I could be completely making this up, but I remember when ABC was promoting South Pacific. The TV movie, which starred Glenn Close and aired in 2001, wasn’t the first time Roger & Hammerstein’s musical had been adapted for the screen (there was also Joshua Logan’s South Pacific from 1958), but would be a passion project for Close, who had always dreamed of playing Nellie Forbush.
Set during WWII, the film begins with Lieutenant Cable (Harry Connick Jr.) arriving on the island where Nellie’s stationed as a nurse. Both wind up having romantic relationships around the same time (though not with each other) that are complicated by racial prejudices.
For Nellie, she can accept Monsieur de Becque (Rade Šerbedžija) murdered a man but not that he fathered two children with a woman who had darker skin. There’s a lot about their relationship (especially the speed at which they fall for each other) that can make you wonder how they’ve stuck together this long. Their first date ends with his murder confession, and it’s treated almost as a trust exercise. He asks her whether she believes him, that he had no choice, but doesn’t offer an explanation for why he killed the man until she asks for one. The next time they meet he asks her to marry him and she still doesn’t know that his kids exist.
Making a mess like that make sense would take two amazingly talented actors, singing songs that somehow ensure this courtship holds up to scrutiny and, against all odds, that’s what this production of South Pacific does. All you need is to see Close and Šerbedžija in a room together to understand that they have chemistry. In the lyrics for “Two Soliloquies” they sing about feeling like school kids, and that’s how it plays on-screen. Their faces light up when they see each other and there’s this youthful energy that they bring to the roles (so much for the critics who tried to make a fuss about Close being “too old” for the part).
These are characters, too, who are always owning up to their decisions. It’s not that they don’t harbor the same concerns but that they are making conscious choices – some hopeful, some ugly, but always with their eyes wide open. That’s the honesty in Hammerstein’s lyrics. The song order also feeds into Nellie’s arc, like “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair.” Born of de Becque’s absence, as soon as he returns at the end of the song Nellie, “The Cockeyed Optimist,” remembers why they fell in love, and her confidence in their relationship is restored.
Lieutenant Cable’s relationship with Liat (Natalie Mendoza), a local Tonkinese girl, is undercooked by comparison but from what I understand that’s the show, not this production. Without it, though, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” wouldn’t exist and in a behind-the-scenes featurette, Glenn Close explains Connick Jr. sang the song live after being unhappy with how his recording turned out.
Additional bonus features include an interview with Ilene Graff (who played Nellie’s best friend) and a commentary track by film historian, Lee Gambin, who early-on states his intention to celebrate some of the people who worked behind the scenes and does just that, including an interview with Lawrence D. Cohen, who wrote the teleplay. Gambin also looks at differences between the stage production and the two films, as well as different types of songs across Roger & Hammerstein’s output. If you’re at a musical fan, I highly recommend his book, We Can Be Who We Are, which covers every musical that came out in the 70’s.
South Pacific is available now on DVD from Kino Lorber.