On Thursday April 25th, 2013, I attended a special screening of South Pacific (1958) at the pool of the historial Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. It began right after the opening night party and I got to hang out with Jessica of Comet Over Hollywood and Kaci. There were drinks and hors d'oeuvres and we got plastic leis before the screening. There were some seats in front of the screen but we opted to sit on the comfy lounge chairs by the pool.
Ben Mankiewicz was the host.
France Nuyen was born in France and came to the United States wanting to pursue her modeling career. Nuyen was a stunning young woman and she still looks beautiful today at the age of 73. In fact, Ben Mankiewicz pointed out that she was one of the most beautiful women in the world. Even with stunning looks, there wasn't much demand for her 5'4" frame and dark complexion in the States. Nevertheless, she had some professional shots of her taken and those photographs got her a meeting with Rodgers, Hammerstein and director Joshua Logan. They were looking for someone to play Liat in the film adaptation of South Pacific. Nuyen stated that went to that meeting and walked out of it with a 7 year contract. She told us that the only thing she had to do for that audition was to take off her shoes and run around a desk.
The studio paid for three weeks of Berlitz English lessons for Nuyen and then sent her off to Hollywood. She was very new to the area and didn't realize that Hollywood was part of Los Angeles. She asked a cab driver to take her to Hollywood and ended up spending $19 which was a lot in 1957. Mankiewicz joked that it would be $1,000 today.
On the set, France Nuyen wanted to look high fashion with full make-up. However, Director Joshua Logan wanted none of that and they took her to the bathroom to wash her face. Nuyen started crying because she thought she would be ugly without her make-up and she says she was lucky that master camera man Leon Shamroy was there to make her look beautiful. Nuyen is seemed really humble. She went on to say that she thought Mitzi Gaynor did a wonderful job as Nellie and called her "marvelous" and is in awe every time she sees the film.
Ben Mankiewicz introduced Mitzi Gaynor very sarcastically saying that Gaynor was dull and nobody wants to hear from her. But he supposes he should introduce her anyways. I really enjoyed Mankiewicz' humor during various interviews. It lightened the mood for sure.
The back and forth between Mankiewicz and Gaynor was hilarious mostly because you could tell that the fiery and energetic Gaynor was more than Mankiewicz could handle. Although I'll have to commend it for doing the best he could to keep the interview on track!
The first thing Mitzi Gaynor was insist that Mankiewicz show the audience his newborn child which he did so reluctantly.
Then Mankiewicz went through a list of all the actresses that were considered for the part of Nellie in South Pacific: Lana Turner, Jeanne Crain, Deborah Kerr, Jane Powell, Kim Novak, Janet Leigh, Dinah Shore, Rosemary Clooney, Virginia Mayo, June Allyson, Shirley Jones, Susan Hayward and Doris Day. But Gaynor beat them all. Gaynor added that Elizabeth Taylor was also considered. Mankiewicz said he had heard that Taylor was too nervous to perform in front of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Gaynor said that she didn't know about that but did know Taylor was very busy getting married and all that. (At this point Gaynor starts rocking in her chair suggestively which Mankiewicz points out to the audience members who might have missed it.)
Gaynor had a really good chance at the role because she could sing and dance well, she looked the part and was young enough at 24. Some of the other actresses considered were much older. Gaynor related that she really wanted to do Sayonara (1957) which was also being directed by Joshua Logan. She thought she could get away with playing an Asian character because of her naturally slanted eyes she got from her Hungarian ancestry. However, Marlon Brando, who was also in the film, demanded that the role go to someone of Asian descent. She notes that Ricardo Montalban got a role in the film. Gaynor then sarcastically pointed out that he's definitely Asian and proclaimed to the audience "That Bitch!". To that Ben Mankiewicz responded to the audience "And then Mitzi Gaynor called Ricardo Montalban a bitch" and there was a roar of laughter.
At this point during the interview, I thought to myself how wonderful it would be to hang out with Mitzi Gaynor. She is just so hilarious and isn't afraid of shocking people.
