The photograph on the cover of Maureen O'Hara's lively memoir summons up an era of movie stars that is light-years away from today's: an age of long, undulant red tresses, of swashbucklers and action heroines, above all of a particular brand of glamour. In the words of the great Irish poet, W.B. Yeats: "A thing never seen again."
It was the era of Rita Hayworth, of "Oomph Girl" Ann Sheridan, of that other Irish Maureen -- co-star with Johnny Weissmuller in those Tarzan movies -- O'Sullivan, sometimes mixed up with the author of this book.
But anyone reading O'Hara's forthright and distinctive memoir " 'Tis Herself" is unlikely to confuse this Maureen with any other.
As O'Hara remarks near the end of her book, at age 83 she is known to young people now because of cable's American Movie Classics and Turner Classic Movies, which often show her swashbuckling cinema exploits from the late 1930s and 1940s. " 'Tis Herself" provides a clear-eyed portrait of the realities of life as a star in those distant days.
Discovered early in her career in Ireland and England and brought to Hollywood by Charles Laughton, even someone as lucky as O'Hara was at the mercy of the system in which actors were traded among the studios like any other commodity. Neither their artistic aspirations, their personal convenience nor even their health seemed to matter to the powers that were (and all-powerful they were, as presented by O'Hara).
Sometimes this power was wielded benevolently: Immigration restrictions that threatened O'Hara's continuing residence in the United States at the outbreak of war in Europe were swept aside for her. But overall, one is left with the impression that, notwithstanding her great success in such pictures as "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," "How Green Was My Valley" and "The Quiet Man," O'Hara's career choices were often thwarted because the studios' priorities trumped hers.
Others have certainly written about this aspect of old Hollywood, but few have done so more trenchantly and disarmingly than she does.
O'Hara's accounts of her enduring friendship with her co-star John Wayne and her complex (to say the least!) relationship with her greatest director, John Ford, are rendered unflinchingly and memorably. Similarly, the tales of her three very different marriages are vivid; whether exploring the unaccountability of the first, the protracted agony of the second or the all-too-short bliss of the third, she is convincing and sympathetic.
Would that everything else in the book were like this! As with all books that employ the "with someone else" writing method, it is hard to know which auteur to blame. Whoever is at fault, much of the book's tone is unfortunate, its voice too often harsh, unpleasant and unforgiving.
No slight seems too trivial to be irrigated and, if possible, avenged, from the nastiness of the nuns who taught her in Ireland to unwanted passes from (among others) the husband of that other Maureen, director John Farrow.
Modesty is not a concept with which she seems familiar (she likes to brag), and self-righteousness is often to the fore. She hasn't much sense of humor either, and when she is the subject of the full force of teasing from that master of the art, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, she is clueless.
Then there is the matter of her Irishness, which she wields with a heavy hand. At times, she comes across as a kind of caricature Irishwoman, exhibiting qualities more associated with the Blarney stone than with political realities. Mentioning that Portugal was neutral in World War II, she forbears to mention Ireland's neutrality in that conflict, perhaps because it doesn't fit the image of her country she is trying to purvey.
The ludicrousness of her particular brand of Irish grandstanding reaches its apotheosis in her self-important account of her battle to be recognized as an Irish citizen rather than a British subject in the process of her naturalization as an American.
Politics are generally not O'Hara's strong suit, but when she credits her case with making Irish Prime Minister Eamon de Valera rush to Washington in order to resolve the situation, she slights that statesman's two-decades-long, complicated, dedicated struggle to break Ireland's ties with the British king. De Valera would finally achieve this three years after O'Hara's well-publicized tantrum. Can she really believe her actions and the attendant publicity played a significant role in this complicated constitutional contortion?
But it is O'Hara's propensity for ascribing homosexual tendencies to people she really dislikes that is most disturbing. This outmoded attitude, which was so much a part of the bad old days in Hollywood, reminds one that not everything about them is to be missed.
As someone who had the guts to take on Confidential magazine, which had viciously slandered her (among so many others) during its mini-reign of terror, O'Hara should know better. Such gibes are unworthy of her, her career and what is, for the most part, a book worth reading.