Mitzi Gaynor Talks About Celebrating South Pacific's 50th Anniversary
What can one do but stand in awe of the legendary accomplishments of Mitzi Gaynor! Motion picture star of over 17 films, including her Golden Globe nominated performance as Nellie Forbush in the 1958 blockbuster musical South Pacific, TV star of 9 spectacular musical specials that garnered 17 Emmy nominations, and night club performer extraordinaire in Las Vegas and touring the entire US and Canada, this lady has done it all. As part of this season's month long tribute to Richard Rodgers by Reprise Theatre Company and to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Joshua Logan's film South Pacific, Miss Gaynor will appear onstage this Thursday, October 15 at the Majestic Crest Theatre in Westwood. As well as a stellar performer, she is also the President of the Professional Dancers Society. Via phone, Gaynor excited me with the same high energy and enthusiasm that has remained her trademark for six decades. She is genuine, personable and caring with that vivacious charm that we have all come to associate with Nellie. What caught me off guard was her incredible -sometimes salty- sense of humor.
Q: I understand you just visited Kauai for the first time since filming South Pacific there?
MG: It was such fun. I have to tell you this story. Do you have a minute? When we did the picture, Rossano Brazzi and his wife Lydia were the Italian "I Love Lucy". She weighed about 300 lb and she had great big golden... huge boobies. You'd hear in the morning (in her best Italian accent) "Rossano, you international son-of-a-bitch!" "Lydia, I love it when you make love to me!" I used to say, "Grazi, grazi!" He'd answer, "Prego, Mitzi!" I'd say, "You know Rossano, you are the handsomest, most gorgeous foreign leading man that has ever lived!" He's say, "Mitzi Gaynore, I know!" We used to call Lydia Saint Francis, because she was always saving the animals on the island. One time she found two little tiny kittens, put one on her breast and said "This is a boob pissy and this one's a pussy". (I laugh heartily.) It was amazing that we got the picture done. Just think what Josh (Logan) had to go through. First of all, it was in Todd-AO, they had a new kind of sound...every director in the business wanted to do the picture, no one had ever been to the island of Kauai before...and who were we? Rossano was a dramatic actor and I had always done high-kick musicals.
Q: Do you have one specific memory that shows a challenge in shooting the film?
MG: The crew was amazing...one time, God was really with us...the day we were about to shoot the scene with "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair". The sun was up, they dropped the needle on the record, I pulled the chain and the water came out, took the shampoo, started to pour it on my head - (sings) "I'm Gonna Wash That Man..."and the shampoo gets in my eyes. Cut. "Save the eyelashes!" I remembered when Rossano and I were in the car going onto location, there was a general store on the highway, just a little shack, and in the window there was a bottle of Johnson & Johnson's Baby Shampoo. Two hours drive there and two hours drive back to the set. All in one day. So, Johnson & Johnson saved the day. How did I remember that? I'm a great believer in what's supposed to be.
Q: Tell me about your part in the Richard Rodgers celebration. You are going to host a screening of South Pacific this Thursday in Westwood, isn't that correct?
MG: I think this whole Richard Rodgers thing is a fabulous idea. You know South Pacific's on Blu-ray now? Imagine! I'll do a short onstage interview before the film. I'll talk a little about the film and...
Q: Tell them some funny stories. What about your association with Bob Mackie through the years? How did that come about?
MG: We've known each other for 45 years. In 1966 I was going to do a special with Danny Thomas called My Home Town, which was Metro Studios, because he did a lot of pictures at Metro. There was a costume designer named Ray Aghayan. He's Persian and he talks like this (affects a rich Persian accent) and smokes cigarettes with two fingers like that. He's brilliant. I told him he did the most beautiful sketches. "I should only look like these sketches!" "Darling", he said "I have no time to do sketches. My partner does the sketches. His name is Bob Mackie." In the end the clothes turned out like the sketches, which very seldom happens. So, fade out, I'm going to do a new act. I callEd Ray, and he said, "I'm up to my ass in Judy Garland, so I cannot do it. But remember I showed you those sketches?" I'm in rehearsal above the Coronet Theatre on La Cienega and Bob Mackie was supposed to come and see me. I'm standing there in my leotard and the sash around my waist, which is the same color as my leotard...and my 4-inch heels. A knock came at the door and in walked this young blond-headed guy, Bob Mackie. We've been together ever since. We're family, he and I.
