Leslie Caron

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Leslie Caron Pencil Portrait
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In a magically memorable movie moment in 1951, French-American actress Leslie Caron danced her way into millions of hearts as Gene Kelly’s ballerina ingénue in An American in Paris’. Within the next several years, Lili, Daddy Longlegs with Fred Astaire and her enchanting incarnation of Gigi propelled her into fully-fledged Hollywood stardom while she was still in her early 20s.

With a self driven work ethic, everything else was always going to take a back seat, including her private life. When film roles slowed, she fashioned an alternative career as a fiction writer, but there was also a decade’s worth of drink and pills as the actress descended into chronic depression.


It has been a rollercoaster life. Literally discovered by the legendary MGM star Gene Kelly during his search for a co-star in one of the finest musicals ever filmed – the Oscar-winning An American in Paris (1951), which was inspired by and based on the music of George Gershwin – Leslie’s gamine looks and pixie-like appeal were ideal for the Cinderella-type rags-to-riches genre, and Hollywood made fine use of it. Combined with her fluid dancing skills, she became one of the top foreign musical artists of the 1950s, while her triple-threat talents as a singer, dancer and actress sustained her long after musical film’s “Golden Age” had passed.

The impression she made upon Kelly was enormous. Whilst her talent and reputation as a dancer had already been recognized in certain quarters, her opening night performance in Petit’s 1948 ballet “La Rencontre,” which was based on the theme of Orpheus and featured the widely-acclaimed dancer ‘Jean Babilee’, was attended by the Hollywood star and his wife. No introductions were made that night, and the 17 year old returned home blissfully unaware of the impression she had made. However, a year later Kelly would remember Leslie’s performance when he returned to Paris in search for a partner for his upcoming movie musical.

Kelly and newcomer Caron’s touching performances and elegant and exuberant footwork (especially in the “Our Love Is Here to Stay” and “Embraceable You” numbers, as well as the dazzling 17-minute ballet to the title song) had critics and audiences simply enthralled. The film, directed by Vincente Minnelli, won a total of six Oscar awards, including “Best Picture,” plus a Golden Globe for “Best Picture in a Musical or Comedy”. Leslie was put under a seven-year MGM contract where her luminous skills would also be featured in non-musical showcases.

Her talent for dramatic roles would first surface in two movies – Glory Alley (1952) and The Story of Three Loves (1953), – but she would really hit her stride opposite Mel Ferrer in ‘Lili’ (1953), a role that would earn her an Oscar nomination, in addition to a British Film Award for “Best Actress.” In her autobiography, she writes with great affection about Fred Astaire, and rising to the obvious professional challenge of working with him, would be at her waif-like best once again in the musical Daddy Long Legs (1955).

She would work consistently throughout the 50’s but it would be the delightful ‘Gigi’ – a lush musical classic – that would remind audiences once again of her unique, international appeal. Leslie tried the role out on the London stage prior to doing the film version, and the musical wound up receiving nine Academy Awards, including “Best Picture,” with Leslie herself being nominated for a Golden Globe as “Best Musical/Comedy Actress”.

The film version of Fanny (1961) was more adult in nature for Leslie and was blessed with gorgeous cinematography, a touching script and the continental flavor of veterans, Maurice Chevalier, Charles Boyer, and Horst Buchholz. At the movie’s centerpiece is an age defying then 30 year old child-like Leslie, who is mesmerizing as a young girl with child who is deserted by her sailor/boyfriend. Even more adult in scope was the shattering British drama The L-Shaped Room (1962) wherein the actress plays a pregnant French refugee who is abandoned yet again. She earned her a second British Academy Award and a second Oscar nomination for this superb performance.

Interspersing film work with theatrical runs – “Ondine,” the Royal Shakespeare Company – she also displayed a flair for onscreen lightweight comedies – “Father Goose” (1964), a particular favourite of mine – in which she starred opposite Cary Grant.

Further plaudits would come her way in her role as a complex working class mother role in the remarkable Italian film Il padre di famiglia (1967), but the onset of her 40’s would bring professional atrophy and failed relationships.

Despite her demons – drink would progressively take a hold of her late in life – she is to be greatly admired for devoting her energies to other pursuits. Her efforts to convert an old warehouse in Burgundy into a lovely Auberge, would bring her into contact with the inevitable pot pourri of charlatans and shysters, and yet she would persist to the end in order to realise her vision. Involving herself in every aspect of the work, from staff appointments, construction, decoration and finance – the recollection of her initiation into paid contracts is hilarious – bears testimony to her determination. The eventual appointment of a sound business manager and an enviable Japanese chef, sealed the success of the venture, and in February 2013, she would sell the boutique hotel and restaurant to the chef Jérome Fertel, a local from the Sens area. It remains a fitting testimony to her original dream.

The following article recounts the history of the project, and her desire for tasteful decor rather than Hollywood styled ostentatiousness.



In her autobiography “Thank Heaven”, she recalls the ending of her romance with Warren Beatty:

“A while later I flew to Los Angeles, and immediately Warren told me that he didn’t think I was right for Bonnie. ‘You’re a foreigner. Bonnie must be played by an American actress.’ He also felt that there was a problem of age. (I was five and a half years older than he.) He expressed himself with straightforward bluntness.”

‘Let’s face it, you’re too old for me. I’ve offered the part to Natalie.’ Natalie Wood was his girlfriend before me. That hurt. However, as everyone knows, she turned him down (Faye Dunaway would secure the role). Bonnie and Clyde was a magnificent film. Now that forty plus years have passed, the pain has worn off, and I can smile at his raw ambition and ruthlessness. At the time, it knocked me dizzy. Inecvitably, we drifted apart. Warren stayed in Hollywood, making the film. I stayed in London, close to my children. Good luck, Warren! We have stayed friends all these years, in a loose sort of way.”

Her marriage was in trouble in the spring of ’63 when she met Beatty. Winning a Golden Globe but missing out at the Oscars, she was in ‘party mode’, leaving her readers in no doubt that the pair were ‘sharing affections’ within hours of their initial meeting. She adds on page 164 – ‘I lingered another week in Beverley Hills and had what they call a ‘good time’.

Her second marriage, to the British theatre director Peter Hall, was all but over. The couple had two children and when she and Hall divorced in 1965, Beatty was named as a co-respondent, being ordered by the London court to pay “the costs of the case”. Once again , as so often in life, impetuosity won the day. She further writes:

“To this day, I reproach myself for my immaturity, my lack of strength to overcome our difficulties. I had never been able to fight for my rights. Pain and an immense guilt about the children overcame me. Depression settled in my heart, the beginning of a long, intimate relationship.”

Let’s be frank about this. Very few of us have singularly failed to experience the torment of a relationship in trouble. What invariably follows is predictable, to say the least. Whilst millions move swiftly on to another relationship – Caron was no exception – the fortunate few prevaricate, perhaps sensing the sheer absurdity of so called ‘happiness with another person,’ and live to fight another day. An all powerful presumption exists of grass being greener on the other side, despite the statistical suggestion that individuals move from one problematic scenario to something far worse! It’s the human condition, and coming to terms with it is the secret to staying ‘on track.’ Commitment should follow a careful appraisal of one’s priorities in life, and a capacity to moderate natural inclinations, to compromise, and learn from previous mistakes. Recalling her halcyon early days with Hall, Caron writes on page 124:

“In the immense whirl of excitement that had overtaken me, just a little note of warning lodged itself in a corner of my brain. As we were driving from Oxford to London, Peter asked me , ‘Are you planning to continue your career? To my positive answer, he then asked, ‘Why? Why so ambitious?’ I replied, ‘Because I’m a professional actress. I’ve been trained to work. It’s my life.’ I thought the subject closed and worried no more about it.”

What followed was the usual ‘conflicting interests’ problem of two driven people. On location with her two children filming “Fanny” in the south of France, she was alone for long periods in the evenings and recalls on page 154 :

“In need of fulfillment, my longing heart turned to Jack Cardiff, our remarkable cameraman. Just a passing infatuation, but what became very clear was the diffioculty of reconciling marriage and a movie career.”

Of all the love affairs she details in the book, the only one of deep significance would seem to be her near-nine-year marriage to Sir Peter Hall, then a tall, handsome, brilliant, charming, ambitious, beguiling and persuasive [her description in the book] theatre director. They met in 1956 when he directed her in the stage version of ‘Gigi.’ A ‘magnetic pull’ led them to bed after the first night – ‘The next morning I said an urgent prayer: “Please God make this last for ever”’ – and to Marylebone register office later that year when she was already pregnant.

