The small yet achingly tender feature film MUSEUM HOURS is the source of small celebration, in part due to one of the names above the title: Mary Margaret O’Hara. Her name might not ring a bell, but since the end of the ‘80s she has amassed an eclectic CV as a character actress, voiceover artist, illustrator, and composer of film scores.
Fans of alternative rock make up her biggest fanbase. Miss America, O’Hara’s solo debut, hit the record racks in 1987, moved a microscopic number of units, and was deleted as quietly as it was released. In the three decades since its first appearance, a chorus of praise for the record and for O’Hara’s idiosyncratic and deeply personal approach to songwriting has grown louder and more harmonic with every passing year.
The seventh and youngest daughter of a Toronto-based family, O’Hara first became interested in music through her parents’ record collection. In her early adulthood, she took on cameos in a few films and appeared opposite her sister in an episode of SCTV. However, she was most known for her appearances on the concert stage. As the frontwoman for Go Deo Chorus, her free-associative concerts became legendary. According to Joe Franklin of The Impryan Emporium, “she would flail neurotically on stage, ad-libbing songs into a bewilderment of repetitive confusion and then suddenly bring it all down into an acoustic subtlety over which her voice would become awe-inspiringly pure and elegant.”
After Go Deo disbanded, O’Hara signed with Virgin Records, who promised creative control. According to her collaborators, the sessions that followed ranged from fantastic to frustrating. (Virgin had appointed Andy Partridge to produce the album, but he was unprepared for O’Hara’s undisciplined approach and walked off the project.) Musical polymath Michael Brook agreed to produce O’Hara’s album on the strength of a live show in 1986.
The resulting album, Miss America, came out the following year. The off-kilter jazz of O’Hara’s songs and her force-of-nature vocals pirouetted through several genres, from late-night torch ballads, through hymns, and into a galumphing take on country rock. Though the album attracted the attention of Michael Stipe, Rickie Lee Jones, and Bruce Cockburn, promoters and radio programmers were stymied about how to promote it. Miss America sold far less than albums by her labelmates Lenny Kravitz and Janet Jackson, and she was dropped from the label after she refused to tour. Twenty years after the album’s release, O’Hara was still disappointed in Virgin’s response to her record: “…for Virgin to go from, ‘You can do whatever you want’, to ‘What have you done?’ – that was tough.”
In the wake of her departure from Virgin, O’Hara took on the role of a musician’s musician. She sang backup for Morrissey on “November Spawned a Monster” and performed some of her “lost” songs with Toronto ensemble The Henrys. She also branched further out into film and theatre work by taking on more substantial roles in Canadian films and TV series. According to Pitchfork, O’Hara “stole the show” in a 2005 stage production of Tom Waits’ The Black Rider.
Her onscreen appearances frequently find her playing whimsical bag ladies, as in the romantic comedy APARTMENT HUNTING. MUSEUM HOURS does not share that outwardly playful tone. Instead, the film depicts a connection between Johann (Bobby Sommer), a guard at the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum in Vienna, and Anne (O’Hara), a Canadian woman visiting her terminally ill cousin.
The film touches elliptically on Anne’s past in Toronto, but many aspects of her character’s life – such as her background in music and the love she has for her family – dovetail with what we know of O’Hara. This is not the kind of glamorous role associated with singers-turned-actresses, however. O’Hara never wears makeup in the film; her hair is arranged in a frowsy topknot, and her wardrobe looks like something she assembled from her bedroom floor. Judging by her appearance, she looks more like a member of your book club or the woman ahead of you on the T than she does a legendary chanteuse. What little she mentions of her life suggests a lonely transience, like the money she had to borrow to get to Vienna and her work as a barmaid back in Toronto. Writer/director Jem Cohen doesn’t give her the big, triumphant arc that you might expect from a more accessible film; instead, he suggests that the friendship she forges with Johan is redemptive enough. Though O’Hara’s busy, unpredictable singing style might suggest an affectatious onscreen presence, the subtlety of her performance, with her garrulous, murmuring line readings and placid movements, draws you in and makes you want to know more about Anne. At the close of the film, Cohen even gives O’Hara the opportunity to sing.
MUSEUM HOURS opened to great acclaim on the festival circuit, with O’Hara’s performance being singled out for praise. However, she has not announced a follow-up to her appearance in either music or film. Her followers revel in her all-too-infrequent jaunts in the public eye. With the success of MUSEUM HOURS, one can only hope that Mary Margaret O’Hara will give us an encore.