Leslie Caron makes a startling appearance in the pages of a newly published book of film-star legends caught off-screen, off-duty and mostly off their faces. Jean Howard's Hollywood is a striking collection of informal snaps of the Tinseltown Court with its hair down, at parties, soirees, golf matches, and green-room snack breaks, all the celluloid Olympians at play. You get a camp Bogart, a sloshed and busty Garland, a suspicious-looking Brando, a nervy Cole Porter, a throng of third-division producers with bank manager moustaches... And in the midst of this grey, Fifties bacchanal, you encounter Ms Caron. She jumps off the page at you: 21 that spring, with two years of stardom already behind her, she looks at the enquiring camera with toothy directness, her face like a cheerful teenager's, innocent if not necessarily virginal. She seems miles removed from the ruckus of sofa seductions and moody posing. What on earth she is doing amid the Beverly Hills throng is a mystery. And when you meet her today, you still can't imagine her as part of it; there's no discernible bridge between that time and the rest of her uniquely mouvemente life.

"I didn't enjoy or use Hollywood," she said, "and maybe that's what saved me. Maybe this is why I'm still running. I didn't get stuck in it. The weird thing was, I could never remember the names of executives or which studio I was working for. There was a sort of block there - perhaps to save myself, I don't know. The scope of it, the artificiality of it was something I shied away from." She was, she says, mortifyingly shy. The studio gamine, star of the Gershwin musical An American in Paris (five Oscars) and Lili (she got an Oscar nomination) and Gigi (10 Oscars), she played up her ingenue persona as a defence against the tidal wave of foxy charm that raged about her. She found David Niven sly, mischief-making and violent (he once slapped her when drunk). "There was somebody very nasty in him, deep down." She met Cary Grant and Peter Lawford and Frank Sinatra and the rest of the naughty-boy "Rat Pack" but, mirabile dictu, "if anyone romanced me, I never noticed. You have no idea how shy I was. A real little mouse. I think that's why I played little girls for so long, because I couldn't face being a Hollywood star with all that glitter and self-assurance..." It wasn't a pose. Only someone genuinely appalled by the trappings of glamour could have turned down the director George Cukor when he begged her to make up a lunch quartet with, get this, Greta Garbo, Mae West and Barbra Streisand. "An absolutely historical luncheon, I know, but I would have felt very uncomfortable in front of these great dames. You know what happened at that lunch? Streisand said, `Gee, Miss West, I do so admire your work,' and Mae West replied, `Sure honey, I can tell by the way you bin stealin' it...'."

She laughs, an unexpectedly gleeful noise. Forty-five years after the Hollywood snap - she's 66 on 1 July - she is damnably good-looking. Her (unface-lifted) skin shows a few veins and her large blue eyes with their tiny pupils carry a freight of melancholy, but you'd kill to be seen with her on your arm at Le Caprice. Her auburn hair is cut in a becomingly floppy Juliette Binoche style. She wears an expensively simple canary- yellow cotton jacket with a tiny Aids ribbon and a recklessly decolletee white blouse. Like her clothes, her conversation is without pretension; she has, it seems, never lost a wide-eyed, romantic quality that surfaces when she talks about politics or buildings, or role models.

Her heroines are many and mostly French. Like George Sand (the nom de plume of Aurore Dupin), the French novelist and serial literary horizontale whom she is currently impersonating at the Chichester Theatre in a two- hander entertainment called Nocturne for Lovers. Each evening, the audience is treated to 14 transmissions of Chopin by the pianist David Abramovitz, and 14 pages of Sand's voluminously passionate correspondence, memorised and dramatised by La Caron.

"I haven't read George Sand's novels, but I've read her letters and there are 20,000 of them," said Caron. "They're so amusing and witty and profound and eventually dramatic; there was real drama in her life, when her daughter came between her and Chopin and broke up the relationship. There's a spontaneity about the letters which is completely undated." Caron is also a fan of Sand's political stance, her self-proclaimed Communism, her interest in workers' rights, her proto-feminism. "She once wrote, `I cannot recommend marriage to women so long as the law of the land condemns a wife to be a dependant, an eternal minor'," said Caron with evident satisfaction. "I adore her. Every day I discover new things about her. I found out she was descended from two kings of Poland. She had very noble blood, but always on the illegitimate side."