Interviewed in 2011 to promote her book, she was frank enough to admit:

‘We still have this deep basis of love for each other. I went to his 80th birthday [tribute] and was thrilled to see the acclaim. But there was no way I could keep on being his wife in the kitchen – that’s what he wanted. In those days he hadn’t realised that if you marry an artist you’ve got to let her continue her art.’ Resentment understandably grew. She dreamed of his directing her in Shakespearean parts; instead he asked her to make the sandwiches for his production meetings. She remains ambivalent about whether he respected her professionally or not:

‘He did and he didn’t. He didn’t want to. It amounts to that. He did not want to admit that he admired you. He had his own legend to create. And he was afraid that I was going to overshadow him. At the time, I was by far the bigger star of the two of us. He absolutely had to fulfil his destiny and painful as it was to part, I think we did the right thing. He had his destiny and I had my life to live. He really resented me going off to do any film. But [in 1963] I went to do a film with Cary(Grant) and there was a dinner where Warren [Beatty] was invited and I was invited – and that’s when our affair started.’

Caron bolted with Beatty, the arch philanderer, seeing her children Christopher and Jenny during their school holidays. ‘I suddenly saw how I was fooling myself: “I am not a Shakespearean actress. The British will never accept me on the stage. I’m with the greatest British director who’s never going to include me in his work – what the hell am I doing here?” In Hollywood there was a place for me, parts were coming up. I was one of the queens of Hollywood. Warren and I were like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. We were the “it” couple.’ Unfortunately, she had had gone from one domineering man to another’ Warren told her what to wear and suggested an analyst to correct her character flaws. She goes on to recall in her autobiography (and this comment flawed me) – ‘He woke me at 5am one morning to complain, ‘You’re sleeping – you’re not thinking of me.’ Elaborating further in her interview with The Daily Mail in 2011:

‘It was this education of my mother’s. She made me believe men know everything and if by chance you know more in some subject, shut up. It took me years to liberate myself.’ Admitting that she was happier on her own, her coda is self explanatory – ‘I never knew how to defend myself against men.’

Perhaps that’s what life is all about, namely the ability to recognise a cycle of broadly similar mistakes and to halt the repetitive process until it becomes life consuming. The most common admission from people I have met throughout my life has been a failure to trust to one’s intuition. I personally feel that, on many an occasion, it has been the one attribute I possess that has never let me down – by no means a foolproof defence against making mistakes, but certainly a means by which rash and impetuous decisions were avoided. Caron, by her own admission, has repeatedly ignored her intuition.

In 1968, she met her third husband, the American new wave director, Michael S. Laughlin. Living with him in late 60’s London, there were warning signs in her fun filled schedule – consistently waking early despite the late nights, and the need for a swig of port to go back to sleep. Worse still, she was betraying her maternal instincts in favour of a relationship with a new man. She writes on page 191:

‘The children with Lilene (their nanny), would tiptoe past my door on the way to school, and I felt a pinch of guilt’.

On the next page, she writes:

‘After a few months, Michael insisted on marrying me. I was less than enthusiastic; a little voice told me that we had very different tastes and temperaments. He had, if truth be told, a fierce temper, at home as well as on the tennis court.’

Still, he was interesting and challenging company, with a unique ability to organise sensational holidays. Despite her misgivings, she would marry him, subordinating a rapidly growing atavistic obsession with houses that clearly ran in the family, with her husband’s nomadic instincts. Calling time on the relationship in the mid-70’s when he initiated a ‘hesitation waltz’ between London. Hollywood and Paris, domestic travails would run parallel with professional frustrations, as interesting film parts began to dry up. Yet Caron would remain unprepared for maturity, regretfully declining a play written by James Bridges about a forty year old woman who destroys herself with alcohol. The part, had she accepted it, would have been eerily prescient.

Her major mistakes were made before the onset of her 40’s, and whilst intuitive feelings can often cause great concern, frustration, and unhappiness, I’ve personally never ignored their presence except on one occasion when I was way too young to interpret them. Later, as I grew older, it became apparent that if aspects to a person with whom one had formed an attachment, did not appear to “add up,” a confrontational argument was unlikely to achieve anything. People invariably become extremely defensive and uncommunicative, and the more they feel they have to be uncomfortable over, the more adept they become at hiding their past. Equally, patience may not be rewarded with a frank confessional. For example, a person who has had multiple relationships and has singularly failed to make any such union endure, should be viewed with caution. Why on earth would you bring anything to the table that all those before you had singularly failed to produce? When Sinatra and his fourth wife were on the brink of divorce, the singer was reported to have said “Aarh Barbara, who’d want us now at our age?” Not a terribly romantic comment, but one recognised by his wife as completely truthful. Personally, I’ve never wished to end my days in relationship number twenty, simply because there wasn’t sufficient life left in me to look for number twenty one. If you are able to take the most unflattering look at yourself and focus on how your partner sees you, then there is scope to change. On a superficial level (but only superficial in my eyes), I used to be a man possessed when something broke down in my household. The rush to repair, often with inadequate tools, was accompanied by a demeanour that made others feel tense. Nowadays, and especially in extreme cases, I take positively ages to restore an item to full working order. As for the little items, I’m so laid back, it’s a wonder I stay awake! The point to all this? We reserve our worst behavioural traits for our loved ones. Try imagining the very worst nondescript day you could possibly have – late for an appointment, a trusted car that breaks down, a large business contract that falls through. Now imagine relaying the day’s event that evening either to a) to your wife of ten years or b) your new partner of one month. Acting in the same manner in scenario a) as you would naturally do in scenario b) is far from easy, but achievable if you wish to put some zest back into your relationship. It took me years to understand what’s worth fighting for in life, and how to go about it. Caron clearly regrets the break up of her second marriage and its effect on the children. She had every right to seek professional fulfilment, yet I doubt she was able to debunk the whole process If Caron could have stressed her need for professional fulfilment, and the beneficial knock on effect in her private life, whilst debunking acting ron

