TCM Cruise memories: Learning Hollywood history from Mitzi Gaynor, Diane Ladd and Cicely Tyson

As we reminisce about the 2019 Turner Classic Movie Cruise, we talk about the great movies (there were nearly 100 shown), the varied entertainment options (trivia, Bingo), the port adventures and the delicious – and seemingly endless – array of food.

There are so many highlights from the TCM Cruise, which sailed from New York City to Bermuda from Oct. 22 to 27, 2019 on the Disney Magic, that it’s hard to choose a favorite. But I believe the memories we especially savor are those of the people: the cherished friends you only see at TCM events; the social media pals you finally meet in real life; and the TCM hosts and staff who make you feel like you’re one of the gang.

Then there are the stars. Is there anything more magical than hearing stories of classic Hollywood as they can only be told by the people who lived it? Not for me.

The 2019 cruise starred a trio of legendary actresses – Cicely Tyson, Diane Ladd and Mitzi Gaynor – who shared pieces of their lives and careers in ways that entertained us, inspired us and touched our hearts.

Through multiple interviews with TCM hosts, the actresses were gracious, giving and hilarious. They exuded strength and independence. There was much laughter, a few tears and moments that made our mouths drop open (in a good way).

Here is a sampling of my favorite moments and memories from the trio during their appearances.

Mitzi Gaynor

The image of Mitzi Gaynor coming on stage in a wheelchair in the Walt Disney Theatre was unsettling, but she quickly put our fears to rest when she told us she had injured herself doing a lift in rehearsals. This spunky 88-year-old is still going strong and nothing seems to hold her back.

TCM host Dave Karger led an hour-long talk with Mitzi Gaynor.

“You people are so beautiful. You people are so real. I love you all,” she said as she came out to a standing ovation, then set the tone for the rest of the interview. “By the way, I’m a widow and I’m very, very rich. Any Capricorn men who are free?”

That was tame for the star of “South Pacific” who had us roaring with laughter and left host Dave Karger endearingly speechless more than once.

She was, in fact, a spitfire who shocked and delighted us. My favorite moment was her description of “South Pacific” co-star Rossano Brazzi wearing swimming trunks on the beach. “Never has so little fabric covered so much Italian.” (My imagination went quickly into overdrive and hasn’t returned.)

She talked with broad gestures and used sound effects to illustrate her stories be it the squishy sounds her huarache shoes made when she first met Cole Porter or the “puffing” of a cigarette that was her shorthand for laughing at herself.

That story of meeting Porter was fascinating, but before she told it, she cautioned “This story goes on for days – do you want to hear it?” She was met with a resounding yes, to which Karger said: “Yes, we can skip Bermuda.”

Toward the end of the cruise, TCM showed a series of photo highlights on the main deck. I adore this photo of Dave Karger looking enchanted by Mitzi Gaynor during the interview I attended.

She remembered what she wore – “a broomstick skirt, peasant blouse off-the-shoulders and huarache shoes” – and the big basket of fruit and chocolate. Porter asked Mitzi what she wanted to sing for him. She requested “You’re the Top” in D-flat. Porter said he couldn’t play it like that, to which she responded: “You wrote it!”

She dabbed at tears remembering her husband of 52 years, Jack Bean, who died 15 years ago. “I still wear my wedding ring.”

And she recalled co-stars with her patented candor.

On Cyd Charisse: “The most gorgeous dancer in the world – mean, but gorgeous.”

On working with Marilyn Monroe on “There’s No Business Like Show Business”: “Marilyn was a pain in the ass.”

That film had a star-studded cast including Ethel Merman, who, used to Monroe’s tardiness, would ask “Where is the blonde?”

“You can take the mask off the old Lone Ranger, but you don’t make Ethel Merman wait,” Gaynor said, changing the lyrics on Jim Croce’s “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim.”

Mitzi Gaynor and Rosanno Brazzi in an iconic image from “South Pacific.”

She credits Frank Sinatra for getting the role as American nurse Nellie Forbush in “South Pacific.” While working with him on “The Joker is Wild,” she learned Oscar Hammerstein was flying in from Australia to hear her sing. She was told she couldn’t get the day off from filming – then Sinatra stepped in.

“It’s the talk of the town,” Sinatra told her of the meeting with Hammerstein. He then asked the filmmakers: “What are we doing? Can we work around Mitzi?”

For him, they could.

She rapidly moved from topic to topic, even offering the audience beauty advice.

“Did you ever do individual lashes?” she asked. “Don’t do it. If you take off one, off comes two. We’ll talk later.”

She shares a common passion with her audience: watching TCM.

“I love it. It’s on 24 hours. My set is on all day and all day. It’s wonderful.”

Diane Ladd

Listening to Diane Ladd speak was more like an inspirational sermon than a show biz Q&A. She frequently used motivational phrases like “don’t give up” and talked about supporting others, especially children. And she was moving and honest as she shared stories from “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” her marriage to Bruce Dern (“We were very much in love.”) and her next project, one she has been working on for nearly 30 years about the late Margaret Mitchell.

Diane Ladd’s conversation with Dave Karger carried inspirational messages for the audience.

In “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” Ladd played the role of the outspoken waitress Flo who ultimately becomes friends with the title character, a widow who moves to a small Arizona town with a dream of becoming a singer. We learned how Ellen Burstyn, who played the title role, was hesitant to take it at first. Director Martin Scorsese had just come off his 1973 male-dominated film “Mean Streets” and Burstyn had concerns on how he would handle a female-centered movie. When she asked what he knew about women, his response was “Nothing really, but I want to learn.”

The role was good for both women: Burstyn won an Oscar for the role; Ladd lost best supporting actress to Ingrid Berman but later won the BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts award, the equivalent to the Oscars) over Bergman.