Mankiewicz asked Nuyen if Gaynor was like this on the set and Nuyen pointed out that she didn't speak English so how would she have known. Gaynor made fun of Nuyen's English, saying it's worse now than it was back then, but quickly followed it up by gushing about Nuyen. Oaynor went on to relate the story of when she first saw Nuyen. She said Nuyen was an exquisite girl, with long dark hair, beautiful skin and gorgeous eyelashes. Then she pointed out that Nuyen is still beautiful and that she hasn't changed at all except that her hair grew in blonde. (See what I mean about having Nuyen come out first being a good idea?).
Gaynor relayed the story about how she got the part of Nellie. She had meeting with director Joshua Logan and her agent husband Jack Bean. They chatted for three hours and it was planned that she would meet Rodgers. Gaynor went onto inform a confused Mankiewicz that Rodgers' wife invented the Johnny Mop. She had left the meeting and went back to work with Frank Sinatra on the film The Joker is Wild (1957). She got a call that she was going to sing for Oscar Hammerstein on a Wednesday but Gaynor was busy trying to film an important scene in the movie with Frank Sinatra. Sinatra noticed her crying and arranged it that they would work around Gaynor's important scene so that she had the opportunity to audition for Hammerstein.
Gaynor performed for Hammerstein who responded to her audition with a "thanks so much you've been a wonderful sport". Not the most encouraging response. Gaynor related Hammerstein's response to Director Joshua Logan. She went on to do the film Les Girls (1957) with Gene Kelly. Gaynor was tired and worn out from all the dancing. She received a call from her husband Jack who asked her if she would feel better spending August in Hawaii because she got the role in South Pacific!
Mankiewicz then asks Mitzi Gaynor about her handsome co-star Rossano Brazzi. Gaynor said she didn't speak very good Italian, restaurant Italian she calls it. She told Rossano Brazzi that he was the most beautiful man and the most wonderful actor in the whole world. Brazzi responded saying "Mitzi Gaynor-i, I know" and grabbed his crotch. Gaynor demonstrated this to the audience in the back and the front to make sure we all saw it. I cracked up laughing this was so funny!
Mankiewicz asked Gaynor what her favorite musical number was in South Pacific. She said "I Think I'm In Love with a Wonderful Guy". Gaynor noted that it was a difficult film to do but Joshua Logan was wonderful and she had fun with that number. Nuyen chimed in saying that she had a lot more to do with the character of Liat in the film than on stage because of the advantage of filming on location and not being limited to a theater.
Mankiewicz asked Nuyen about her memorable love scene with John Kerr. Director Joshua Logan wanted to film that scene with Kerr with his shirt on then his shirt off later which would be a visual clue that they had just made love. A compromise was made for the censors and Kerr would start the scene with his shirt off. Nuyen said that she was the luckiest girl in the world because she got to act with one of the most handsome men in Hollywood. She said that Kerr was glorious and that she misses him very much (John Kerr died a couple months before this interview. It would have been great to have him there alongside Nuyen and Gaynor!).
Mankiewicz points out that while it's a wonderful musical with lots of happy numbers, which the audience will see if Mitzi Gaynor ever shuts up (his words not mine!), that is also explores interracial relationships in a very serious way. Nuyen said that the filmmakers had to fight to be able to keep that plot line in. Gaynor mentioned that Oscar Hammerstein wouldn't have stood for that being changed. She also points out that the Bloody Mary character is selling her daughter like one would peddle dope. Nuyen steps in and says that Bloody Mary dreams of having a white son-in-law,guards her child until she finds the man for her, and that what she was really selling was matrimony. Two very interesting perspectives.
The event finished off with Mankiewicz making a joke about the Clairol commercial "I Want to Wash That Gray Right Out of My Hair", a spoof on the song from South Pacific and introduces the movie.
This was my first time watching South Pacific (1958) and I enjoyed it. It became less than enjoyable when I started to get chills from the cold night time air and being poolside. We eventually moved inside where the film was showing on a small screen inside Club TCM. I'm forever grateful to TCM for doing that and for hosting such a wonderful event!