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Leslie Caron remembers her life well in 'Thank Heaven'

Along with Audrey Hepburn, actress Leslie Caron was the epitome of gamine charm in films of the '50s, whether dancing with Gene Kelly along the banks of the Seine in "An American in Paris" or sipping her first glass of Champagne in "Gigi."

But Caron's life hasn't always been as sunny as an MGM musical. In her new autobiography, "Thank Heaven" (Viking, $25.95), she talks frankly about her riches-to-rags childhood during World War II, being discovered by Kelly while dancing with the Ballet des Champs-Elysées, the ups and downs of her film career, her mother's suicide, a rocky love affair with Warren Beatty, becoming an innkeeper and overcoming problems with alcohol and depression.

Caron, 78, was all smiles when we spoke over coffee in Manhattan.

Were some things, like growing up in Nazi-occupied France and your mother's suicide, hard to put down on paper?

Yes, but it's cathartic to bring out all of the things that hurt you. It is very healing. I remember Colette's advice to an actress who wanted to write: She said, "Look at what pleased you, and look even harder at what pained you."

It sounds like you were very naive when you went to Hollywood.

And I remained naive all my life.

What did you expect when you first got there?

From Europe, you imagine Hollywood as glittering and fun and glamorous. It just wasn't. OK, there was one night of the year, for the Academy Awards, when everyone got dressed up and ate lobster for dinner. But the rest of the time it was just a town that works very hard. Everyone gets up at 6 and goes to the studio and works like a dog, comes home exhausted at 6 and goes to bed at 9.

You weren't even 25 and you were dancing with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Was it intimidating?

Not really. I came from the Ballet des Champs-Elysées, which was top of the tree in Europe. It was really glamorous and wherever we went, we would be invited by the embassy and kings. And I didn't have this childhood education of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, as I grew up during the war and the American films were not available.

Do you regret that they dubbed your singing for "Gigi"?

Yes I do, but Arthur Freed and Alan Jay Lerner wanted to release the record before the film to warm up people for the film. So the voice had to be more professional than mine was. I also lost a lot financially. They released my voice 50 to 60 years later, and I got about $7 in royalties.

But did you do your own singing in "Lili?"

Yes, I did get nice little checks from that all my life. [Laughs.]

Were there any roles you wish you had gotten?

I wish Charlie Chaplin had chosen me instead of Claire Bloom for "Limelight." And there was another film where Anne Bancroft played a dancer. She didn't even know how to tie her shoes. But she could act.

You built your auberge from abandoned buildings. Did your need to restore them stem from growing up during the war?

I really have a dislike of ruins. One must continue rebuilding what man has created. My family suddenly lost its fortune during the war, so I think of all the time and effort to recreate this situation and rebuild the things that were destroyed.

You really had a difficult time dealing with contractors and builders and it took its toll on you. Did you ever feel like "I can't do this anymore, I give up?"

I never give up. I found it very hard, but it never occurred to give up. I used to think one day it will be finished. Everything gets finished. It was endlessly boring actually.

You didn't find it creative?

No, you're looking at a pillar of stone that's ramshackle, or bricks eaten away by knocks from cars. It's just little details. Do I correct this? Do I change the bricks? It's just one little detail at a time and you have no time to think of it as a whole. I remember my surprise when people actually came in to have dinner. People who were clean, who didn't have dust on their shoes, clean nails. It was so surprising. I did very well with it for a time. We had to close down. I couldn't withstand the crash, and since 2009 was so bad, I had to close down. And I'm looking for a chef to buy it and take over.

Have you gotten much reaction from family and friends about the book?

I sent it to my children before it was released so that they were fully prepared. My son read it and gave it his blessings. My daughter is very sensitive and I think she's afraid to be hurt, so she hasn't read it yet. She's read the beginning, which interests her, about the background of the family. She hasn't read further.

Originally, weren't you supposed to have somebody help you write the book?

No, I was never going to write it at all. . . . In a way, I wrote a lot of autobiographical stuff in my short stories , but to write out my life, made me very nervous. A friend of mine who is a writer, Bruce Benderson, said "there's no book about you, let me write a book. We will meet about the beginning of May. Keep the whole two weeks free and I'll come with a microphone and we'll record everything you say. I'll type it and write it. I'm a good writer, I can make it very dramatic," and I said "OK, fine."

Very soon, even on the first day we met, he had an appointment and I realized he could only give me two hours. He was doing the promotion for his book. Then the next day was the same - he had a luncheon, a radio interview. And I was left with all that time. So I started doodling on my computer, and after about a week, I had five pages. And I thought, I can do it.

So he corrected me for a while, he supervised me, gave me advice. And I took his advice, which was very good, about not being shy of emotion and giving dialogue whenever I could. Then after I found a publisher and editor and an agent, they also gave me good advice.

Did you need to do some research or contact friends and family about events?

Strangely enough things came back. And I wrote essentially about things that I did remember firsthand. My brother is very good on the family tree, so he gave me the background detail on our grandfathers and great-grandfathers. And then little things here and there from my friends and my children. On the whole, it seemed as though I noticed things and I recorded them in my mind as way back as 5 years old. It's sort of embedded, and that's what I wrote about. And the more you think about things, the more things come back.

What was the difference between dancing with Fred Astaire and dancing with Gene Kelly?

One was more centered on ballroom dancing. He was a genius, but his world was based on ballroom dancing and nightclub dancing. That was Fred. And Gene was far more an athletic dancer and put far more industrial life into his dancing. He danced walking the streets, he danced playing football.

You'd only been in Hollywood for about three years when you got your first Academy Award nomination [for "Lili"]. Were you surprised?

Things happen to me like it was normal. It was normal at 16 to be picked up by Roland Petit from the ballet and be given five minutes alone on the stage just like that, in the Theatre des Champs Elysees, which is something like your Metropolitan Opera House. And then I became one of the leading dancers in that company. And from there Gene Kelly saw me. . . . I was not ambitious, it just happened to me. I tried my best throughout my career to just catch up with the extraordinary opportunities I was given and to be worthy of them.

You said you were never really that ambitious, but it did seem like when you were married to Peter Hall , you were anxious to grow as an actress.

Very much, and I would have given up my international career gladly to be partners with him in the theater, but he wasn't interested and he did not want me in his world. And that's what made us part finally.

It was fascinating to read about the close friendship you had with Jean Renoir. What was the biggest lesson you learned from him?

A manner of living. . . . He told me "when the sun goes down, don't use your eyes. Stop working." And there was his generous outlook on things. He never gave you a little piece of butter, he never gave you a slice of butter, he gave you the package.

In the book you mention that you're looking for your next adventure.

I have a job on the stage. I'm doing a few performances as Madame Armfeldt [in "A Little Night Music"] at the Chatele in Paris. And it's with Kristin Scott Thomas playing Desiree.

Do you find a big difference in European filmmaking versus Hollywood filmmaking?

Hollywood puts immensely more money and effort in it. They're fantastically professional and inventive and passionate about it. I think American filmmakers are totally dedicated to making good films and to succeeding. The French are a little more laid-back. I don't want to say amateurs, but they don't put their lives on the lines like Americans do.

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