Governors Awards

During the reception and before dinner, the four honorees and their guests held court at long tables at the Ballroom center. (Maureen’s guests included actor-producer Patrick Wayne, representing his late father; actress and animal activist Stephanie Powers, a friend from “McLintock!”; director Chris Columbus and his wife; Elaine Parky, her long-time accompanist; June Beck, the founder and editor of the O’Hara website; friends Donal and Ilene Deasy from Ireland, The Nicolettis and Conor and Elga Fitzsimons and family). Liam Neeson and his party arrived just as dinner was served.
Three people made beelines to Maureen. Hayao Miyazaki, the brilliant, innovative Japanese animator, who was also being honored, walked to her with his translator. The two honorees enjoyed each other, laughing. As Miyazaki left, he placed his palms together and shook his hands three times. His face glowed.
The glow continued through his acceptance speech, when he thanked the Academy for being honored, acknowledging his luck to be “able to participate in the last era when we can make films with pencil, paper and film. But my greatest luck,” he concluded to enthusiastic applause, “is that I was able to meet Miss Maureen O’Hara tonight.”
After Miyazaki, a young woman with long red hair knelt before the wheelchair-bound O’Hara for a deep conversation. As Jessica Chastain turned around, photographers materialized to capture the two redheads; she tapped her hand to her heart, smiling from ear to ear. Then a tall vision appeared in a gold sheath, platinum hair rising, looking like an elegant Statue of Liberty. Tilda Swinton had come to pay her respects. Later the four honorees stood together for final recognition: Miyazaki, O’Hara, Harry Belafonte, and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, who kissed her head.
Before the big night, I had emailed Sid Ganis, the former president of the Academy, a colleague since our young days in New York. Suddenly he was at the table: I introduced him to O”Hara and they sat together, holding hands, like old friends. I had told him that even after being with her on five different occasions, I still felt star struck. Sid wrote back. “I too remain star struck. It’s a good thing.”

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