Listening to Caron rapturously discussing Sand's love life ("Her husband was nice enough but a boor, a country boor, and she decided there was no intellectual rapport between them..."), her fondness for painting, her adoration of her children, her famous lovers (Prosper Merrimee and Delacroix, as well as Chopin), her regimen of hard work at the end of the day, it's obvious that a considerable force-field of empathy is reverberating between the two women, a century apart. Sand married at 18, had a child at 19, then left her husband at 22 and went to Paris to meet her lover, Jules Sandeau. She wrote, painted, pontificated and was part of the revolution of 1848. In 1948, Caron was a Parisian star at 17, in the fantastically branche Ballet des Champs Elysee run by Roland Petit and his wife Zizi Jeanmaire. Gene Kelly spotted her on stage and brought her to Hollywood, aged 18. Her first husband was the heir to the Spam fortune, George Hormel, but her interest in processed meat waned after six months. She later married Peter Hall when they met on the stage set of Gigi in 1955, after Caron sought him out to direct Alan Jay Lerner's musical of a cocotte's progress. She left Hall and their two children to be with Warren Beatty in Los Angeles. Beatty encouraged her to write; later she took up painting...

OK, then, where did she feel the strongest affinity with the novelist? "In her total sense of independence," said Caron firmly. "I've got out of several marriages for the same reason. I cannot stand to be subservient to a man. On one hand, you're taught to look up to the man and be very domesticated, which I can be, just as George could - she was very good at sewing and making jam. On the other, I can't stand men who give orders, who say, `Right at 8 o'clock I want you in that dress, meet me there, I'll decide where we're going, we'll take the blue car...' Basically I just don't like rich men, who have the habit of giving orders."

Caron's voracious reading of Sand revealed a woman who was more entranced by the idea of sexual passion than the reality. "I noticed in the correspondence that the great loves of her life were filial or maternal. Her relationship with Chopin was very maternal. She quickly discovered that he just didn't have the strength, the stamina, to handle her. She writes somewhere about how Chopin is complaining because she insists on sexual abstinence between them. But, she says, if I acted any differently, I'd kill him..." Crabwise, the subject of mother and death have entered the conversation - a piquant pairing, given what happened to Caron's mother. She was an American divorcee and actress, rather looked down on by the family of Leslie's father, a French chemist from a long line of well-to-do lawyers. "My mother spent a little time in Texas when she was a child and could have played a southern belle. Physically, she was like a Botticelli, blonde and willowy and fine and vulnerable."

Leslie and her family were in Paris during the war, "from nine to 14. I remember the Occupation very well, but mostly I remember being cold and hungry and sick." Her parents' happy marriage suffered. "She couldn't stand the war, it depressed her and the way the family's fortunes went right down, it debilitated her immensely. After it was over she moved the family - my father and brother - to the Virgin Islands to set up a business, but very soon after she killed herself."

Suicide apart, she is clearly the strongest influence on Caron's life. She was a dancer, so Leslie became one. She had been an actress and decided her daughter should be one too. "She never told me I was pretty, but she was sure I should be an actress. She gave me lots of advice. `Now listen to me,' she said once. `Don't let them put you in a sarong. Remember what happened to poor Dorothy Lamour. And don't ever marry Mickey Rooney'" What had Leslie inherited from her? "She could do a bit of everything. She could paint, and write, she could dance and act if she'd tried harder, but at the time women weren't encouraged to work. She didn't have the strength of George Sand to break away. She instilled a contradiction in me. She always said, `Sweetheart, rich boys are just as nice as poor ones,' but she'd also say, `You can't depend on men to earn your living.'"

