Very little needs to be said about South Pacific that hasn't already been said - for it was the role of Emile de Beque in Rodgers & Hammerstein's screen version of their stage production which made him - and has continued to make him - a household name in America. It is the role most people identify with him; the role that is inevitably behind a third generation of fans' discovery of Rossano Brazzi. What we know of the background behind his selection for this role is limited. We know from interviews that it was the role of Renato di Rossi in Summertime that caught the eye of both Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, independently of each other - we know that neither one of them seriously considered any other actor for the role, and that this was unusual. We know that Rossano came to New York to audition for it (Lidia reported that he spent $500 calling her long-distance while he was here auditioning), and that he argued vehemently with R&H in favor of vocally carrying the role himself - a battle he was not at all happy about losing.
The documentary The Sound of Movies, a retrospective of Rodgers & Hammerstein screen adaptations and musicals, includes some South Pacific film footage and outtakes: we catch a glimpse of him waiting on the set while his first scene with Mitzi Gaynor is being cued. He looks serious - almost tense - focused intently on the action around him, waiting ... you can almost see him physically drawing the mantle of Emile de Beque around himself as he waits, before the microphone is lowered and the cameras roll -- a method actor before method acting was even invented: was he memorizing lines? Focusing? Concentrating? Or did he already know his lines and everything he wanted to do with the character, backwards and forwards? The boyishness of Giorgio Bianchi, the sweet charm of Renato di Rossi, - the slender, graceful movements, the suave, smooth charm was set aside - Emile de Beque was solid muscle. He was an outdoors man, a hunter, a planter, "a rock of a man", as Rossano had described him, and he accordingly remade himself - in physical appearance, body structure, gestures and vocalisms into the rock-hard Emile de Beque with such unwavering conviction that you're not even sure it's the same man who so elegantly wooed Katherine Hepburn and Ava Gardner, or the man who chewed up the Libyan scenery for Paul Bonnard's weepy and memorable emotional collapse in Legend of the Lost. But it is. One of his most consistent and formidable skills was always his ability to transform himself completely into a character so well that you didn't always realize that he was doing something the most famous Hollywood actors at that time either refused to do, or (more likely) couldn't do: bending himself to the character, rather than bending the character to himself.
We know he set aside his unhappiness at having his voice mixed with Giorgio Tozzi's to turn in a glorious and emotional performances for the musical numbers ("This Nearly was Mine", for example), and his passionate anger at watching "these bullies multiply and grow strong, while the world sat by and watched" is all the more believable when you know something of his personal experiences during World War II. I absolutely believe him when he tells me he his heart is shattered at Nellie Forbush's abandonment, that's how convincing he was.
South Pacific went on to become one of the standard R&H musical classics in the Fox video catalog, and remains a much beloved standard on the networks and cable channels. Available on Video just about anywhere you look.Behind the Scenes
"The casting, too, started off with certain problems. First of all, none of us had settled exactly on whom we wanted to play Nellie Forbush. The list ran from Audrey Hepburn to Elizabeth Taylor, with a couple of side trips to Doris Day. Everyone asked why we didn't just use Mary Martin. The answer is that Pinza was dead and the problem of finding another Emile de Beque to match Mary seemed hopeless. The only big star who was the right age for her was Vittorio De Sica, but he seemed to us too saturnine for Emile. All three of us had seen Rossano Brazzi in Summertime with Katharine Hepburn, and each of us had the same idea. He might play Emile - if he could sing. Dick and Oscar said he had sung for them and they had approved of his voice. Knowing that, I agreed, and he was signed. I figured if his voice satisfied the experts, that was enough...From Joshua Logan's Movie Stars, Real People and Me
... as Bloody Mary, Juanita Hall had been unique in the original stage production. Now, eight years later, since age didn't matter in that role, there seemed to be no contest as to who would play Bloody Mary in the film. But Dick and Oscar were so gun-shy of this huge production after the comparative failure of Oklahoma!, so worried about the vocal side, that they would sign Juanita only with the proviso that Muriel Smith, the opera singer, do the actual singing ...
