The five words that got the most thunderous ovation at the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival:
“Ladies and gentlemen, Maureen O’Hara!”
On the surface, at least, the woman at the center of all the fuss was having none of it. As the applause in the El Capitan Theater melded with whistles, hoots and cheers, the 93-year-old O’Hara, now visibly frail and in a wheelchair, shook her head and threw her arms out in front of her in a gesture that said emphatically, “Aw, g’wan witcha!”
“I think they like you,” said TCM host Robert Osborne, who joined her onstage to introduce How Green Was My Valley.
“They like applauding!” she laughed, her voice thick with emotion.
Osborne’s first question seemed safe enough: “So Maureen, tell us about John Ford, what he meant to you…”
But sounding every inch like Mary Kate Danaher, O’Hara turned to the audience and playfully harrumphed, “I thought I was here to talk about me!”
The chastened Osborne chuckled, made a motion to zip his lips, and tried again: “What I mean is, What did John Ford mean to Maureen O’Hara?”
“Well,” she said, softly dabbing her eyes and nose with a tissue, “I knew him and his family very well, and he’d tell us how, when there was the next call for Hell, he’d see to it that we didn’t answer. And you know, I still think about it, and I hope he still means it! But anyway, I’m still here, and I’m quite an old age now…”
“But you’re kind of ageless to us,” Osborne interrupted, as the cheers rose again.
O’Hara smiled and leaned back, letting it all wash over her. “Well, I hope that it’s true that we do live wa-a-ay beyond the years that God gives us on earth, and that way, we can have Saturday night every weekend!”
This time, the rapturous response summoned up a bit of a sermon from her. “Don’t laugh and applaud and think it means nothing,” she warned. “Believe me, God is listening all the time, and he’s listening to see if He can catch you doing something you shouldn’t be doing. And please God, every one of you will do everything you’re supposed to do better than you’re supposed to do it, and that you have a wonderful old age. And for God’s sake, don’t make fun of it!”
It’s funny how when the nuns told me stuff like this, it drove me crazy. But coming from Maureen O’Hara…
“Do you know what a gift you’ve given us by being here?” said Osborne, trying to steer the conversation in a more earthly direction.
“Well don’t be fooled into thinking I do magical things!” she protested.
“But you kinda do,” Osborne insisted. “You’ve done magical things up there on the screen…” And again, a wave of applause crested over the actress. “Well,” she said, no longer even trying to catch the tears as they fell, “now you’ve taken all my strength away.”
Which really seemed to be true. After only a few rare and lovely moments, O’Hara was losing focus, and her energy appeared to be winding down, in a way that anyone with quite elderly loved ones would recognize right away. Osborne picked up on it immediately and cut the conversation a bit shorter than perhaps it was intended to be.
It left me wondering how much the trip had taken out of her. She was determined to come, and TCM had arranged a private jet for her, taking every care to minimize the stress and strain of the journey.
And it was such a joy for us to see her. But I wonder if it was worth it for her. She was deeply moved by all the love surrounding her in that room, but I hope it didn’t come at too high a price for her to pay.