Tuesday, October 16, 2007


A Parisian in America

By Josh R
For the past several years at The Primetime Emmy Awards, it has been an annual custom for the winners in the guest acting categories — which are announced during a prior ceremony primarily devoted to the technical arts — to present the writing and directing awards. In discussing the highs and lows of last month’s ceremony, some smartass AOL television blogger was given to wonder why The Academy would allow Leslie Caron, a winner for her guest turn on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, to present an award during the network telecast when, in his words, “nobody had the faintest idea of who she was or what she was doing there.” In the warped mind of this sad and twisted soul, who shall remain nameless mainly to save undue embarrassment (because it isn’t nice to pick on the mentally deranged), Ms. Caron’s presence on the telecast qualified as a “low” point of the evening. It wasn’t that the actress had difficulty reading off the prompter, went off book with some shambling impromptu remarks (paging Elaine Stritch), or wore some outlandishly garish frock so blinding as to cause television sets to go on the fritz. Blogger X, whom I only assume is one of those nutjobs who believes that all black and white movies categorically “suck” and that elderly people who can no longer contribute to society should be kept in detention centers fenced in by chicken wire, simply felt that presentation duties should be reserved for the likes of “real” stars, like Eva Longoria, Adrian Grenier or Hayden Patinierre.

Forgetting for a moment that people will still be watching films like An American in Paris long after most of today’s top-rated shows have become obscure footnotes in pop cultural history, with names of the actors who starred in them long forgotten, indulge me while I review the credentials of the lady in question — and, hopefully, give Blogger X a lesson in respect. These kids today — you gotta learn `em.

To be fair, it would be difficult to make a case for Leslie Caron as a major star — at least when juxtaposing her career accomplishments with those of her contemporaries. Her rise to prominence in the 1950s, and her years of greatest productivity, coincided with those of Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe and Sophia Loren. While a marquee attraction in the prime of her career, Caron never quite achieved — nor ever really earned — the same degree of importance or acclaim as the aforementioned women, either as a performer or as a figure of public fascination. Nevertheless, Blogger X dismisses her too lightly, for her resume is impressive by any standard. Consider these facts:

She is a two-time Academy Award nominee for best actress, and one of only two women to have played leading roles in multiple Best Picture winners. She is perhaps the only French-born actress whose stardom owes itself to work in English-language films, and really the only one who can be said to qualify as a mainstream American movie star; one could rightly argue that Jeanne Moreau and Catherine Deneuve have had more significant careers in the world of global cinema, but neither ever found success in Hollywood to the extent that Caron did (for a bit of perspective, Deneuve’s most prominent American film credits would be Hustle and The Hunger — a far cry from Gigi and An American in Paris). She is one of the few MGM contract players hired as a novelty performer for Arthur Freed’s musical unit to have successfully navigated the transition to dramatic roles, and one of only three “star” dancers, after Cyd Charisse and Vera-Ellen, whose field of specialty was ballet — she is more closely associated with the genre than either of the other two. She is among an elite group of women to have danced opposite both Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, and quite a few of her films have endured as major and minor classics beyond the period of their initial success. From the group of actresses mentioned in the previous paragraph, she is the only one who is still active as a performer — while the legendary status of Taylor and Loren may eclipse that of the little French ballerina, Caron is the one who’s still working.

The delicate-featured, purse-lipped gamine, often employed as the centerpiece of MGM’s frequent attempts at Gallic pastiche, was born in Boulogne-Bilaincort, France in 1931, the daughter of a chemist. Her mother had been a dancer; Caron was introduced to ballet at an early age. As a teenager, she was performing with a company in Paris when spotted by a vacationing Gene Kelly, who was in town doing preliminary research for An American in Paris. Cyd Charisse, the original choice for the female lead, had become unavailable due to pregnancy, and Kelly and director Vincente Minnelli were in the process of searching for a replacement — no small feat, considering Kelly’s concept required a classically trained ballerina who could meet the rigorous demands of the film’s ambitious choreography. Caron was quickly signed to a contract by MGM, transplanted from Paris to Culver City, given a crash course in English, and cast as Lisa, the Parisian love interest of Kelly’s struggling artist. If the novice made little impression beyond affecting a modest, self-effacing charm in her acting scenes, she more than compensated for it with her exquisite performance in the climatic 20-minute dance sequence. Her look was unusual — as Pauline Kael observed in her discussion of the film, it didn’t appear that MGM had quite yet gotten her makeup exactly right for the purposes of her debut. Her pleasantly quotidian appearance, distinguished by a broad, toothy grin, made her a bit of a challenge from a casting perspective; the 1950s was already shaping up as the decade of goddesses, glamour queens and sex symbols.

She bided her time in a few dull costume pictures — she cited the consummate professionalism of Barbara Stanwyck, with whom she appeared in 1951’s The Man with the Cloak, as being of particular inspiration to her — before signing on for her next musical project, Lili, directed by Charles Walters. The sentimental story of an orphaned waif who finds a home with a traveling carnival, it was property that MGM had no particular enthusiasm for. The studio brass underestimated the film’s canny fusion of sweetness and pathos; made on a low budget and with limited expectations, it went on to become one of MGM’s top grossing films of 1953, netting a surprise best actress nomination for its leading lady in the process. Although that accolade seems generous in retrospect, the film did allow Caron to demonstrate an ability to project an appealing vulnerability without resorting to preciousness. She lost the Oscar to Roman Holiday's Audrey Hepburn, with whom she was often compared and occasionally confused; although bearing little facial resemblance, they were a similar physical type — together they popularized the gamine look, making slim-hipped, flat-chested girls with boyish haircuts seem like the height of European sophistication.

Daddy Long Legs, which found her being romanced by Astaire, and The Glass Slipper, a musical retelling of the Cinderella story, were pleasant diversions; the latter’s ballet-heavy choreography provided her with best opportunity since An American in Paris to demonstrate her prodigious skill as a dancer. Gaby, an unhappy foray into straight drama, was a sodden remake of the 1940 Vivien Leigh weepie Waterloo Bridge concerning an out-of-work dancer who resorts to prostitution as a means of support; the actress was unhappy while making the film, and considered the finished product an embarrassment. While she had been an appealing presence in her musical roles, it was clear that she hadn’t yet experienced her breakthrough as an actress — her unaffected charm, while never less than ingratiating, didn’t communicate an abundance of personality; she didn’t always seem that sure of her bearings in front of the camera, and slightly embarrassed as a result. Her next project — and the film for which she was to become most identified — marked tremendous strides toward that end.

Gigi, Vincente Minnelli’s lavish musical adaptation of Collette’s mildly risqué novella concerning the antics of a sprightly Parisian schoolgirl being groomed for the life of a courtesan, has sometimes been unfavorably compared to My Fair Lady — certainly, they were cut from the same cloth. The composer-lyricist team of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederic Loewe adhered very closely to the template set by their previous success; as in their smash musical treatment of Shaw’s Pygmalion, Gigi chronicled the transformation of a rambunctious, unprepossessing girl into an elegant, sophisticated woman — much to the consternation of the male protagonist, who finds himself surprisingly, if somewhat unwillingly, drawn to the altered incarnation. Moreover, in terms of both the structural function and thematic content of the musical numbers, Gigi mirrored its predecessor to an uncanny degree: “The Night They Invented Champagne,” in which the hero, the heroine and her grandmother dance around their apartment in jubilant celebration, is essentially a refurbishment of “The Rain in Spain”; “I Don’t Understand the Parisians” expresses female frustration in the tradition of “Just You Wait, Henry Higgins”; “It’s a Bore,” which outlines the male protagonist’s blithely anti-social outlook, echoes “Let a Woman in Your Life”; the Oscar-winning title song, in which Louis Jourdan’s disaffected playboy (a man who puts limited stock in the notion of romance) begins by disparaging the heroine, only to come to the realization that he has fallen in love, builds in much the same way as “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” — in both cases, the internal conflict, which progresses from angry denial to stunned epiphany, is made musically and verbally explicit.