The omnicompetent mother surfaces in the daughter when it comes to building. Ms Caron has been obsessed for the last couple of years with La Lucarne aux Chouettes, a restaurant in Burgundy which, with her son Christopher, she bought as a ruin and renovated with her bare hands. "I'm a worker," she says, pushing a brochure across the table at me. "I like to put my hands into things. And I have an instinct about old houses. I see one that's about to be torn down and I can tell exactly what it could be turned into. I get very passionate about it." Her passion for The Owl House involved her in farcical negotiations with grasping building contractors ("When the first estimates came in, they were so enormous, I said, `Look boys, I may come from Hollywood, but we just don't have that kind of money,' and eventually I hired English workers instead) and enraged locals. "They're a very close society, the Burgundians," she said with infinite condescension. "Some of them have never been to Paris, though it's only 75 miles away. They said, `Who does she think she is, this woman?' But they were very surprised when it opened and now they're really proud of it. It's opened up the town. Before it, the town was known only for having two nursing homes for retired people. Its function was as a place people came to die. Now the locals eat here because it's cheap, and I get the fancy crowd from America, from Germany and England. I've had private planes come in and land." Indeed, the village of Villeneuve-sur-Yonne has never seen anything like it. Nor do they necessarily know who their benefactress- cum-patronne is, since she has never been a French film star. But she likes this curious hinterland of anonymity and celebrity.

It is not, however, a profitable initiative. The auberge barely makes enough profit to require Ms Caron to pay income tax. And the subject of workers inspires her to a lengthy riff on the iniquities of French socialism and its draconian employment laws. Even the new women of Mr Jospin's government fail to impress her, "because they're all so narrow in their view of socialism. It doesn't go beyond punishing the employers. They haven't come to the simple conclusion that, in order to pay an employee, you must have an employer. At least in a free market like England, if you do well, if you prove yourself to be a good employee, you can climb, eventually you can open your own business. In France you'd have to be a total cretin to start a business. Around Villeneuve, there's about 40 or 50 craftsmen of the first quality, builders, roofmakers, restorers. They would employ people if they could afford it, but they don't. Everyone works with his wife, his brother, his son. There isn't a single craftsman with an apprentice. That's French employment for you..." She can't even depend on the Hollywood jetset, who come to boost her profits, but only after May and June.

Self-protectingly cautious about the Hollywood star system when young, she is disarmingly modest about the interest value of her life. No she does not plan an autobiography. "I just don't think I've done enough to justify it. I hate the kind of biography which says, `I met so-and-so, and the critics said this and the public thought that, and I received this nomination and that award. It could so easily become... [she made an unladylike noise, like `Urrrrgh']... so trashy." Oh come off it, I said. Among other things it would be a bestseller in France: young Parisien lives through the Occupation, dances with Petit, meets Gene Kelly, stars in Hollywood musical, world at her feet, meets film gods, decamps for London, lionised therein, meets theatre gods, three marriages, stormy affairs, children, Hollywood again, more movies, paintings, books, depression, recovery and finally, after amusing Peter Mayle-style tussle with locals, opens fashionable eaterie in the land of her fathers... Surely? She shakes her head. She says nobody knows who she is in France. It is only when I comment on her tiny Aids badge that she even mentions something she is obviously very proud of.

"Well, I'm happy if it's taken for an Aids badge, but in fact it's the Legion d'Honneur." When did she get it? "Four years ago, from President Mitterrand. There were nine of us - War Office people, UN people, a rabbi, a singer, a war heroine. There I was in the middle of them. Mitterrand spoke about each person for 10 minutes, without a single note, about their lives and careers and works. He even mentioned my book, though he said it had rather an unpleasant title - Vengeance. He thanked me for having represented France to the world for years..."She looked down modestly at the table, clearly tickled pink by this recognition from the top, then looked up at me. "Personally, I think I deserve it just for my staying power with this" - and she banged a girlish fist down on the inoffensive brochure of her sunlit, maddening auberge.