Thank Heaven (Caron)

Thank Heaven: A Memoir - Leslie Caron

I found this memoir quite interesting, the more so since Caron had an international career rather than merely a Hollywood one. Like so many people whose name is made in Hollywood (and particularly women, unfortunately), her greatest celebrity came very early in her life, and from her thirties onward, both her career and her personal life appear to have been spent searching for new identities, sometimes successfully sometimes not.

 

Unusually, Caron had an extra string to her bow from the very beginning: her ballet career, which was associated primarily with the highly reputable Roland Petit company. Being picked out by Gene Kelly to co-star in one of the most celebrated Hollywood musicals of all time, An American in Paris, meant that she had many more opportunities than a dancer would normally have when the dancing legs failed, but she also identifies (with some frustration) the negative effect of that Hollywood association upon her acceptance within the continental European artistic communities. It is notable that the straight dramatic role that got her a Best Actress Oscar nomination, in "The L-shaped Room", was for a British film, not American or French. However, she did eventually work with Truffaut, whose ghost, she jokes, finds her parking spaces. In mid-career, she also appears to have become part of the Film Festival circuit, appearing on a number of major juries.

 

The chapters about American in Paris, Lili, Daddy Long Legs, and Gigi (the four roles instantly associated with her) I found the least interesting, possibly because we already know the principal characters so well. It's hardly news that Gene Kelly was a taskmaster and that he overrode the nominal director of American in Paris, Vincente Minnelli. We know that Fred Astaire was traumatized by the loss of his wife during "Daddy Long Legs" and nearly quit; it's nice to hear that he was able to genuinely lose the sadness for a moment as they filmed the Slue Foot number. On the other hand, I found the chapters about Caron's strong friendships with eccentric men like filmmaker Jean Renoir and author Christopher Isherwood to be new and illuminating. I was also completely unaware, until I read this memoir, that Caron was temporarily "Queen of Stratford", being married to Peter Hall of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Unfortunately, it appears that professional jealousy on his part greatly depressed her acting career: notably for this Canadian reader, he apparently put a stop to her projected appearance in two Shakespeare plays at the infant Shakespeare festival in Stratford, Ontario (where audiences, as she says carefully, would be "less doctrinaire" - read, unsophisticated). On her way out of that marriage, Caron had a lively affair with Warren Beatty.

 

Rudolf Nureyev pops up periodically in the narrative, which is always delightful - once, dancing a trio at a Met Gala with Caron and Baryshnikov; and then again teaching Caron Russian swear words for "On Your Toes", a return to a dancer's role that apparently was ill-conceived, given that she was in her fifties and had not danced seriously for decades.

 

There was another passing mention of a Canadian connection that intrigued me enough to do a little research - she mentions having signed on to do a "small Canadian movie", flying to Toronto, and then retreating - and presumably buying her way out of the contract - when she discovered the actors who were supposed to be teenagers were in their 20s. She gives the name of the movie as "Beginners Three", but it turns out that it was made as "The First Time", filmed chiefly in Niagara Falls, but a U.S. not a Canadian production. The lead was played by Jacqueline Bissett, and the whole thing looks entirely forgettable.

 

Although I think there are many episodes that didn't make the pages of this volume (one Goodreads reviewer points out the name of a lover in the 90s who is entirely omitted), Caron is nonetheless quite happy to be frank about people she didn't get along with, including David Niven, and both Kirk and Michael Douglas. Given the stories about how she breezed into a small town and imposed her will upon both bricks and mortar and the local townsfolk in creating and running an auberge, she doesn't seem overly worried about having rough edges herself. Certainly, losing the perks of a well-heeled childhood and surviving World War II in France, as she describes in the earliest chapters, must have made her into a rather tougher cookie than that shy little girl we think of dancing across from Kelly and Astaire. Given the length and variety of her career, it's good to have this record of how she saw her world.