Just before shooting started I got a message from Rodgers and Hammerstein that Rossano Brazzi was not to sing one note in the picture. I called Dick and Oscar and they told me that Brazzi had become so jubilant at being given the part that he went back to Italy boasting of his singing powers and had even made a record which someone thoughtful enough sent to Dick and Oscar. When they heard it, they were horrified and broke off all negotiations with him. They would talk only with the proviso that his voice would be dubbed by a great voice. One of the mysteries of my life was how Dick and Oscar, with their ear and their experience, could have signed a man for a major singing role who couldn't carry a tune. He must have given them a giant snow job, or maybe they had cotton in their ears when they auditioned him.
... to Brazzi's continued unhappiness, the voice of Emile de Beque was to be done by Giorgio Tozzi, the distinguished Metropolitan basso. Every time Tozzi hit a particularly beautiful or effective note, I could see Rossano Brazzi roll his eyes heavenward or wince in pain. Fortunately, Tozzi did not see him. As a matter of fact, when Brazzi was around, he provided the closest I'd ever seen to fawning. "Thank you for being my voice."
...The shooting of South Pacific on Kauai went relatively smoothly. Mitzi was fun but a true professional, and Brazzi was reluctantly professional himself ... when we moved up to shoot the opening scene at Emile de Beque's plantation house, everything went well until Brazzi had to be photographed singing, "Some Enchanted Evening" to the playback of Giorgio Tozzi's voice. The moment the song started I would tell that he was resisting it. It was too emasculating to this Italian that he should be forced to sing to another man's voice. Whether he did so deliberately or not, he kept making mistakes and Ken Darby, the vocal director, would say, "No, I'm sorry, Rossano, you've bumbled it again." Suddenly Rossano burst into a fury of Italianate English. "Diss goddamn cheap shit voice, I cannot sing to it."
This was a real danger signal and I decided to take over. I sent everyone out of earshot and then I turned to Rossano and said, "Rossano, we are on an island in the middle of the Pacific with an enormous company and stupendous daily expenses. You are costing the picture money. If you can't sing to Giorgio Tozzi's voice, which is a great voice, then we have to shut down and replace you with someone who can sing to his voice, because you know that Rodgers and Hammerstein are never going to let you sing the songs no matter how many times you deliberately miss matching the words. Now, you have a choice to make. You're either going to play Emile de Beque, r you're not going to play him. But I'm not going to listen to one second more of your phony, childish temperament. Do it and do it well, or don't do it at all. I'll give you one-half minute to make up your mind."
He made a quick adjustment. He grunted a bit, patted me on the back and said, "Let's go. Anything you say."
An observation on the differences between the original film version of South Pacific and the more recent television version with Glenn Close and Rade Sherbedgia:
"While I admit to being prejudiced in favour of the screen version (1958) of Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific, I determined to be objective in viewing the television version, which aired March 26. I was surprised by how quickly I adapted to a middle aged Nellie Forbush. That I was able to do this is due entirely to Glenn Close's lumunous performance and her choice of the most excellent Emille DeBecque in the many I have seen, with the exception of Rossano Brazzi. Rade Sherbedgia has much the same screen presence as Brazzi, giving an almost quiet shyness to his portrayal which only made the emotional scenes more moving. Both he and Close sang well and I thought two of the numbers were better staged and better set in the piece than in the '58 version. "This Nearly Was Mine" & "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught", were much better as soliloquies. Harry Connick Jr. was superb in his rendition of both the music and the role of Lt. Cable. I have been to his theatrical concerts and confess to being an admirer of his talent for years. There was also a greater sense of war and imminent danger which intensifies the tragedy of Cable's death and the joy which Nellie and Emille find in each other as the show ends. All of this having been said, and even with those awful yellow and blue gells, Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brazzi are still for me the most moving, compelling, romantic and ---- okay, sexy, Nellie and Emille who ever had that "Enchanted Evening".Connie Liss, New Jersey
You can also purchase the book upon which the movie was based, "TALES OF THE SOUTH PACIFIC" by James Michener,
In the film, "RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN'S THE SOUND OF MOVIES", hosted by Shirley Jones, Rossano appears briefly, preparing to shoot his first scene; you can purchase 'THE SOUND OF MOVIES", by clicking here.
Other suggestions:Getting to Know Him : A Biography of Oscar Hammerstein II, by Hugh Fordin, Introduction by Stephen Sondheim.
As for books on the lives of, and films of Rossano's co-stars MITZI GAYNOR, RAY WALSTON and others, search the database under their names, using the form below: