December 8, 2009

FRANCE: Leslie Caron, an unlikely star

. LOS ANGELES, California / The Los Angeles Times / Entertainment / December 8, 2009 The French actress had no dreams of acting until Gene Kelly discovered her. She tells her story with candor in her autobiography, 'Thank Heaven.' By Susan King Leslie Caron says she got rid of the "deadwood" writing her autobiography, "Thank Heaven." "I must say writing this book, it is a new world for me," the lithe 78-year-old film star reports. "In the end it was very cathartic." The candid, lyrically written tome of the French actress' storied life chronicles her childhood in Paris, her suffering through World War II, her teenage years as a ballet dancer with Roland Petit's acclaimed company where she was discovered by Gene Kelly, her career at MGM starring in such classics as "An American in Paris," "Lili," "Daddy Long Legs" and "Gigi," her two Oscar nominations, her three failed marriages and high-profile love affair with Warren Beatty, her mother's suicide and her own battles with depression and alcohol. "I go to AA every week," says Caron, who lives in Paris. "I have good friends there. I think it's the best model of sane life that I know. It has become sort of my religion." Caron's book tour has taken her to New York, Philadelphia and now Los Angeles. This morning, she's receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame between those honoring Kelly, with whom she starred in 1951's "An American in Paris," and Louis Jourdan, her love interest in 1958's "Gigi." Both musicals won the Oscar for best film. It seems apropos that the down-to-earth, petite actress has chosen a restaurant at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel to have a breakfast interview. Caron stays at the venerable hotel every time she's in Los Angeles. And it was there that she and her American-born mother, Margaret, resided when they came to America in 1950, when Caron was signed to do "An American in Paris." "An American In Paris" (1951) made a leading lady of Leslie Caron, a French export who would go on to win American hearts over more than six decades of work and 50 films. Photo credit: "It wasn't as glamorous," she says, surveying the breakfast crowd. "There was a bookshop right here -- Doubleday. And there was a coffee shop at the corner, a really nice one where you could sit at a counter on high chairs. You could have sandwiches, ice cream, cottage cheese salad and Jell-O. On the other side was a clothes shop. There were no jewelry shops. It was an average businessman's hotel." Becoming a movie star was the furthest thing from Caron's mind when she received the call that she had been hired by MGM. A few weeks earlier she had done a test with Kelly, who had seen her the previous year at Petit's Ballet des Champs-Élysées on the opening night of "La Rencontre," a ballet Caron had performed with Jean Babilée. Kelly was looking for a newcomer to star with him in the romance featuring the songs of George and Ira Gershwin about an American painter in Paris who falls in love with a working girl. The high point of the film was the 18-minute dance number set to George Gershwin's "An American in Paris." "It didn't occur to me this was going to work," Caron says of her Hollywood prospects. "I didn't really dream of a movie career. It just surprised me. Why me? I didn't know anything about Gershwin, Gene Kelly or Hollywood. My ambition was to be the second Pavlova and call myself Caronova!" Though she was shy, Caron wasn't nervous about making the movie. "I was already a professional," she says. "I was used to doing what I was told to do. Most of it was within the scope of work. I had danced on the stage in front of kings and princes in Europe, though I was very young. The difficult thing were the floors. The floors were cement, and they would paint them in a glossy paint. I was really afraid of falling. [So] everything was repainted with sand [in the paint]. The long hours were difficult on my legs." Because of her poor nutrition during the war, Caron was not in top physical condition and contracted mononucleosis during the production. "After that I started to study about food and what I need to eat in order to keep strong," she says. "I discovered there are proteins and minerals and vitamins and what should not be eaten and what should. It's probably why I am still slim and in good shape." She doesn't dance anymore, however, because of a hip operation. Caron admits that in "Thank Heaven" she talks "rather candidly" about her marriages to Geordie Hormel (1951-54), theater and movie director Peter Hall (1956-65) -- with whom she has two children, Christopher and Jennifer -- and producer Michael Laughlin (1969-80). "I went from one type to another," she says. Though her first husband was the grandson of the founder of the Hormel meat packing company, "he didn't have any money. I supported him. Then I went to a really poor young man but brilliant, who came from the wrong side of the tracks and made his career brilliantly and is now Sir Peter Hall. Michael was a real Hollywood product, and that was fun." During her marriage to Hall, Caron couldn't believe how provincial England was. He was reluctant to have her work, believing her place was at home with the children. "I think France and America were a bit more forward then," she says. "England was very backward. The first question a newspaper woman would ask me is, 'How do you manage your career with raising children?' I used to tell them, 'It takes three months at the most to make a movie, and that leaves you with quite a few months to take care of everyone else.' " Although it's been a long time since she headlined a movie, Caron has continued to work in television and films such as "Chocolat" and "Le Divorce." She won an Emmy two years ago for her guest appearance on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." No stranger to theater either, she is returning to the stage early next year to play Madame Armfeldt in a Paris production of the musical "A Little Night Music." "I already know the part," she says with a smile. "I would love above all to come to Broadway. I am trying to work on that." [rc] Copyright © 2009, The Los Angeles Times