From Technicolor Hollywood musicals to the kitchen sink… and beyond. Screen legend Leslie Caron’s career is well into its seventh decade and shows no signs of slowing. Wylde meets the icon at home and discovers the link between fame, fashion and feminism.
Interview by Luke Singleton
Portraits by Etienne Gilfillan
“Why don’t you go and sit next to Tchi Tchi?” screen legend Leslie Caron says to me, taking my raincoat and gesturing towards one of the sofas where her pet Shih Tzu sits pride of place, head bowed between two paws, sullen eyes staring up at me.
I am meeting Caron at her apartment in London’s Chelsea and, as I arrived and asked the porter to buzz me into the building, he sighed, “Ah, Leslie!”, his smiling eyes brimming with warmth. “I spotted her out this morning, walking her dog.” Ambling up the elegant, carpeted hallway in her building (one of those handsome Art Deco blocks sprinkled along the King’s Road) reminded me of the electric scene in her movie Daddy Long Legs. In the number Something’s Gotta Give, Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron dance a waltz on a similar landing in a dapper Upper East Side hotel, before they carousel away on a porter’s trolley. There’s even an old-fashioned, gated lift with a numbered floor dial here. I’ve arrived in Old Hollywood.
In her sitting room, there is a dazzling mother-of-pearl-embedded chest, home to a small collection of framed pictures and books. I scan the photos for familiar faces. I see Audrey Hepburn, William Holden, Lord Snowdon, (ex-husband) Sir Peter Hall and a Cecil Beaton self-portrait. Ivory walls are the backdrop to dozens of paintings, including many 18th- and 19th-century portraits of young children, as well as a number of abstracts. Everywhere you look there is colour; Leslie lives surrounded by her passions. I get a whiff of her Red Roses perfume as she pulls up a chair for herself, and places it next to the sofa. Nestled next to Tchi Tchi, I sit facing a large, framed portrait of Christopher Isherwood, painted in bright, psychedelic acrylics by his long-term partner Don Bachardy, who has perfectly captured his droll genteelness. In his book Diaries Volume Two: 1960-1969, Isherwood says of Leslie: “She is rather a magic person, so gay, almost affectionate, but with a welcome dash of lemon in it.” Later, he says of her: “She is quite likeable but not an utter darling, too cold-blooded.” I mention this and she flashes a smile. “I adored Christopher. He was loads of fun, besides being a remarkable writer and a remarkable human being. But the friendship wasn’t instant… it took a while for it to grow. He eventually became a mentor, of sorts, to me.”
Whilst living and working in California, Caron became part of the Hollywood intelligentsia; befriending some of the great visionaries, writers and directors in her profession. She had a particularly close relationship with Jean Renoir, who became her confidant.Tennessee Williams, François Truffaut, Terrence Malick and Cecil Beaton were dear friends and legends such as Rudolf Nureyev, Federico Fellini and Krzysztof Zanussi all had considerable influence over her career. Leslie was known for her great beauty when she arrived in Hollywood in 1950 and, looking at her now, she is still exquisitely beautiful: doe-eyed with a bee-stung pout and formidable cheekbones. She was known too for her youthful appeal that, at times, masked a razor-sharp intuition. Is that accurate? “Yes. Most people have said that about me. I am quite direct, but I try to hold back too.” (Said with a knowing look). “There are plenty of qualities that I admire in others. Kindness, intelligence and, yes, I have been seduced by charisma.” There’s another Isherwood quote about Leslie, at a dinner party, one evening in the Sixties: “Caron listened [to us] with French, polite cynicism, as she sat eating a snack supper and taking sleeping pills in a mini-skirt, with her hair down her back, looking still so young.” She gasps. “What… does he mention sleeping pills?!” “Yes”, I reply. “He says you were popping sleeping pills.” “Well, that’s not true. I never popped sleeping pills in company.” She pauses to gather her thoughts, but her eyes never leave mine. Eventually she glances away. “I don’t think, in those days, I was even aware that I popped too many sleeping pills. They weren’t officially in my life then.”
MGM successfully cast Caron in younger roles well into her late twenties. She was 22 when she played a 16-year-old in Lili, and 27 in Gigi, who, remarkably, at the beginning of the film, is 14. After the instant stardom that came with the latter movie, she achieved global box-office hits in the Fifties with iconic leading roles, which placed her opposite an enviable roster of Hollywood’s leading men, including Gene Kelly (who discovered her, performing ballet in Paris), Fred Astaire, Dirk Bogarde and Henry Fonda. She was Oscar-nominated for her performance in Lili and won the Bafta (as Best Foreign Actress) for the film.
