Thank Heaven: A Memoir, by Leslie Caron. New York: Viking, 2009. Paperback $25.95, 288pp. ISBN: 0-67002-134-2.
When Leslie Caron came to Los Angeles in 2009 on a book tour for her book Thank Heaven: A Memoir, she stayed at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, the very spot where she first landed 59 years earlier to film An American in Paris. And when she appears as Madame Armfeldt in a 2010 production of A Little Night Music on stage in Paris, she’ll be in a role originated by Hermione Gingold, who played her grandmother in Gigi 52 years earlier. Such are the full circles that Miss Caron encounters in a career entering its seventh decade.
With the publication of Thank Heaven, Caron shares moments of a life touched by war, ballet, sudden fame, marriage, motherhood, divorce, depression, her mother’s suicide, and the complete vicissitudes of an unpretentiously remarkable career on film, stage, and television. Her early chapters are full of sense memories, her accounts of the beloved family estate in the Pyrenees giving way to a child’s view of German soldiers goose-stepping through occupied Paris, their boots reeking of fish oil. Her bourgeois family lost everything, and when I spoke to her in a phone interview, I ask if the war adequately prepared her for show business. “Definitely, oh, yes,” she says with a giggle. “I think ballet discipline stood by me. You have to have quite a strong stomach and courage for ballet. The same for a movie career.”
Her entry into movies reads like pure fantasy. Plucked from Les Ballets des Champs-Elysées to join Gene Kelly in the 1951 smash musical An American in Paris, there’s a darling irony in this pretty French girl’s defection to Hollywood, where she became a star by hoofing around the manufactured Paris of MGM sound stages. Shy and compromised from anemia and mononucleosis, she was hardly prepared for the demands of leading ladyhood. Though her inexperience as an actress was in plain view, her dancerly grace, toothsome smile, and endearing feminine vulnerability, all packaged with a lilting French accent, were assets no experience could buy. Armed with an MGM contract, and under the tutelage of famed acting coach George Shdanoff, she grew quickly as an actress. By 1953 she was Oscar nominated for Lili, an oddly sweet musical-fantasy in which she played a slow-witted orphan with charismatic naiveté. After doing her best screen dancing with Fred Astaire in Daddy Long Legs, she put it all together — self-possession, beguiling impertinence, and winking sex appeal — in the plush Gigi. She pulled off that adolescent girl-woman act to perfection, which is doubly impressive considering she had already married, divorced, remarried, and delivered son Christopher. Daughter Jennifer can be seen in her next movie, The Doctor’s Dilemma, in which Cecil Beaton heroically attempts to hide Caron’s swelling uterus under bolts of costume drapery.
If “Hollywood fishbowl misery” sounds rather shopworn, it nonetheless defines Caron’s heyday. She despaired at 1950s Los Angeles, where the main cultural attraction was the La Brea Tar Pits. She was condescendingly promoted as MGM’s resident exotic ingenue during the collapse of her marriage to composer, meat-packing heir, and drug addict George Hormel. Hungry for Chekhov and Shaw, she hung up her toe shoes, lost the elfin grin, and became a true working actress. For a freelancer in the post-studio age, the decision paid off, winning her costarring roles with top male stars, including Henry Fonda, Dirk Bogarde, Rock Hudson, Charles Boyer, David Niven, Orson Welles, and later Anthony Hopkins and Ben Kingsley. Fanny, a love story set on the Marseilles waterfront, was a minor triumph, but her certain arrival as a powerful actress came with 1962’s The L-Shaped Room, a deeply felt British kitchen sink drama. She earned a Golden Globe, BAFTA Best Actress, and was Oscar nominated as a pregnant single woman on the eve of the sexual revolution. Father Goose with Cary Grant was a breezy comedy that made millions; Is Paris Burning? was a prestigious bomb, though her cameo is harrowing. The would-be sex farce Promise Her Anything with boyfriend Warren Beatty is made watchable by Caron’s smooth rise over the surrounding doggerel.
When middle age arrived, Caron’s pictures got small, despite two being produced by husband Michael Laughlin. Every last copy of Madron, Chandler, and Nicole could disappear tonight and humanity would be none the poorer. As Nazimova, Caron stole Ken Russell’s horrendous Valentino, her fragrant performance in keeping with both the character and the excesses of that director. At 45 she encountered her first demotion from star to supporting player. “It takes acceptance of age to step back and play smaller roles, being the Queen Mother rather than the Queen,” she says. “I was shaken up the first time I didn’t have the lead. It was difficult not to be the center of attention. In Valentino, I didn’t have a car. Michelle Phillips [as Rambova] had a car. ‘Would you like to join me in my car?’ she asked. That was lovely, but it’s lovely now to have gone beyond that.”
Assignments moved between Hollywood and Europe, television and film. She is very good in the mini-series QB VII, proud of her Krupskaya in the TV movie Lenin: The Train, indifferent to the Oscar-winning chess drama Dangerous Moves, and having a ball in the quirky Funny Bones. The bulk of television work offered paychecks if not résumé enhancers: Master of the Game, Tales of the Unexpected, Passion’s Way, Danielle Steel’s The Ring, a stint on Falcon Crest, and a pointless remake of Murder on the Orient Express. She pushed herself onto the stage, enjoying success in the Feydeau farce 13 Rue de l’Amour. She was back en pointe at 53 for a touring production of Rodgers and Hart’s On Your Toes, an ill-advised move that left her with broken bones, torn ligaments, and anorexia. What Caron shares with admirable candor is the despair she felt as her career ebbed, leaving her with tattered self-esteem, a fondness for drink and pills, and an eventual nervous breakdown.
She writes sensitively of her salvation through the purchase, renovation, and management of La Lucarne aux Chouettes (The Owl’s Nest), an exquisitely appointed Burgundy auberge. The MGM years are long ago and far away, but Caron has hardly abandoned the screen. The fragile gamine became the refined and astute matron of Damage and Le Divorce, assuming an imperious posture well suited to her distinctive round-toned voice. When she guest starred on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in 2007 as a woman compelled to relive a decades-old assault, she won an Emmy, and effectively gave the entire cast a master class in acting.
It’s a shame that Thank Heaven lacks an index, since Caron engages in the most gleeful name dropping. Beginning with her cosmopolitan roster of directors, there was Vincente Minnelli, Raoul Walsh, James Ivory, Louis Malle, Abel Gance, René Clément, Bryan Forbes, Nanni Loy, Anthony Asquith, Krzysztof Zanussi, and Lasse Hallström. She was particularly close to François Truffaut, who directed her in The Man Who Loved Women, and Jean Renoir, who merits an entire chapter. She offers passing tidbits on her many famous leading men as well as Elizabeth Taylor, Mae West, Natalie Wood, Dominique Sanda, “dear” Zsa Zsa Gabor, Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, Terrence Malnick, Margot Fonteyn, Jane Wyman, Howard Hughes, Barbara Stanwyck, Peter O’Toole, and scores of others. But most of her best friends, it turns out, have been gay men, including Christopher Isherwood, Don Bachardy, Rudolf Nureyev, Montgomery Clift, Dirk Bogarde, Jack Larson, Roddy McDowell, Gavin Lambert, and brother-in-law James Hormel. When I asked her about this, she became instantly homophilic. “Gay men read so much more and have so much more to talk about,” she says. “With married men, there’s always a wife watching like a hawk. It just isn’t the same. You can’t have the easy communication. Most of my friends are not only gay, but writers. I had no education whatsoever. I managed to get close to writers who had a very good education.”
Caron never sounds affected, since she will often volley with harsh self-appraisal. She notes drolly that she was forever getting scripts that described her character as “not beautiful, but …” She cuts her ex-husbands a lot of slack, though her second, director Peter Hall, was willing to take the air out of her career to save his ego. As for being one of Warren’s girls, she remarks that it is “hard to say whether I used Warren to break up with Peter or whether Warren used me to further his career. Equal responsibility, I’d say.” I was touched by the availability of Caron’s emotions and her steadfast avoidance of sensationalism, particularly when writing about the dead. She took her cue from Colette. “She said say everything, but watch how you say it, with tact and humor.” Not that Caron doesn’t “take a scratch at someone” once in a while. David Niven, George Peppard, and Richard Boone get their comeuppance here.
Quibbles must be raised; Viking’s respect for its memoirist resulted in a too light blue pencil while a strict word count hampers her opportunities to elaborate. Though it’s a subjective call, are Jeremiah Johnson and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean really “great classics”? There are grammatical errors (“The dining room was spacious enough for my brother and I”), and while Caron’s English is most often impeccable, it can sometimes be twisty (“With the obstinacy of the ant who skirts a leaf and rises above sticks and pebbles to reach home, I worked at the reconstruction of every molecule in my body.”) Finally, we shared a laugh over her cribbing my Bright Lights synopsis of her 1965 film A Very Special Favor. No matter. It’s rather exciting to be googled by Leslie Caron.
As she prepares for A Little Night Music, and is gladly challenged by Sondheim’s “fiendish” waltz, she still dreams of debuting on Broadway. Even so, writing may now be her greater creative love, and she hopes to “hold up” long enough to publish more. “I am having such a high as a writer and being made a fuss,” she says with trademark clarity. “I have discovered what it’s like to be a newcomer.”