For her flight to London to attend the BAFTA’s, Ladd said Warner Brothers gave her a coach ticket because they thought she would lose. “The guy who owned the airline said ‘She’s gonna win’ and moved me up to first class,” Ladd laughed.

When asked what the atmosphere was like for women in the film industry at the time of “Alice,” Ladd said it was “a hard time for women. Prior to that time, there were great roles for women. In those days, you could have a small part and watch your peers and absorb them,” Ladd said. “I got to meet Bette Davis, I got to act with Barbara Stanwyck. I got to meet Spencer Tracy. I’m worried about show business today. I see young people wanting to be stars, wanting to be famous. But it is a lot of hard work.”

Diane Ladd in her Oscar-nominated role as Flo in “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.”

“Alice” was not the immediate game changer they hoped it would be for women’s roles, but she still holds it in high regard and is filled with praise for Scorsese. “ ‘Alice’ was a gift from God. A gift from Marty Scorsese.”

Although she “doesn’t talk out of school,” she was upfront about her co-stars. “We didn’t always get along,” Ladd said of her relationship with Burstyn. “But we supported each other with love and light.”

After the film, she turned down the role of Flo in what would become the long-running hit TV series “Alice.” “I was a dumb, dumb blonde,” she said. “I decided I was going back to New York where the people really cared. So I went back to New York and stood in unemployment.”

She spoke lovingly of her family, including ex-husband Bruce Dern, and beamed with pride talking about their daughter Laura Dern.

On Bruce Dern, she said that “He won my heart. We were very much in love, but we had a tragedy,” and then shared a very personal part of her life about the accidental death of their nearly 2-year-old daughter and later suffering a tubular pregnancy.

“I was told I would never have another child,” Ladd said. “While Shirley MacLaine and Ellen Burstyn were getting all my jobs, I was in the library (learning about babies).”

Diane Ladd, right, and her daughter Laura Dern made Hollywood history by being the first mother and daughter to earn Oscar nominations for the same film, “Rambling Rose.”

She later miraculously gave birth to daughter Laura.

The three received stars together on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2010 and mother and daughter made Hollywood history when they were both nominated for Oscars (and Golden Globes) for their roles in “Rambling Rose.”

“I love my work, but I didn’t want Laura to become an actor. I saw her gift. All of you who have children – whatever it is – sewing, painting – stand by your children. Let them sit on your shoulders and see further than you.”

She is hoping to finally get her story on the late Martha Mitchell, called “The Woman Inside” filmed. “She was a hero and saved your country. I’m trying to tell this story.”

Currently starring in the Hallmark Channel family series “Chesapeake Shores,” she shared advice with us.

“It doesn’t matter if you fail, it matters if you don’t try,” she said. “So never give up. You may fail in life – whatever. You have to try.”

She sent us off with this: “May you all fulfill your destinies with job and love.”

Cicely Tyson

When Cicely Tyson walked out on stage after a screening of “Sounder” in the Walt Disney Theatre, she didn’t wait for a question to start talking.

“I don’t do it for myself, I do it for you,” she told the audience about why she makes movies.

Cicely Tyson walked out to a standing ovation in the Walt Disney Theatre and immediately addressed the audience. Ben Mankiewicz stands by her side.

At 94, the Emmy Award-winning actress was a marvel as she exuded a strength and conviction that rang through in her voice as she talked about her struggles and triumphs.

She said early that her career in show businesses has been “as big a shock to me as it was to anyone who knew me growing up,” and then told us why.

Her mother thought movies were “evil,” so she spent her youth cleaning church, attending young people meetings, and going to church. “We were always in church,” she said. “We weren’t allowed to go to movies.”

It seemed like she was destined for this life, however, as she was often approached on the street as a teen and asked to model.

When she finally did, her family wasn’t happy.

“My mother said ‘You can’t live here and do that.’ She and my sister would talk about me like a dog. So I packed by up and moved to a friend’s house. We didn’t speak for two years.”

She started off as a fashion model, then did TV early in her career. Her career changed with her role as Rebecca, the young wife and mother of a sharecropping family in the 1972 film “Sounder.” It was a role she almost didn’t get.

Filmmakers told Cicely Tyson she wasn’t right for the part of Rebecca in “Sounder.” She proved them wrong.

She had read the novel and was very moved by it, but wasn’t pleased by the role she was offered.

“ They wanted me to play the part of the schoolteacher,” she said, with a slight scowl as she looked across the audience – and we got her meaning. “I could play her with my eyes closed,” she said to applause.

When she told the filmmakers she wanted to play Rebecca, their reply was “You’re too young, too pretty, too sexy.”

Her response: “ ‘I am an actress.’ ”

She never gave up, though. “All the time they searched for their Rebecca, I was working on it,” she said.

“So you prepared for a role you didn’t have?” she was asked by Ben Mankiewicz.

“Oh, I had the part,” she replied with conviction.

“Sounder” not only earned her a best actress Oscar nomination, but it led her to the realization of what would become the driving force of her career: making a difference on important issues through her art.

It started during interviews with journalists for “Sounder.” One told her the film helped him detect prejudice in himself that he hadn’t seen before. He had two sons and one called him daddy – the same word the young son in “Sounder” used.

“I thought that was the weirdest thing I had ever heard,” Cicely said, shaking her head. “What he was saying is that he could not understood how the man in the film was being the called the same thing he was being called. … That turned me around.

“I could not afford the luxury of just being an actress. I had to use my career as a platform.”

She has done that by addressing injustices she has experienced and seen with race and gender, and by taking on strong characters such as her Emmy Award-winning role in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” and playing Coretta Scott King in the “King” miniseries and Marva Collins in “The Marva Collins Story.” She has since been recognized with a multitude of awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the honest honor that can be given to a U.S. citizen.

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