Control figures highly in failed relationships, and actors are notoriously self centred and insecure individuals. All the warning signs were there with her second husband before they tied the knot. If Hall wanted a housewife, then why the hell didn’t he select a more obvious candidate? After all, the actress was obviously committed to her career, however disdainfully he may have compared Hollywood with the legitimate theatre. From her perspective though, he was also quite prepared to enjoy the trappings of an affluent lifestyle she was clearly able to provide. Perhaps if the pair of them had been able to comprehend the relative insignificance of their chosen professions – insignificant say, compared to the many who work in the medical profession or in the field of agronomy in underdeveloped third world countries – then jealousy, egotism and personal neuroses might have been ‘safely parked’ for the greater good of the marriage, andof course their two children. Eventually of course, Caron would allow the cycle of her personal relationships to continue when she married Michael Laughlin in 1969, best known as the producer of the film ‘Two-Lane Blacktop;’ – they would divorce in 1980. Quite prepared to detail these intimate moments in print, stars should expect comment; after all they consider themselves sufficiently important enough for people to be interested in their recollections. My own personal interest simply comes from a different perspective, being usually prefaced by that all important question – why?

Caron reportedly lives alone now, and the reflective views expressed on the last page of her autobiography say it all:

‘The question remains: Have I been happy? The answer is, Yes, I have often been happy – even very happy. Not consistently, but in spurts, and, strange as it may seem, I believe that happiness grows with age. Of course, having children gave me the greatest joys, after which must be counted successes in my professional life. Happiness with men, I will admit, comes in third – not last, but third.’

I’m sceptical that she hasn’t put professional goals above all else throughout much of her lifetime, but that is an internal issue to be resolved with her now grown up children. It’s none of our business. As for happiness, I must confess I really don’t understand the concept of skipping about feeling ‘happy’. Unbridled joy at certain key events in life – yes, undoubtedly so. Contentment? – an appreciation of all that one has to be grateful for, good health, good food, a growing family unit – again yes. Wisdom? – definitely. God, it has taken me years to reconcile the fabulous insignificance to my existence, whether it be in relationships or professional work. As for death? – a twenty minute service, a gathering of a few people to reminisce over some cucumber sandwiches, and then that’s basically it. I do laugh at myself, and whilst I temporarily lost the ability to do that a few years back, I’ll never again. I just cannot get worked up about much of anything these days – death comes soon enough so what’s the point? My wife still laughs uproariously at my ‘take on life’ and every time I’m tempted to be selfish, I turn it around and perform a kind act. The smile then comes back threefold.

As for people I’ve known in my past? – I really don’t miss them, and they most certainly don’t miss me. We all live busy lives. In any event, I never really knew who they were anyway; for it appears obvious to me, that we encounter only one relationship in our lifetime where the potential exists to ‘cut through the crap’, to discover the real inner person, to feel the overwhelming desire to overcome problems, and to self improve.

It isn’t a pleasant thought being insignificant, but there’s reward in the tranquility that comes with this realisation. Caron clearly reflects on her second marriage more than any other past relationship, because it entailed the fracture of her family unit. I don’t believe people ever truly recover from that experience.

If Leslie Caron is truly finding that happiness comes with age, despite never having sustained a relationship with a male partner through all of life’s trials and tribulations, then I must accept how different we all are. Yet her book suggests otherwise…………………………..

Recommended viewing

An American in Paris (1951)

Lili (1953)

Daddy Long Legs (1955)

Gigi (1958)

Fanny (1961)

The L shaped room (1962)

Father Goose (1964)

Il padre de famiglia (1967)

The man who loved women (1977)