It’s not every day you find yourself chatting with the legendary Mitzi Gaynor, an entertainer bar none who, at 81, still has an ageless combination of wit, style, humor and, well, sizzle, that she had 55 years ago as kind-hearted romantic Ensign Nellie Forbush, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s forward thinking heroine at the heart of the 1958 movie version of their 1949 musical masterpiece, South Pacific.
Gaynor, an incomparable entertainer who made 15 pictures in Hollywood—including Les Girls, Anything Goes and There’s No Business Like Show Business—before parlaying that success into a sustained, decades long career in television, theater and renowned live shows in Vegas and around the world, is the personification of what Bob Fosse must have meant by the phrase all that jazz. Frank Sinatra once famously described her as “the best of everything all rolled into one.” Indeed.
Looking back at her vibrant, Golden Globe-nominated Nellie, an American wartime nurse stationed in the South Pacific who falls in love with a mysterious Frenchman (played by a well-matched Rossano Brazzi) while confronting issues of racial equality, her iconic musical numbers seem as alive today as ever. “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” “Some Enchanted Evening” and “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy” all feature Gaynor’s superb singing voice and passion for dance (she began both at a very young 13, fibbing about her age and ultimately winning a contract with Twentieth Century-Fox) carrying the picture’s swoony romance and deeper subtext about transcending prejudice.
I caught up with multiple Emmy winner Mitzi Gaynor and film critic and historian Leonard Maltin for a chat about South Pacific that became a broader discussion of both American movies and mores past and present. Maltin, the busiest film critic working today with equally successful careers in both print and on television, is on the Road to Hollywood with Turner Classic Movies. In ten cities with ten different, classic Hollywood icons and their respective films, he and Gaynor made a stop in Chicago for a sold-out showing of South Pacific at the famed Music Box Theatre.
As a journalist, I gave myself permission to be a fan with Mitzi—how could I not? I grew up watching her on television, and South Pacific has always been a favorite picture, a quintessentially splashy romance writ large, transporting exotic locales, both lushly shot and sung, featuring a star turn still fresh more than a half century later.
What is it like seeing South Pacific today, versus when it was released 55 years ago? You must have seen it dozens of times.
Mitzi Gaynor: When it first came out we were on the road with it. My husband and I would do a little shtick with the picture and thank everybody and then sneak out the back, go and eat and then go back to the hotel and go to sleep, and then get up the next morning and fly someplace else. So I haven’t really seen the whole picture all the way through but maybe—in a theater—four times.
Only four times?
MG: Four times. The first time was in New York at the opening with Josh (Logan, director), Oscar (Hammerstein), Dorothy (Rodgers) and Dick (Rodgers). I mean it was all in black tie, and it was very exiting. It really was a thrilling, thrilling time. Then of course, we went on the road with it. So actually sitting down and watching the film, I think I saw it about a month ago on television.
Why do you think the movie has survived?
MG: Because it’s good! The music is fabulous! Rossano (Brazzi) and I are pretty good in it. I think Ray (Walston) is marvelous. It is just a damned good picture and put together gorgeously.
Leonard Maltin: And based on great source material—James Michener’s writing.
MG: Did you know him?
LM: I wish I had.
MG: I did, and his wife. He signed a book for me called The Floating World. Did you know he wrote a book about Japanese art?
LM: I didn’t! Wow.
MG: And when I did South Pacific, I read his book—Tales of the South Pacific—and thought ‘Gee, this is going to be really interesting to put it all together.’
LM: My wife read Hawaii the first time she went to Hawaii, which I’ve heard a lot of tourists do, because you learn the whole background and the history. So you start with that and Rodgers and Hammerstein, at the peak of their powers.
MG: And it was relevant. It was a modern story.
And of course it confronted themes of racism head on. How did that feel in 1958?
MG: A little scary at times. It was kind of a copout when you think of it because Nellie was from the South, and when she meets Rossano’s children, to her they are not Polynesian—they are Black. And of course, that means that he was making love with a Black lady. And you didn’t do that in 1943, because the war wasn’t over yet. Of course this was 1958, so things were a little bit better. But my God—it’s still here, isn’t it?
LM: And of course, that song that Oscar Hammerstein wrote is one of the great songs of all time.
MG: It is. It is not inside of you. You have to be taught, as Cable says.
LM: That was in a mainstream Broadway show and mainstream Hollywood movie before the Civil Rights movement.
MG: He was sending that message out there as he did in many of the other songs that he wrote.
I think those themes were more pronounced in the film, right? I’m not sure they were as overt in the Michener source.
LM: (According to Hammerstein’s son) this was a concern of his since the time he worked on Showboat in the late 1920s, and that is about tolerance. He was very forward thinking.
Mitzi, let’s go back to when you were a very young girl. You were born here in Chicago and then moved to Detroit.
MG: We went to Elgin (Illinois) first.
And what was in Elgin?
