Author Interviews

'Gigi' Star Caron On Younger Days: 'Thank Heaven'

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Leslie Caron was an 18-year-old ballet student living in post-war Paris when Gene Kelly cast her to play a wide-eyed young beauty he meets in post-war Paris in the film An American in Paris. Caron went on to star in Gigi and Daddy Long Legs, and became known for playing young French women who discover life, men and champagne. Host Scott Simon interviews Caron about her new memoir, Thank Heaven.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Leslie Caron was an 18-year-old ballet student living in post-war Paris when Gene Kelly cast her to play a wide-eyed young beauty who he meets in post-war Paris. That film, "An American in Paris," won a slew of Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and is considered one of the best-loved films of all time.

But just a few years before she became an international sensation, Leslie Caron and her family were eating dandelions that they'd gathered from along the railroad tracks during the war in France.

Leslie Caron went on to star in "Gigi," "Daddy Long Legs," becoming known for playing a young French woman who discovers life, men and champagne.

(Soundbite of movie, "Gigi ")

Ms. LESLIE CARON (Actor): (Singing) The night they invented champagne, it's plain as it can be, they thought of you and me. The night they invented champagne, they absolutely knew, that all we'd want to do...

SIMON: But Leslie Caron also won praise for unexpected roles in "The L-Shaped Room" and "Father Goose." She was also married to the director Peter Hall, among others, and is probably the only person in the world to have danced with Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev.

She's written her autobiography now. It's called "Thank Heaven," and she's in our New York studios.

Thank you for being with us.

Ms. CARON: It's a real pleasure. Thank you.

SIMON: So what was it like to dance with all four of them?

Ms. CARON: It was not bad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CARON: Absolutely terrific. What luck. What luck. Gene and Fred were just the most fabulous partners and I admired their dancing, their sense of rhythm, the beauty of every gesture. It just was such a piece of luck. I don't know how it happened to me that I was lucky enough to be chosen to be, you know, in this career that I never even dreamt of. I wanted to be a strictly classical ballet dancer and I had planned to call myself Caronova(ph) - you know, to rhyme with Pavlova. and it turned out very different.

SIMON: I must say I found some of the most interesting, if I might put it that way, certainly moving sections of your book - you talking about your family's life during the war. And I was struck by at one point you say that - I think it was on Sundays you'd watch German soldiers parade down the Champs-Elysees. And...

Ms. CARON: Yeah. Yeah, we didn't like that. That was very unpleasant. There was a sort of arrogance, and I developed a real hate for those shaved necks and also the smell of their boots. They would polish their boots with sort of fish oil cream and it remained with me. I hated that smell.

SIMON: You were 18 when you came to Hollywood with your mother. Was it both thrilling and frightening to be an 18-year-old in Hollywood?

Ms. CARON: It was, yes, mostly forbidding. I didn't know anything about filming and those great big holes where everything is dark except the light on you, and you're being filmed by a sort of metallic monster. And I didn't know anybody. I didn't know the language. So it was very intimidating at first. And Gene used to tell me: Honey, turn your face to the camera, otherwise your grandmother won't know you're in the film.

SIMON: You became Hollywood's, really the world's example of a young French woman learning about life.

Ms. CARON: And I wonder why? I wonder why me? I think it's because I was lucky enough to start with a musical where there isn't too much dialogue. And I learned my lines phonetically. And then as soon as the film was over, I started to take lessons with a New England teacher called Miss Fogler(ph). She had taught Ava Gardner to speak proper English without a Southern accent.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Right. Ava Gardner from North Carolina.

Ms. CARON: Yeah. And she taught me English. And she said to me on the first day, Well, how do you want to start? Do you want to learn grammar or do you want to read? And I said yes, I'd like to read "Hamlet." And she said, Well, it's not going to be a very modern vocabulary.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CARON: But nevertheless, let's go ahead.

SIMON: There's a startling sentence in your book which if you don't mind I will read. You turn the page to a new chapter and it says, What does it feel like to reach 50 when you've been known for your juvenile charm? Age crawls behind you and sneaks under your skin like an imposter.

Ms. CARON: I wrote this...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CARON: the silence of my room alone with my computer. I didn't mean for anybody to read it aloud.

SIMON: Sorry.

Ms. CARON: No, no, I'm joking. I'm joking. Of course, it's meant to be read. What does it feel like? It doesn't feel good. It feels frightening. And I don't think it's just frightening for actresses. I think it's frightening for every woman and possibly every man too. Suddenly men don't look at you in the same way in the streets. And suddenly there isn't the same, you know, kindness in the policemen if you get arrested for a yellow light. Everything changes. Suddenly you don't get those scripts anymore.

SIMON: Well, you're quite candid in the book about saying that you found some liquid consolation.

Ms. CARON: Yeah. Yes, I did. And I really was floundering. I didn't know where to go, what to do, and I did do this Auberge.

SIMON: This is, we should explain, the bed and breakfast that you operate.

Ms. CARON: Yes, I rebuilt. There were three or four houses, I guess, and they were practically in ruins. So I had to rebuild them. And once the work was over at night, I just found myself very much alone, very empty and lonely and tired. So I would, you know, have a drink and so on, and it became a very bad habit. I was on very dangerous grounds there.

SIMON: What kind of - to use the British phrase for it, pluck, does it take to pull out of that?

Ms. CARON: You have to want to. You have to look at yourself and decide, do I want to live or do I let myself die? Because it doesn't take any time at all when you're on that bad slide to not wake up one morning. So I decided, I guess, I want to live. And I went to see a psychiatrist and I went to AA, and I did both for several years, every day, every day, every day, and pulled myself out of it. And then when you get there...

SIMON: Yeah.

Ms. CARON: are happier than anybody who's never been down the pit. That's the great reward, is that you really cherish joy, happiness and life.

SIMON: Ms. Caron, thanks so much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CARON: Thank you. It was a great pleasure for me to talk to you.

SIMON: Leslie Caron. Her new book is "Thank Heaven."

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