Acting Irish in Hollywood

Michael O'Sullivan reviews Acting Irish in Hollywood: from Fitzgerald to Farrell by Ruth Barton, ISBN 9780716533443, €25 pbk

Acting Irish in Hollywood

THE ONLY valid reason for putting a collection of essays like this together must be because there has been a significant and distinctively Irish contribution to Hollywood film- making which goes beyond mere national stereotyping. Ruth Barton is conscious of this, and works hard to identify such a tradition.

In a scholarly and well-argued discussion, beginning in the 30's with Barry Fitzgerald, the careers of ten great Hollywood actors, three of them women, and all born in Ireland, are analysed in terms of what Barton calls, "a framework that allows for an exploration of the Irish experience of stardom".

The chief defining factors of her 'framework' are emigration, exile, ethnicity and media portrayal, with authenticity of speech, particularly accent, assigned a crucial role.

Stereotyping was the order of the day. She outlines how exiled Irish actors were expected to perpetuate on the screen the popular media image of the Irish as wild, wayward and feckless, in other words to act the 'Stage Irishman'. Central to her exploration is the extent to which this 'acting Irish' contributes to perceptions of an Irish national identity.

In her introduction, Barton acknowledges that there will be "an element of biography" in the work. And she does allow biographical digressions to intrude enough at some crucial points to seriously interrupt the analytical flow of her narrative.

But we should also be grateful to Barton for this, because as well as discussing the cultural contributions of the better-known actors, such as Richard Harris, Stephen Rea and Gabriel Byrne, she introduces us to some fascinating though now all-but forgotten figures from Hollywood's past.

A major discovery is George Brent, (1904-1979), a shopkeeper's son from Ballinasloe who became a despatch rider for Michael Collins during the war of independence. Wanted by the British he fled to America, landed an acting contract in Hollywood and became famous playing romantic lead roles opposite the likes of Bette Davis and Ruth Chatterton.

Limerick born Constance Smith, (1928-2003) is a different story. Talented but unpredictable, she shot to fame with Fox in the late 40's, becoming something of a Hollywood rival to Maureen O'Hara, (another of Barton's subjects), only to go disastrously off the rails later through drink and depression

Thoroughly researched and packed with interesting detail this is a significant and original contribution to the history of the Hollywood Irish.

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