Another voice has been added to the cacophony of actresses revealing their abuse at the hands of Hollywood’s systemic misogyny. But, unlike the dozens of women who have been compelled to speak out since the first New York Times dossier on Harvey Weinstein was published on October 5, Maureen O’Hara was calling out sexist behaviour in 1945.
The Irish-born actress, best known for starring with John Wayne in The Quiet Man, was one of the most famous stars in 1940s Hollywood, but revealed in an interview that producers and directors called her “a cold potato without sex appeal” when she refused their advances.
The quotes in a newspaper clipping from The Mirror, which has now gone viral, ring the same bells as so many of the post-Weinstein accounts – women judged solely on their appearance, their bodies viewed as currency by powerful men, voices suppressed and careers threatened by a refusal to submit.
“I am so upset with it that I am ready to quit Hollywood. It has got so bad, I hate to come to work in the morning,” she said over 70 years ago. “I’m a helpless victim of a Hollywood whispering campaign. Because I don’t let the producer and director kiss me every morning or let them paw me, they have spread word around town that I am not a woman – that I am a cold piece of marble statuary.
Of course, it is no surprise that this subjugation of women has been endemic for decades in Hollywood, but there is something especially bleak about reading O’Hara’s comments when they could easily have been made last week – not just 72 years ago. What’s changed? We know now that no progress has been made and here is the evidence in literal black and white newsprint.
It is a mythology that, in the past, women did not know they were being abused; that times were different then; that certain behaviour was more acceptable – or that everyone was better at taking a joke. But the biggest myth is that women were not vocal about it, as O’Hara’s interview proves.
The truth is that no one listened.
Because I don’t let the producer and director kiss me every morning or let them paw me, they have spread word around town that I am not a woman – that I am a cold piece of marble statuary
No one tuned in when she said: “I guess Hollywood won’t consider me as anything except a cold hunk of marble until I divorce my husband, give my baby away and get my name and photograph in all the newspapers. If that’s Hollywood’s idea of being a woman, I’m ready to quit now.”
No one acted when she suffered at the hands of the dictatorial director John Ford, whose behaviour was reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s abuse of Tippi Hedren – a relationship forged by perceived ownership, obsession and central power imbalance. Ford once hit O’Hara in the face at a party.
No one cared about the open secret of Hedren’s own suffering and sexual assault under the controlling and cruel Hitchcock. No one listened when Marilyn Monroe wrote about Hollywood as “an overcrowded brothel” and warned a young Joan Collins of the “wolves” in the industry.
Or when Judy Garland was groped, or a producer exposed himself to a 12-year-old Shirley Temple. In 1956, when a British publication called Picturegoer ran an investigation called The Perils of Show Business – an expose of the casting couch – the papers didn’t pick up the story.
O’Hara’s experiences stayed with her. She talked about her treatment again in 2004 when, aged 83, she told The Daily Telegraph: "I wouldn't throw myself on the casting couch and I know that cost me parts. I wasn't going to play the whore. That wasn't me."
She also gave short shrift to the suggestion that her looks were responsible for her success after spending much of her career known as “the Queen of Technicolour”. She spoke up for herself: "I proved there was a bloody good actress in me. It wasn't just my face. I gave bloody good performances."
O’Hara died in 2015, before Weinstein was outed and the world beyond Hollywood learnt, without any uncertainty, that the casting couch was never consigned to the past. We hope it is a watershed moment, but we had the opportunity to address the issue before – and we failed.
Being Irish, red-headed and famously self-assured, O’Hara often suffered the unfair labelling of being “feisty” and “fiery”. Today, she might be called a “nasty woman”. Either way, her voice wasn’t heard – and the wheel of abuse continues to turn.