“There we were outside in Los Angeles after the Premiere and I felt absolutely awful – sick. And Gene (Kelly) said “‘how do you feel?’” “ ‘I said, oh I think I have the flu’”. “And Gene said, ‘Oh honey, you don’t have the flu, you’ve just seen yourself on the screen for the first time!’ ”
Leslie Caron: The Reluctant Star on her film debut at 18, in An American In Paris 1951
Larry Weinstein is star-struck, but in a good way. He’s surrounded in his Toronto office by a bust of composer Maurice Ravel, performing arts posters, books and awards, all ephemera from his prolific documentary film career spanning the past 30 years. “I love music,” he confesses with a grin, quite an understatement from one of the founding partners of Rhombus Media, but there have been many other highly lauded non-music projects. He wrote and directed Inside Hana’s Suitcase, based upon the true story of The Small Wings, a group of Japanese children, and their teacher, Fumiko Ishioka, who helped solve the mystery of Hana Brady, whose name was painted on an old battered suitcase that they received from Auschwitz. And he co-directed the award-winning Our Man in Tehran, a riveting doc on the Iranian hostage crisis and Canada’s involvement by the late Ambassador Ken Taylor. Many say it’s the story Oscar-winner Argo didn’t tell.
When producer, Vanessa Dylyn, who had first met the French Hollywood legend Leslie Caron at a party, put forth the documentary idea and suggested Weinstein to direct, he admits, “I was really incredibly star-struck! Of course I saw An American In Paris and Gigi growing up and An American In Paris really was very avant- garde for those times, almost like a Renoir painting in many of the ballet sequences. “And did you know,” Weinstein expounds, “that it was Leslie Caron’s idea to do the film version of Gigi? It was the first film to be shot almost entirely in outdoor locations, in and around Paris.”
In fact, it is those iconic landmarks in the film Gigi, (the Bois de Bologne, Maxims, Palais des Glaces,) inspired by Colette’s 1944 novella, that Weinstein uses as dramatic backdrops for Leslie Caron: The Reluctant Star.
“She’s a very humble person and I was struck by how much, at almost 85, she speaks in the present and her desire to keep acting,” says Weinstein.
Although Leslie Caron’s life on the surface appears like a Cinderella story – plucked from Les Ballets de Paris de Roland Petit at age 17 by Gene Kelly himself who cast her opposite him in MGM’s An American In Paris, she quickly dispels that fairytale with her disarming candor.
“My mother had been a ballet dancer and she always talked of Pavlova and Nijinsky and Diaghliev so I was very eager to start ballet and I was the one who insisted.” (Ironically, Caron would one day dance with the crème de la crème of another era, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov.) I can still remember my grandfather screaming ‘Margaret, you want your daughter to be a whore?'”
Weinstein takes us on Caron’s journey as she visits the scenes of key moments in her life, from the impact of the Nazi occupation on her childhood:
“I remember as a child watching the Germans march up and down the Champs Elysees and how us, the French people were humiliated. Even as a child I felt that hatred. To this day I can’t watch parades.”
To the resentfulness of her mother who suffered from depression and eventually took her own life:
“I never expected motherly behavior, she never took my hand or hugged me. She only said ‘I’ll be there when you’re a star.”
And her succession of marriages and love affairs with controlling men including (Sir) Peter Hall the stage director, for whom Caron broke her MGM contract and moved to London in 1956.
They had two children: Christopher, a TV producer and Jennifer a musician and painter. “Right after we got married he asked me if I wanted to keep on working. Then he wouldn’t let me work anymore and it was like cutting off my arms and legs.” “That’s why we parted in 1965.”
Caron struck out on her own to play in such daring films as The L-Shaped Room in 1962, for which she received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. “It was the first time that an actress really showed being pregnant in a film and didn’t try to disguise it. It was a very, very hard film for me to do.”
Always a bit of a rebel bucking the Hollywood star machine, Caron first made the “Pixie cut” a world-wide hairstyle trend when she chopped off her hair herself right before filming An American In Paris. The cut was so scandalous it actually delayed the film for three weeks.
Of her famous two-year affair with Warren Beatty:
“Warren was a delightful companion for two years but throughout our relationship I felt a great sense of danger. I’m somebody rather staid – I don’t like the wild life. I don’t like excessive fame and the public life whereas he absolutely reveled in those circumstances. I was out of breath throughout,” she laughs wildly.
“I was the one who told Warren to do Bonnie and Clyde. He thought it was a Western. He told me I was too old to play Bonnie and he’d asked Natalie Wood. The role eventually went to Faye Dunaway. Warren was like a bee with every flower, plucking the honey.”
Caron eventually moved back to France, and continued to appear in films (Damage, Chocolat) and even rebuilt and ran an inn in Burgundy, Auberge La Lucarne aux Chouettes (the Owl’s Nest), from 1993 to 2009.
Though charming, quick-witted and perpetually optimistic throughout Weinstein’s documentary, we feel Caron’s deep disappointment that not just her mother, but France had also let her down. They thought she was “too American.” And interestingly it’s this regret, that she was unable to establish herself as a big star in France, despite working with leading directors such as Louis Malle and François Truffaut, that seemed to propel her forward into new projects.
That includes the delightful British TV series, The Durrells shot on location on Corfu in which Leslie Caron plays the eccentric Countess Mavrodaki. It’s produced by her son, Christopher Hall and has just been renewed for a second season.
TOP PHOTOS: (l-r) Leslie Caron in Gigi, photo Cecil Beaton; and photographed during the documentary, Leslie Caron: The Reluctant Star