If an inevitable sense of déjà vu accompanied the proceedings, it didn’t prevent Gigi from qualifying as a resounding success on its own terms; in truth, it was a better film than An American in Paris, and Minnelli’s best since Meet Me in St. Louis. The melodic score, coupled with a witty script by Lerner which captured the essence of Collette’s prose while tempering its racier aspects, only accounted for part of the film’s considerable charm — with gorgeous location photography and French actors in the principal roles (including the redoubtable Maurice Chevalier as a septuagenarian bon vivant), the film felt like an authentic reflection of the culture it was attempting to recreate — something of a rarity for MGM, whose version of continental flavor usually wound up seeming more Euro-Disney than European. Moreover, Minnelli’s elegant visual composition brilliantly showcased the sumptuous production design; the director received an Academy Award for his efforts. All around, it was a sparkling entertainment, and the best film in which Caron appeared during her tenure at the studio.

For her part, the actress seemed notably more animated and engaged than she had been in her previous efforts. Too often, there had seemed to be a dark cloud hovering overhead when she took on ingénue roles — her lack of formal training as an actress may have left her feeling somewhat insecure, making the halting, abashed quality that had characterized her other star turns more pronounced than it would have been otherwise. It was nowhere in evidence with her work in Gigi, which revealed a lightness of touch worthy of a polished boulevard comedienne; working with Minnelli, perhaps her greatest champion, brought out her confidence, as well as a previously unsuspected streak of mischief. In the early scenes, she successfully conveyed the exuberance of youth and handled the comic aspects of the role with surprising dexterity; as the transformation took root, she became self-possessed, forthright, and for the first time, genuinely beautiful. As Lili, Gaby and Ella of the Cinders, she had had a tendency to seem pathetic and childlike when the material took a turn for the dramatic — finally, it was possible to see her as a mature actress of genuine spirit, capable of holding the screen without seeming apologetic or ill at ease.

Her last project at MGM was Fanny, another expensively mounted exercise in Gallic frivolity, only one in which the fun seemed forced. The film was successful, earning a best picture nomination and a Golden Globe nomination for its star, but couldn’t help seeming like a step backward — if Gigi had liberated her sense of humor, Fanny seemed determined to reign it back in. But The L-Shaped Room was a genuine triumph; as the ostracized émigré trying to rebuild her life in a seedy London boarding house, she offered an instinctive, insightful account of a stranger in a strange land, struggling to regain her sense of equilibrium. Clearly, the bleak predicament of a foreigner negotiating the uncertainties of survival in a hostile, unfamiliar environment struck a deeply personal chord; plucked out of the corps de ballet at a young age to embark on an acting career she had neither pursued nor conceived of, Caron had spent much of her early years in Hollywood feeling like a fish out of water.

The L-Shaped Room represented a risk for Caron, as it marked a dramatic departure from the kind of films on which she’d made her name. A product of the new vogue in British filmmaking which favored the kitchen-sink style of realism, Bryan Forbes’ perceptive character study considers the position of social outcasts, trying to carve out a place for themselves in a world that regards them with suspicion and disapproval. The character of Jane Fosset, in addition to being an immigrant, also has the stigma of being pregnant and unwed — the first friend she makes is an immigrant and a man of color, who feels betrayed when she shows a romantic interest in someone else, and betrays her in turn. The characters are isolated by their outsider status, and ultimately, from each other — their attempts to connect often result in misunderstanding, disappointment and hurt. When an elderly eccentric reveals herself to be a lesbian, you can see in her face the fear of reprisal that such an admission might bring. Staring at the photograph of the woman’s dead companion, whom she had assumed to be a man, Caron’s wordless response is one of sad recognition and empathy — she can relate to what it means to be on the margins, yearning for acceptance but feeling shut out in the cold. It’s an unusual film, and probably ahead of its time in many respects, even though from a modern standpoint its content seems relatively tame.

Her excellent, moving performance netted Caron a second, well-deserved best actress nomination; in contrast to her first nominated performance, audiences were seeing the insecurities of the character, as opposed to those of the actress. Her naturalistic style, which occasionally seemed out of place in the glossy Hollywood product which had been her stock in trade, meshed well with the new wave sensibility — it’s tempting to wonder what Truffaut, Malle and Godard might have made of her if she’d remained in her native France.