MG: My grandmother. I was three.
Do you remember that time? What is your earliest memory?
MG: Yes. It rained. And there was a vacant lot about two houses up or down from ours. And somehow I got out of the house. Why am I not surprised? And I went and jumped in the mud and couldn’t get out! And I started to bellow. My mother, who looked like Marlene Dietrich, said, “Oh my god,” and she would run, with her blonde curls looking absolutely fabulous. It would be like Marlene Dietrich rescuing me, “Oh, daaarling!” So she picked me up and put me in my little red wagon. I remember that.
So you started very young as an entertainer.
As a bellower! (laughs)
And you got to Los Angeles at the tender age of thirteen.
I started young. And I was under contract to Edwin Lester, who was a marvelous man. There is no place today to learn your craft.
LM: He ran the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera Company, and at that time Los Angeles was not considered a theater town, but he brought Broadway quality shows.
MG: South Pacific started out there, as did Three Wishes for Jamie, Magdalena. Anyway, I started out at thirteen and had a part. And then my parts kept getting bigger until I finally did Louisiana Purchase with the original cast.
So this was your dream to do this.
MG: Yes. My father was a musician and my mother was a dancer. I had to do this. But every talent I might have had came from them.
Your storied career has been that of an actress, dancer, singer and much more. In what order do you see those? Which goes first?
MG: I don’t know. It used to be dancer. Then a singer. Then I got sick one time and could not sing, so I talked. It’s funny. I write my own stuff for my show and get an idea and start to elaborate. I don’t give up the original thing, but I start to elaborate so three minutes can become twenty…
LM: I can’t image that.
MG: (Laughs) Oh, no, no! Not much you can’t! On and on and on, and then and then and then! And I babble. I’m not sure. What do you think?
Well, I knew you as an entertainer in the 70s when I was a kid and watching your television specials. I always saw you as a real showstopper; a performer.
Leonard, what about you? You knew you loved movies from a very young age. Did you know that movies would become your life?
LM: Yes. But I didn’t know how. I never gave any thought to how, or practically. I started…
MG: How did you start out?
LM: I loved to write. When I was in the fifth grade, a friend and I started our own publication and the first issue had a circulation of three—it was an original and two copies. So we passed it around. (laughter) Mitzi is laughing because she remembers what carbon paper is. And then we went to a ditto machine and then to a mimeograph machine.
MG: Oh, yes!
LM: So like Mitzi, I found my passion very young, but I never had a career path. I didn’t know what it would be.
MG: What did your father do?
LM: My father was an immigration judge. But his brother had been a songwriter and pianist. He subscribed to Variety, and I used to read that with great fascination. My mother had been a nightclub singer, which she gave up when she got married though she still did club dates. So there was a little bit of show business running through there. But the film thing was mine. I got them interested. I always loved to write, and the more I learned about movie history, the more interested I got and wanted to write about it. But I never sat there and said, ‘Oh, I’m going to write about movies. I am going to get on television.’ All of those things were happy accidents and serendipity. I have been very lucky and very blessed.
Leonard, we both see scores of movies and I have to say that I find them less and less interesting to write about. I think they increasingly exist in a vacuum and have no larger context or connection to things in the world, recognizable human behavior and the rest. It’s all productized.
LM: Yes. And then every now and then something comes along like a Silver Linings Playbook…
Or Beasts of the Southern Wild.
LM: …or Life of Pi, Lincoln or Zero Dark Thirty. They all came at the end of the year and they kind of restored your faith a little bit, especially the indie films that came out of left field, like Jeff Who Lives at Home, which I loved, and Safety Not Guaranteed.
LM: That’s where I get the most satisfaction much of the year—watching foreign language films, documentaries and independent films—because the Hollywood pickings are pretty slim.
Mitzi, what would you say was the highest point of your career? Or even the very best part of what you do as an entertainer?
MG: I don’t really know. I think I’m still looking. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything totally right, yet. Pretty good. But ten out of ten? No.
When did you have the most fun? Was it South Pacific?
South Pacific was. I loved it. Rossano and Jack and I became really good friends. And of course, Rossano would curse Josh out because (in thick Italian accent), ‘You know, the man does not understand me, Mitzi! I wanted to sing! But he wouldn’t let me sing!’ I said, ‘Rossano, baby, no.’ He sang, ‘I dream of the summertime…’ (laughter) I said, ‘But darling, people don’t…’ And then, ‘Some enchanted evening…’ He said, ‘He’s American! What does he know about the singing?’
LM: Are you the only person who does your own singing in that movie?
MG: Ray Walston, also. I’ve got a story about this. My friend, Paul went to the first matinee at the opening of South Pacific at the Egyptian. During the intermission, he had to go to restroom. While he was standing there waiting in line, a guy says, ‘So what do you think?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know, what do you think?’ And Paul was just beaming because he was my best friend. And the gentleman says, ‘Do you know that Mitzi Gaynor is the only person who doesn’t sing for herself?’ Paul said, ‘How dare you?!’ True story.