Being a foreign actress under contract to a Hollywood studio, and well known for playing the ingénue in musicals, produced an abundance of creative restrictions. Fearing typecasting, Caron became impatient to improve herself. “I think actors today simply get better and better, unlike in the grand old days. Actors didn’t take lessons in the Fifties; it was considered a mistake amongst American studio heads. English actors have always been remarkable, as they constantly did stage work; there was never a taboo here. In America, there certainly was. Hollywood was suspicious. Being a skilful actor could even ruin your career. Laurence Olivier received bad notices because he was a good actor; he didn’t translate to film.” I’m reminded of Bette Davis’s initial struggle with Hollywood, having come from Broadway to find that studio heads were sceptical of her effectiveness on screen, casting her in soft roles. Davis mused upon her early career, playing ingénues: “My shame was exceeded only by my fury.” Caron’s insecurities echoed this: “There were moments when I believed I had done a good job in a particular role, but I still regarded myself as a dancer who had given up dancing too early and hoped to convince herself, and others, that she could become an actress, given the right chance.”
Caron’s moment arrived in 1962, with Bryan Forbes’s The L-Shaped Room, in which she fearlessly transitioned from MGM musicals to British kitchen-sink realism. Caron says in her autobiography, Thank Heaven: “In my heart of hearts, it was the kind of dramatic part I had longed to play,” and she seized the opportunity to escape Hollywood’s entrapment by playing Jane: unmarried, single and pregnant in judgmental Sixties Britain. Moral discrimination ensured that women, pregnant out of wedlock, lived lives of social obscurity, and the climax of the groundbreaking film shows Jane going into labour in hospital, alone. The first time a Hollywood star had depicted childbirth on screen, it was an act of career bravery and an indelible cinematic moment. She was nominated for the Academy Award for her performance, won a Golden Globe, and received a standing ovation when collecting her Bafta Award from Prince Philip. How significant was this particular win for her, then? “When you win, an Oscar or any award, that’s your future organised, for life.”
“Filming in Notting Hill in those days, it was a total slum. Every building was cruddy and peeling, with great big chunks of plaster falling off. Looking back at those old Victorian and Edwardian terraced houses, I thought it was the East End we were filming in.” It was around this time that Sir Peter Hall, her then husband, was trying to get his big project off the ground: building the National Theatre. “I remember Peter fighting with the London Council to get the funding. He was pushing and pushing – and he succeeded.” Was there much bureaucratic quarrelling over the Brutalist design? “It was left-wing, avant-garde architecture. A giant infrastructure of wooden planks, and they poured the concrete on top. That was such a novelty. People could now sit in an auditorium with raw concrete. It was so shocking and daring. But if the ideas were great…”
"The head of my son’s school would not send me my son’s reports, because I was a divorced woman"
Where did she fit in with the radical overhaul of politics and social values happening during this period? “It was a 180-degree change. It started in New York with women writers. The first person who talked to me about women’s independence was Jennifer Jones. I was there for dinner at the Selznick house and she announced the coming of Women’s Lib. I thought: “She’s absolutely crazy!” It marked me so much, I remember the dinner to this day. She was very forceful, and said: “Just you wait!” I was personally really dominated by men in my life, taught that way by my mother. But, little by little, I have gained my independence. Unfortunately, the oppression of women was commonplace in Hollywood; look at Marilyn Monroe. She had a few gorgeous successes, but her life was pure hell. Throughout your career, you were aware of your choices. Are you going to further your career or think of your health? She [Monroe] was reckless.”
Caron had a pivotal role in bringing her own film projects to fruition; one such role was Gigi. “That was my idea, actually. Fred [Astaire] visited me on the set of Lili. He disapproved of Lili and thought it would ruin my career… (it didn’t). So I came up with Gigi. I loved Colette’s writing very much. The play was being done on Broadway with Audrey Hepburn and I thought that would be a wonderful film.” Is she a feminist? “I think that women are the stronger sex. I have evolved enormously. I’m not against men, but I think men are weaker than women. People had very different notions of the position of women in the world. Common sense was remarkably unimportant. Newspaper writers, especially women, used to write articles along the lines of ‘How can you be a movie star and a mother?’ When I divorced Peter, the head of my son’s school would not send me my son’s reports, because I was a divorced woman. That was in 1965.”
Another group who felt the prejudice of the time were homosexuals. Many of Caron’s friends and colleagues were gay, so I imagine she saw this first hand? “Isherwood chose to live in a country, and specifically a state, where his homosexuality was accepted by most people. There was no scarcity of homosexual writers in Hollywood; people accepted them. It was difficult to be a homosexual and an actor, like Rock Hudson.” Did people know about Rock? “The profession knew. But people protected him, to allow him to work.”
Caron’s long-overdue blossoming, in the public’s eyes, was complete with the eruption of a salacious, international press scandal; her private life splashed across the front pages of the newspapers on either side of the Atlantic. On a wave of publicity from her awards successes, Caron had found herself back in Hollywood and in the arms of Warren Beatty. She left London for California, and the dissolution of her marriage to Hall sent the press into a frenzy. This must have been a difficult time? “It was very stressful; I found it difficult. In a scandal I feel very uncomfortable.”
