Leslie Caron: Gigi comes of age

In her new film, Leslie Caron plays a starchy French matriarch but, in real life, she's always been drawn to outsiders. Hollywood's favourite ingénue talks to Geoffrey Macnab about the struggles of her US-born mother, and why she's never thanked heaven for Maurice Chevalier
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The Independent Culture

One of the paradoxes of Leslie Caron's career is that her most famous roles were the earliest ones, made when she had scant experience of acting. She is still defined in the public's eyes by Gigi and An American In Paris. Regardless of what she has done since, whether it's writing fiction (like her 1982 collection Vengeance) or playing George Sands on stage (as she did in the mid-Nineties), or taking a part as a downtrodden single mother in the British kitchen-sink dramaThe L-Shaped Room, people invariably expect a grinning, top hatted Maurice Chevalier to pop up at her shoulder and start crooning out lasciviously "Thank Heaven for Little Girls".

The roles that do come her way these days are rarely as substantial as one would expect for an actress of her status. She isn't, for instance, treated in especially flattering fashion in Merchant-Ivory's new film, Le Divorce. She plays the severe Madame Suzanne Persand, a frosty, sour-faced matriarch. Preoccupied with keeping up appearances, Mme Persand does little to help her American daughter-in-law (Naomi Watts) when her marriage threatens to break up. (She is, as Caron puts it, the kind of mother-in-law who would react to a suicide in the family by saying "that's in very bad taste".) The film-makers even manage to make Caron look frumpish and Lady Bracknell-like, a perverse achievement given that the 72-year-old actress iselegant and glamorous in person.

In truth, Mme Persand is only a minor character in Le Divorce, but Caron still gamely joined the publicity bandwagon that travelled from Venice to Deauville earlier this month in a bid to drum up interest in the movie. There is, she acknowledges, something curiously detached about the way that the French and American families alike regard the separation in Le Divorce, despite the tragic events it provokes. Caron, whose second marriage (to the theatre director Peter Hall) ended in a highly public divorce in 1966, with Warren Beatty as a co-respondent, doesn't see much humour in the subject. "It [divorce] is one of the worst experiences. It's an admittance of failure," she says. None the less, the snobbery and the highly coded language of the upper-class French family depicted in the film were something familiar to her from her own upbringing.

Born in 1931, Caron was the daughter of a wealthy French pharmacist (Jean-Claude Caron) and his American-born wife, Margaret Petit, a Broadway dancer. Her father's well-to-do family "looked down" on her mother. "My mother was beach-blonde. She had been a ballet dancer. She was a divorcee and she was a bit older than my father. I tell you, there was a lot of prejudice."

Caron is a movie star by default. Despite - or perhaps because of - opposition from various relatives (including a grandfather who asked her mother "Margaret - do you want your daughter to be a whore?"), she decided at the age of 11 to become a professional ballerina.

"In my grandfather's youth, being a ballet dancer was the same as being a whore. All ballet dancers were kept woman," Caron elaborates. "Showing your legs on the stage was a pretext to attract rich gentlemen. And even when I was a girl, upper-class young ladies certainly wouldn't go on the stage as actresses, let alone as ballet dancers."

She was stubborn, though, and had a natural aptitude for dance: she had good limbs; was supple, gracious and "in the right proportions". She wanted to emulate her mother and, above all, to be admired by her. "All my mother talked about was [Anna] Pavlova and [Vaslav] Nijinsky," she recalls.

Fifty years on, Caron still sounds vaguely regretful that she was sidetracked by cinema. She was only 18 and already a prima ballerina when she was spotted by Gene Kelly, who had seen her on stage in Paris. It was her lucky break, but it also signalled the beginning of the end of her dancing career. "I'm the one movie star who never tried to be in the movies."

It's fitting that she should be seen now in another film about Americans in Paris. Caron has witnessed the best and worst of the city. Growing up in the Vichy years (she was eight when war was declared), she suffered a rude awakening after what had been a luxurious and pampered childhood. During the war, she was reduced to wearing shoes cobbled together from her great grandmother's opera gloves. Like Audrey Hepburn (who grew up in occupied Netherlands) she was painfully thin. To boost their diets, the family ate horsemeat, dandelions and even seaweed. "Time was suspended," she remembers of the war years. "Every sentence seemed to start with 'before the war' or 'after the war'. To a child, it seemed an endless, dreary daily fight."

When she was starring in An American In Paris in Hollywood, Caron suffered from glandular fever as a direct consequence of the malnutrition she endured during the war. Though she cites Gigi as her favourite among her films, it's noticeable that she isn't especially fulsome of figure like her co-star Maurice Chevalier (who was accused of showing sympathy for the occupiers and once performed in Nazi Germany). There was always a shadow over their names. Not that this was a subject she ever broached with Maurice Chevalier. "God, no!" she exclaims.

Caron was a muse to both Truffaut and Jean Renoir, two of the legendary figures of French cinema. Next month, on 21 October, Caron and her friend Madeleine Morgenstern (Truffaut's widow) will meet for lunch, as they do every year, to mark the anniversary of Truffaut's death. Caron knows precisely what she will order - a large dish of praire oysters. "His widow and I always get together for lunch and eat the same dish and talk about him." Why oysters? Caron used to hate them but Truffaut once took her to a restaurant and, while she wasn't looking, put some on her plate. "I automatically ate them and became quite fond of them."

She was introduced to Truffaut by Renoir, whom she first met by chance on a railway platform on London when she was still a young dancer with the Ballet des Champs Elyseés. She was hurrying back to Paris for a performance. "There was one of those famous London fogs," she recalls. All the planes were cancelled and she and the film-maker ended up on the same train. "I noticed him and he [Renoir] noticed me. He and his wife told me later that they turned to each other and said 'this girl should be the lead in my film, The River'."

It was Caron's misfortune that The River was already cast and none of the other projects that Renoir tried to hatch for her ever came to anything. Nor did she work often with Truffaut. Her major role for him was as the philandering hero's great but enigmatic love, Vera, in The Man Who Loved Women (1977). She's an astute judge of his work and refutes the idea that the film (or its director) were sexist. "You have to understand that he [Truffaut] was a love child. His mother was pregnant out of wedlock and married just in time. The real father was Jewish... this illegitimacy in every way pushed him to want recognition - and wonderful female conquests."

Caron felt recently that her acting career was "dead as a doornail". After all, in the Fifties she represented youth. "After Gigi, I was youth itself with Hepburn - we were the champions of youth." Neither casting agents nor the public would accept her in "mature and sophisticated parts". By the Eighties, she was "not a happy girl". Her collection of short stories, Vengeance, was written when she was at her lowest ebb.

Though she sounds content enough now, with her grandchildren, acting career and beloved Jack Russell, Toto, to occupy her, the brief downturn in her acting fortunes partially explains one of her more unlikely ventures. Once an MGM contract star, she now runs a B&B in provincial France.

There are a fair number of star-struck English and American tourists who turn up to gawp at the former Hollywood star in their midst. "They accost me and ask if Gene Kelly was a nice man." To her credit, the answer remains "yes"