It was a waif-like, whimsical Leslie Caron who captured the imagination of the American filmgoer in the 1950s in such films as “Lili,” “Gigi” and “An American in Paris.”
Thirty years later, it is a metamorphosed Caron, poised and reserved, who leans back in the settee of her hotel suite. Gone is the trademark pixie haircut, replaced by carefully coiffed auburn locks. Gone too, is the affecting French accent--a casualty of a years-long residence in London.
The accent conquered and the ingenue image disposed of, the 57-year-old actress says she is ready to take on new challenges. “My next project is to direct my own film,” said Caron, visiting Berlin as a jury member for the city’s annual film festival, which ended Feb. 21.
The actress, who said she hopes to begin filming the movie by late summer, simultaneously wrote French and English versions of the script, but said its lighthearted, farcical mood rings more French than British or American.
“It will be a comedy about a man and a woman who have reached their 50s and who for many reasons have decided to split up,” said Caron, who added that she will probably play the leading role.
“You can call it a merry-go-round of hostilities between a man and his wife. The story is very French and has the subtleties of French behavior, but the situation is universal.”
For parts other than in her own film, Caron said that she has put her acting career on a back burner.
“I’m refusing roles now,” she said. “I’m going to be doing much less acting as I plunge headlong into directing.”
While she says she enjoys the creative challenge of screen-writing, the role-change from singer and dancer to film director is proving more difficult than anticipated.
“People find it difficult to change their opinion of someone who is an international star,” Caron said. “When they consider you an ingenue or a dancer, it’s hard for them to accept you as a writer or director.”
Caron added, however, that initially she, too, had doubts about whether she could fill a director’s shoes: “It took me 13 years to pluck up the courage to direct. Since coming back to France I’ve had a hard time overcoming the sense of diffidence that overtook me; I went through a long period of self-doubt.”
Despite what was considered a fairy-tale career, Caron abruptly left Hollywood after a nine-year tenure at Metro Goldwyn Mayer to return to Europe with her husband at the time, British stage director Peter Hall. (That second marriage--and her three others--ended in divorce.)
“I just sensed that my career in Hollywood was finished,” Caron said. “There are about three women in film there who work beyond the age of 45. I started a new career in Europe, and it has been very rewarding.”
Since leaving Hollywood, Caron has primarily appeared on European stage and television, seeking out roles as different from the accustomed ingenue as possible. In a career that spans “something like 50 roles,” Caron said, the extravagant MGM productions in which she shared top billing with the likes of Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Mel Ferrer “were the biggest parts and the biggest productions, but they’re not the films I enjoyed doing most.”
In the past, Caron has been scornful of Hollywood, which she is quoted as having referred to as “a gilded cage” and herself as “the goose that laid the golden eggs” for MGM. Her tone today, however, is somewhat softer.
“My responding in a negative way to Hollywood probably had to do with the fact that I had just gone through the war, and American society was just too affluent. I was bewildered by it. It’s very hard to adapt to a country which has everything when you have just gone through grueling times. But I think by the end of my nine years there, I was assimilated,” Caron said.
MGM in the 1950s, Caron continued, “was really a star factory and I was lucky to have gone through that. There were some wonderful experiences when I worked with Vincente Minnelli or Fred Astaire, but it was a very long military service.”
Caron said that in recent years she has made about one film per year, portraying characters ranging from a “Virginia Woolf-type schoolteacher” to the madam of a bordello.
“I’ve been doing stage, some American television--I did stints on ‘Falcon Crest’ and on ‘Love Boat’ with my daughter Jennie--some French film and some English television.”
Despite her mixed feelings regarding Hollywood, when the topic turns to her legacy in American film, Caron’s tone becomes one of unabashed pride. “I’m the only French actress, I think, who has succeeded in Hollywood. Can you name another? Danielle Darrieux made one or two flops. Simone Simon did three or four ‘B’ pictures. Catherine Deneuve made one Hollywood flop.”
“Simone Signoret is the one who came closest,” said Caron. “She did two films--'Room at the Top’ and ‘Ship of Fools'--and there she didn’t even play the leading role.”