What will be next for Mitzi Gaynor? You’ve done it all.
I’d like to write a book, but there isn’t anybody alive anymore that I can say, ‘Ask so-and-so.’ They are all gone. So I guess you can really get away with anything. But I have hair-curling stories of good stuff. I also wonder if I can do it by my own hand.
LM: I’d sure like to read it. And I’m not just saying that. I would. Oh, I hope you do that. I really do.
MG: People have offered to help me with it, but I don’t want to have it be ‘As told by…’
LM: No, it should be your voice.
MG: But you know how I talk. You really have to be good at what you do to put together what I say!
LM: So you need an editor.
MG: Yes. To put it right. Do you remember the two Ronnies on English television?
LM: Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett.
MG: The little one would start to tell a joke and four hours later… I mean, the first time I saw it I roared! I thought he sounded just like me. Not that I was funny. But once I get started…
Before we wrap, I think my favorite scene in South Pacific is between you, Mitzi, and Rossano right before intermission: ‘Don’t follow me to the jeep.’ It never fails to get me choked up. What do you remember about that scene?
MG: Oh god, yes. ‘No, no. No. I’m fine. I’m fine!’ Oh, yes. All of our dialogue had to be dubbed because of the noise and because of Josh (Logan, director) jingling his keys and saying, ‘Nellie, listen to me. No! Move to the right a little bit. Leon (Shamroy, cinematographer), move that!’ That it came off at all is amazing! The camera had like a tea cozy on it, and it could only be in there for so many minutes and they had to take it out.
LM: Oh, wow.
MG: Leon did not get along terribly well with Josh.
LM: Leon was famously feisty!
MG: That we got it done at all, sometimes you just wonder. They had to send the film all the way back to California, so when Josh saw some of the colors and so on, he said, ‘That has to change.’ It was too late. We had shot an awful lot of film. The only things we did at home were things in the captain’s office and hospital.
The movie has that grand, sweeping sentiment of fate and love and commitment—the promise of a life together for two people who are destined for each other. It seems that we’ve lost that today, in society and the movies. In South Pacific and perhaps in 1958, people may have been focused on finding a person to love, to start a family with, to have children. Today things are focused on immediate gratification and often children are merely a byproduct and of that, and commitment isn’t a goal because divorce is a fine alternative. Even in the movies we don’t see that romantic passion anymore.
LM: There’s a wonderful book about marriage in the movies written by an old friend of mine, Jeanine Basinger, named I Do and I Don’t. And she goes all the way back to silent movies and then to the present day. And there is very little to write about in the last thirty years because of this upheaval in society. Marriage is no longer the endgame or necessary goal. You can have kids and sex without marriage. So the whole playing field has changed. But you see that they still insist on making romantic comedies. They don’t make them as well, but people still have that ideal. And when they go to the movies, they still want some idealized vision of what life can be. In Silver Linings Playbook, which deals with heavy stuff like bipolar disorder, you are rooting for these two broken people to get together.
MG: Yes, to mend each other and become whole.
LM: So I don’t think the audience expectations have changed that much even though our mores have changed.
MG: And our manners have certainly changed.
But certainly the idea of the romantic gesture isn’t seen much anymore.
LM: Not often. But when it’s there, people respond to it.
MG: But then again, we don’t know how long they are going to be married either. The ring on a finger used to mean something, but now it’s not as true.
And they say the divorce rate is 51%.
MG: See, I’m Catholic, so you don’t do stuff like that. It’s hard. I was lucky when I met my husband. He was the man for me. He was my everything—the love of my life, my husband, my brother, my son, my child. He was the works.
Did you know that right away?
MG: Oh, yes.
LM: And he was also your manager and producer.
MG: Yes, whatever I needed. When he died, I didn’t know if I could be Mitzi Gaynor anymore. It wasn’t fun. It was bad. Now, I have two or three girlfriends who lost their husbands around the same time and they have been married and divorced already! And listen, I still wear my wedding ring. I am a married lady. I liked to be married. And as far as morals are concerned, I would live in the old-fashioned way. I never had a bunch of boyfriends. I never went to bed just to go to bed ever. EVER. Of course, being a Virgo too, I have to have a real desire and be madly in love to even have a cup of coffee! But then again, that’s me. As modern as I try to be, in my mind I am very old-fashioned. You just don’t do it. And you don’t walk out on the street looking like a dog! If your dog looks better than you do, you’re in trouble.
LM: Do you see how people go to the theater?
MG: Awful! (laughter) Coming in to Chicago yesterday from California, where it is warm, this lady was wearing this little thing and said, ‘Oh, my god, it’s cold!’ I mean what do people think? It’s Chicago! Oh, God. Life goes on, doesn’t it?
Special thanks to Mitzi Gaynor and Leonard Maltin