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On Wednesday evening, I had the great pleasure of spending some time with Mitzi Gaynor, the irrepressible actress-singer-dancer whose career began during Hollywood’s Golden Age and continues to this day. I met the 81-year-old, who is as sprightly as ever, near the pool at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, where an outdoor screening of South Pacific (1958), the film with which she is most closely associated, followed by a Q&A with its leading lady, subsequently helped to open the fourth annual TCM Classic Film Festival on Thursday night. The fest will continue through Sunday.
Over the course of our interview — highlights of which you can see in the video above — we discussed her more than half-century-long career, starting with her years at Darryl F. Zanuck‘s 20th Century Fox, where her last name was changed from Gerber and she and Marilyn Monroe competed to succeed Alice Faye and Betty Grable as the resident blonde bombshell. (In fact, the two appeared alongside each other in the 1954 musical There’s No Business Like Show Business.)
Gaynor was indisputably one of the great beauties of the fifties — right up there with the decade’s other killer “M’s,” Marilyn, [Jayne] Mansfield and Mamie [van Doren], among others — but great roles seemed to elude her for a number of years. She came close to playing Ado Annie in Fred Zinnemann‘s Oklahoma! (1955), but that ultimately went to Gloria Grahame; Katsumi in Joshua Logan‘s Sayonara (1957), before Marlon Brando decided to cast an Asian actress, Miyoshi Umeki, who wound up winning an Oscar; and Lola in George Abbott and Stanley Donen‘s Damn Yankees! (1958), which was written for her but which she had to cede to Gwen Verdon due to a contractual obligation to another studio.
Still, she plugged away opposite some of the era’s greatest musical talent, including Bing Crosby and Donald O’Connor in Robert Lewis‘s Anything Goes (1956), Gene Kelly in George Cukor‘s Les Girls (1957) and Frank Sinatra in Charles Vidor‘s The Joker Is Wild (1957). And it was the kindness of Sinatra that made it possible for her to audition for — and ultimately win — the widely coveted female lead in Logan’s epic South Pacific: Nellie Forbush, a young American nurse from Little Rock who meets and falls in love with a mysterious French painter on a Pacific island during World War II. (In the film Gaynor famously sings, “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair.”)
South Pacific would become the third highest-grossing film of the fifties, receive three Oscar nominations (winning one) and bring Gaynor a Golden Globe nomination for best actress in a musical or comedy. But, with the musical genre rapidly fading, Gaynor would make only three more films. By the beginning of the sixties, she had shifted her focus from movies to live performance, and was the star of one of the first big nightclub acts to pass through Las Vegas. It was to perform a 13-minute portion of this hour-long act that she came to The Ed Sullivan Show as the top-billed guest on February 16, 1964. That night, Sullivan also featured four long-haired young Brits making the second of their three consecutive Sunday appearances on the show: The Beatles. (After the show, Paul McCartney asked Gaynor for her autograph.)
Gaynor also popped up on television in other capacities well into the seventies. She performed Oscar-nominated songs on the Academy Awards telecast on three occasions, none more memorably than when she gave a show-stopping rendition of “Georgy Girl” in 1967. Additionally, she was the star of a high-concept CBS variety special every year from 1973 to 1978, unveiling incredible dance routines and sporting unforgettable Bob Mackie costumes.
Even after the variety format faded from TV fashion, she continued to practice it in front of live audiences because, she has always said, show business is her life. Now into her ninth decade, she still spends much of the year on the road, performing at venues across the country, and visibly deriving great pleasure from her interaction with fans of all ages. On May 15, she will be the main attraction at Michael Feinstein‘s new club in San Francisco, Feinstein’s at the Nikko.
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