Q: I recently saw The Joker Is Wild (1957, directed by Charles Vidor and starring Frank Sinatra) on TCM (Turner Classic Movies). You had a totally dramatic role, which was quite a switch for you; you were terrific in it!
MG: Thank you so much. Nobody's ever told me that. You got a minute? Let me tell you a story. I met with Josh Logan and he said "Hello, Nellie!" and sent me to meet Richard Rodgers. Rodgers said to me, "That's a beautiful mink coat you're wearing." I said, "Thank you. My husband gave it to me for our third anniversary." We had tea, spent a lovely few hours in front of the fire in his library and later Josh told me he wanted Oscar (Hammerstein) to see me in California. I went back and started filming The Joker Is Wild. Josh called Jack (Bean) and said Oscar's going to be in town on Thursday. So I went to director Charlie Vidor - a fellow Hungarian - and said I had a chance to sing for Oscar Hammerstein for South Pacific. Vidor said, "We can't. Thursday's the big casino day and we've already hired about a hundred and fifty extras. That's a big scene for my character, who says to Frank (Sinatra) "Joe, can't we please get a divorce so we can be friends?" So, Frank walks by and he said, "What's up, baby?" I said " I have a chance to sing for Oscar Hammerstein for South Pacific on Thursday." He asked Charlie (Vidor), "What's going on Thursday?" "The big casino scene." " Should we shoot around Mitzi?" "That's up to you Frank?" Frank turned to me and said, "OK, honey, we'll shoot around you. Go and get the job!" Frank was so wonderful to let me go. I went and went crazy, I had such a good time!
Q: Well, you got the part. No one could have done better!
MG: Well, I don't know about that, Don. I did sing in the right key; that's very important for those who write for Broadway. And I had the same kind of inflections. So, Oscar and Richard had a lot to say about that. And Josh... could work with me. He was my champion.
Q: Getting back to Joker. Did doing that give you the desire to play heavier, more dramatic roles?
MG: This is the way I look at it. There are so many really good dramatic actresses that are not working right now. And there are many who cannot sing and dance and shake their butt...and I really enjoy that. I'm dramatic enough at home. I can carry on a Hungarian fit (ha, ha, ha!). the likes of which you've never seen anything like that. I bring my own fiddles, really, my own gypsies. I've really had no desire to do those roles, and I've been asked to. It gives me great joy to be with people. I love that wonderful contact you have with an audience. They're like your friends and family.
Q: Who's your favorite movie star?
MG: Meryl Streep is a phenom. She can do anything better than anyone else. Judd Hirsch is a fabulous actor. And my favorite actress of all time? Betty Grable, because she was brilliant. Not brilliant in that she was a great actress, but... I was so in love with her...and Rita Hayworth was so fabulous.
Q: You love glamour. What about your new night club act?
MG: Mitzi Razzle Dazzle. I'm alone and I have eight costume changes, and I tell you my life story on and on and on...songs that progressed the story. There's a whole South Pacific section, a whole section when I got dropped from Fox, how I started out in San Francisco in the Civic Light Operas, how I was groomed to be a dancer and a singer...and funny anecdotes about...it's hard for a woman to go on location, especially if you're supposed to be an army nurse in the 50s. You had to wear a girdle and stockings. If you had to go to the john, pardon the expression, you had to get into a car and drive someplace to go, because the honeywagons were far from the set, they just were...
Q: Will we get a chance to see this new show in LA?
MG: We'll see. You're always a bum in your own home town.
Q: Everybody loves you here!
MG: Bless your heart, we'll see, we'll see. Don, thank you for being so warm.
Q: Thank you!
Screening of the film South Pacific with special guest Mitzi Gaynor star of the film - October 15 at the Majestic Crest Theatre @ 1262 Westwood Blvd, Westwood, CA 90024
Tickets are available at reprise.org or by calling 310.954.1595 (the Rodgers Celebration Ticket Line).