The fruits of success were somewhat less than she might have hoped for. In Father Goose, she played second fiddle to Cary Grant and a gaggle of schoolgirls — as if Gigi were getting her comeuppance. The lame-brained sex comedy Promise Her Anything cast her opposite Warren Beatty, with whom she embarked on an ill-fated affair; the young actor, who had already acquired the reputation of a lothario, was named as a correspondent in Caron’s divorce from British stage director Peter Hall. Later, the actress offered this infamous put-down: “Warren has an interesting pathology; he always goes after women who have either just won or been nominated for an Academy Award”…while not on the level of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” a withering assessment nonetheless.

She worked out the '60s in a succession of increasingly less interesting roles; in the seventies she devoted more of her energies to rearing her two children by Hall, breaking occasionally for the odd bit of film or television work (in some instances, quite odd indeed). If her work attracted less attention in the years to follow, she did — finally — get to work with Truffaut in The Man Who Loved Women, and with Malle in Damage. Chocolat was a high-profile film, even if she was criminally underutilized in what amounted to a cameo — she might have done wonders with the more prominent role of the village curmudgeon, which in Dame Judi Dench’s hands amounted to a fussy piece of caricature. Her fine, restrained work in Law & Order: SVU, in which she played a victim of sexual assault whose attacker is brought to justice 30 years after the fact, demonstrated that she is still willing and able to take on challenging acting assignments when the opportunity presents itself.
Contrary to what Blogger X and many others may have felt, this year’s Emmy telecast was a depressingly prurient affair — one in which the “high” points were often indistinguishable from the low. Poor taste has been the hallmark of many an awards show, and Emmy `07 didn’t stint in that regard: viewers were treated to Brad Garrett making crude remarks about Joely Fisher’s tits to the approbation of the crowd, the obligatory round of off-color jokes about Charlie Sheen, and an unusually high rate of bleeping (Fox’s censors might want to ease up on the trigger finger — a boob is a boob, but how much hand-wringing is merited by the term “screwing?”). Even Sally Field let a cuss word slip while voicing the tired old Lysistrata line, spoken verbatim at podiums around the world by women who want to make a political statement without saying anything remotely controversial, about how “if all the mothers of the world got together, there would be no goddamn wars” — a sentiment as quixotically naïve as it is stupidly sexist (at this point, I think women have demonstrated that they can be just as self-serving and obtuse when it comes to the politics of violence as men are — just ask Mr. Copeland for his views on Mrs. Clinton). It turns out, after all, that Blogger X has a point: Ms. Caron did seem out-of-place at this year’s Emmy Awards. Her presence provided the one glimpse of class in an evening otherwise distinguished by a lack of it. Perhaps her Emmy victory will bring more opportunities worthy of her talents — time can neither diminish the memory of her triumphs, nor, with luck, prevent her from achieving still more.

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In reference to Catherine Deneuve, did you mean Hustle?

As far as bloggers go, someone blogging for Huffington Post on the Academy Awards was unaware that when William Monahan made a mention of "Thelma", it was in reference to the editor of The Departed and not as that writer thought, the screenwriter's mistress.
Thanks for this, Josh. I am glad I did not see Blogger X's diss - I wish to keep my blood pressure in its current, safe range. I am extremely fond of Lili and TCM used to run a brief interview with Caron where she confessed to being very fond of the part as well. Whimsy is surprisingly hard to do on film and I think Lili manages it. Caron was also quite charming in the "Mademoiselle" section of The Story of Three Loves.

She had to fight for the lead in The L-Shaped Room, which was not written as a part for a foreigner. Supposedly she got it by telling the director that "everyone thinks French girls are easier to get into bed anyway."

She still looks wonderfully chic and runs a bed-and-breakfast outside Paris that I dream of visiting. Shame on Blogger X.

And Peter, your HuffPo story - dear god. Perhaps I shouldn't be so hard on Libertas for thinking Zanuck edited Wuthering Heights.
You are right Peter, re Hustle. I should have caught that when I edited it. I'll fix it. Thanks for the catch.
You have a sharp eye, Peter - thank you for bringing that to our attention, and thanks to Ed for making the correction in such an expeditious fashion.

I have yet to see The Story of Three Loves, but I'll look for it on the strength of Campaspe's reccomendation.
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