‘Gigi’ is still sweet
Five decades ago, Leslie Caron had no inkling that “Gigi” would become a legendary movie musical whose legacy is going strong today.
She remembers it well.
Caron was 26, a top star at MGM and mother of 3-month-old Christopher, when she flew to Paris the summer of 1957 to begin work on the lavish romantic film, considered today the studio’s last great musical.
“I had to wean my son to start the film,” she says. “I brought him to Paris with me.”
In retrospect, Caron, 77, speaking by phone from her home in Paris, says, “It’s really amazing when you make a film like that.
“It’s nice and lovely and you’re having a great time, but you never think it’s going to be mentioned or screened 50 years later.
“It never occurs to you.”
“Gigi,” based on the popular 1945 story by Colette, revolves around a young Parisian courtesan-in-training whose platonic friendship with a playboy blossoms into romance.
Directed by Vincente Minnelli and featuring an original score by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe of “My Fair Lady” renown, “Gigi” also starred Louis Jourdan, Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold. The film swept the Academy Awards, winning nine, including best film, director and song (“Gigi’).
Caron, who was discovered at 19 by Gene Kelly to star opposite him in 1951’s “An American in Paris,” will be discussing “Gigi” on Friday with critic Stephen Farber at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The evening culminates with a screening of a new digital restoration of “Gigi.”
If you miss her at the academy, Caron will also be appearing this weekend at the American Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre. She’ll be the guest of honor Saturday evening at the inaugural Santa Monica Puppetry Festival; and Sunday night, Caron will be in a discussion with film historian Leonard Maltin after a screening of her charming 1953 film “Lili,” about a young orphan who ends up working in a puppet show in a traveling carnival.
The film earned Caron’s first best actress Oscar nomination. Though she didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for “Gigi,” her performance as the naive schoolgirl who is transformed into a sophisticated woman is considered one of her finest.
The film reunited Caron with her “American in Paris” director Minnelli. “I adored him,” Caron says. “He called me ‘Angel,’ and that was enough. He was so sensitive and had such an elegance and rhythm.”
Though interiors for the film were shot at MGM in Culver City, the exteriors were photographed in Paris. Going on location for a musical was very rare in those days. The studios, she says, “thought it was not economically viable.”
Shooting a musical in the controlled environment of a soundstage had other advantages besides economics -- there was never any bad weather unless it was called for in the script. But there were plenty of weather problems in Paris that summer of ’57.
“We were working a lot at the ice rink and at Maxim’s and the entrances and exits of quite a lot of remarkable buildings, but it was extremely slow because we had to deal with a lot of rain. Sometimes we only had one take.”
The dicey climate also took its toll on cast and crew. “At the same time there was rain, there was also a heat wave,” she says. “Going in and out of the ice rink where it was 35 degrees and then [we were] going straight into Maxim’s immediately, was stifling. . . . It was a rather closed place and we had to deal with the enormous spotlights . . . so everybody caught colds.”
Despite the difficulties, the cast and crew got along well. “There was no disharmony between anyone at all,” she says. “It was all very pleasant.”
The film’s unsung hero, says Caron, was Oscar-winning production and costume designer Cecil Beaton, who created the exquisitely rich costumes and vibrantly sumptuous vision of Paris of decades gone by.
“Nobody gives him enough credit for the film,” she says. “A good deal of the quality of that film is due to him both on the sets and costumes and makeup and hair. He was dealing with coquettes, respectable ladies and gentlemen. It was absolutely authentic for the period and for the class of people.”
Academy Salute to Leslie Caron
Where: Samuel Goldwyn Theater, 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills
Price: Sold out, but there will be a standby line
Contact: (310) 247-3600 or go to www.oscars.org/events
Where: Aero Theatre, 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, “A Celebration of Puppetry”; 7:30 p.m Sunday, “Lili”
Price: “Celebration of Puppetry,” $40 to $45; “Lili,” $9
Contact: (323) 466-FILM or www.americancinematheque.com