They became the It couple of their generation. Cooler and savvier than Liz and Dick, they epitomised the new liberation of Sixties Hollywood. Beatty dazzled with his American playboy charm; an electrifying match for Caron’s polished European gentility. They were part of young Hollywood’s fashionable social set. They cruised Los Angeles in a convertible Lincoln Continental, making the penthouse at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel their home and, of course, threw some legendary parties. But for a while, their romance was kept hidden. There’s a hilarious anecdote I’d heard about Caron turning up to the set of Beatty’s movieMickey One, in full disguise, so that the crew wouldn’t know it was her. Did this happen? “It might have done,” Caron shrugs. What about Bonnie and Clyde? Is it true that she almost claimed the lead role, over Faye Dunaway? “Yes, that’s true. In the end, I was told I wasn’t American enough.” I mention that I’d read Renoir and Truffaut were not huge fans of Beatty, when they met him through Caron. There is a raised eyebrow. “Warren was a very sensitive person. He could be ruthless and opportunistic. He would turn down big Hollywood movies, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, to work with avant-garde creatives.”
There may have been ups and downs… but there were plenty of parties. Amongst her coterie, Caron was known to be a diligent hostess, who paid extraordinary attention to detail, hosting most of Swinging London in her house in Montpelier Square, Knightsbridge. Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate would visit, as would the composer John Barry and his wife Jane Birkin. David Bailey was there with Catherine Deneuve, as were Marlon Brando, Gregory Peck and Lee Radziwill. Caron hosted a party for Barbra Streisand on the eve of the opening night of Funny Girl, and a special industry dinner for Montgomery Clift. Back in Beverly Hills, she would entertain Hollywood friends and admirers, including Elizabeth Taylor, Woody Allen and Judy Garland. “I always thought Liz was adorable. Very generous and straightforward. Talk about insecure, though; she was always late… always postponing the moment when she’d be seen by other people.” And what about Woody Allen? “His style is unique. A great deal of wit, humour and cynical perception. I also adore his musical taste.” Judy Garland? “Extraordinary.”
“You meet people with fantastic intelligence and the door is open to their brain. Isherwood was like that. Tennessee was like that"
In 1966, Leslie starred in an ensemble cast alongside the great Orson Welles, in the war-themed movie Is Paris Burning? Her career choices continued to be intellectually stimulating and refreshingly unexpected for a star who had risen through the ranks at MGM. She found a kindred spirit in Welles, a man who also navigated Hollywood with great integrity. “He was seductive and brilliant. Interesting people with a fabulous brain are so simple and available. There is a simple line between you and them; brain-to-brain. You meet people with fantastic intelligence and the door is open to their brain. Isherwood was like that. Tennessee was like that. The door was open.”
I’m eager to know more about another inimitable character: Coco Chanel, whom Leslie played in 1989’s The Man Who Lived at the Ritz. Did she identify with this female revolutionary, who was also known for her complicated relationships? “I actually felt great sympathy for her as a woman, and as a humanitarian, which is totally overlooked by history.” In Thank Heaven, Leslie documents her tug-of-war on the film set with the costume department; sending clothes back to be remade, insisting on an uncompromising attention to detail that would have reflected Chanel’s own punctiliousness. Does she favour Chanel garments for herself? “I only have one thing by Chanel. But I did play her, so that is why I know so much about her designs. But my real favourite was Yves Saint Laurent.”
Leslie collected Saint Laurent’s clothes steadily throughout the Sixties and Seventies; amassing a covetable private wardrobe, which she eventually sold back to the fashion house, for its own archives. She attended many of Saint Laurent’s legendary shows. “There was something very singular in his taste, something left over from childhood. He designed for women who have something a little tomboyish in their flair. And then this real simplicity, plus wearability.” Who, if anybody, taught her about style? “One learned to dress by going to couture houses. My family were well dressed. Before the War, I saw nothing but elegance and good taste, in décor and dressing. My mother used to dress once in a while in couture houses. She would take me along, from aged 14 or so. The choreographer Roland Petit later told me: “You’ve got to have two good dresses: one black, one white.”
A most memorable white dress was the finale gown she wore in Gigi, designed by Cecil Beaton… and herself. “Cecil showed me the sketches, and I said: ‘That’s a good idea, with the birds on the shoulder.’ He said: ‘Birds? Did you see birds? They are black velvet ribbons! But if you want birds…’ I said birds would be fabulous. It made the originality of the dress.”
Sitting with Leslie Caron, I am deeply conscious of the weight of her experience. We’re together at the moment she finds out Lord Snowdon has died, in a call from her daughter Jenny. The phone comes down; I see tears in her eyes. She knew him well; he caught his big break when his photographs of her appeared in Vogue, in the Fifties. She stares ahead, stoically. “It’s terrifying how people suddenly just disappear. You want to pull all of your friends close. This is the problem with battling on through life. I’m here, but sometimes it’s very lonely.” I think of all the great people she has loved. Too many to even fit into one day. A storied life is nothing without love. As Caron herself philosophises, in The L-Shaped Room: “It’s nice to have love. If you take that away, there’s nothing left.”