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Love and War

March 25, 2001|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Glenn Close's first musical memory is of listening to the original Broadway cast recording of the seminal Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II musical "South Pacific."

"I was 3," recalls the Tony and Emmy award-winning actress. "I remember Mary Martin singing those songs. I wanted to play it my entire life!"

It has taken half a century, but Close's lifelong dream has come true. In ABC's lavish new three-hour adaptation of "South Pacific," Close is playing the role Martin originated on Broadway: Ensign Nellie Forbush, a Navy nurse stationed on a remote Pacific island during World War II who falls in love with Emile de Becque (Rade Sherbedgia), a wealthy French plantation owner with a past.

Directed by Richard Pearce ("Country"), "South Pacific" also stars Harry Connick Jr. as handsome Marine Lt. Joseph Cable, who arrives on the island on a secret mission and falls in love with a beautiful native girl, Liat (Natalie Mendoza). Robert Pastorelli is the wily Seabee, Luther Billis; and Lori Tan Chinn is Liat's mother, Bloody Mary, the shrewd Tonkinese woman who sells trinkets and souvenirs to the GIs.

"South Pacific," which was shot at Port Douglas in Queensland, Australia, and Moorea, Tahiti, features the musical standards "Some Enchanted Evening," "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair," "Bali Ha'i," "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame" and "Younger Than Springtime."

Mary Rodgers, Richard Rodgers' daughter and a composer in her own right ("Once Upon a Mattress"), adores the new movie. "There is an excitement about it that you can't feel on the stage because something inside of you always knows that it's not real. But it feels real in the film."

Rodgers, however, was less than impressed with the glossy 1958 movie version that starred Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brazzi. "The movie was ridiculous," Rodgers says.

Four years ago, executive producers Lawrence D. Cohen, who wrote the screenplay, and Michael Gore came to Close about doing the film. The actress, who is also an executive producer, immediately said yes.

With this version, writer Cohen received permission from the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization to return to the musical's original source material, James Michener's novel "Tales of the South Pacific."

"Part of the assumption about even thinking about redoing this was going back to the Michener stories to readdress some of those disappointments [in the original movie]," says Pearce. "That opened a door for Larry not to assume that everything that was done on stage was carved in stone."

Close's challenge was to capture Nellie's vitality and passion, as well as the racial prejudice she feels toward the two young children Emile had with his first wife, who was an island native.

"She doesn't know she's going to be conflicted," says Close. "She doesn't know what she's been taught. She finds herself in a basically alien world from where she came from, at her own instigation, and this becomes a deep moral crisis for her."

Close says it was nearly impossible to find an actor to play the suave, dynamic Emile. "There are not very many gorgeous, mature men who can act and sing," she says. But Sherbedgia, a native of the former Yugoslavia, had impressed her in the Oscar-nominated political drama "Before the Rain."

"He was the most wonderful partner," says Close. "I think his renditions of 'Some Enchanted Evening' and 'This Nearly Was Mine' were just heart-stopping."

Sherbedgia felt a real kinship with Emile.

"First, he is a man with a past, and I am a man with a past," says Sherbedgia, who now lives in London. "I had a former life. I had my former country. I was in exile as was Emile in exile. I wanted to run away to the end of the world from this hell I had been in, in my country when the war started. Emile is a man who doesn't belong to anybody. When the war started, I didn't want to belong to anybody. I didn't want to take sides."

Emile, Sherbedgia discovered, is also a lonely man. "He has paid a high price for his freedom," the actor says. "He has a passion for beauty--the beauty of his island, the native people of that island and, of course, the pureness and the beauty of Nellie's soul."

*

"South Pacific" airs Monday at 8 p.m. on ABC. The network has rated it TV-PG-LSV (maybe unsuitable for young children with special advisories for coarse language, sexual situations and violence).

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