Thank Heaven: A Memoir
Viking Penguin, 2009
There is something exotic about you. Be careful they don’t put you in a sarong—I mean it. Look at what happened to poor Dorothy Lamour! And whatever you do, don’t marry Mickey Rooney!
--advice to Leslie Caron from her mother
We are far from the days when Hollywood studios were able to hide the dark elements of their player’s lives. It should no longer be surprising that the glamorous life of a movie star can be as brutal as it is beautiful—and yet Leslie Caron had me fooled. It is easy to be gob smacked by her accomplishments: early success as a young dancer and musical star, a smooth transition to dramatic acting, and a late-in-life career revival, topped by an Emmy win (not to mention ownership of a thriving inn). Of all the stars from the studio era, I thought that Caron had had the most charmed life. In her recent biography, the durable dancer and actress tells a more complex story.
Though there was much luxury in her early childhood—including a house full of servants and vacations on a lush country estate—Caron’s life changed dramatically with the start of World War II. The deprivation and fear of those years permanently affected her mental and physical health. Driven by her American dancer mother to pursue a career in the ballet, she found professional focus at an early age. Weakened by malnutrition, she nevertheless established herself with a dance troupe and traveled to several exotic locations.
Discovered onstage in France by Gene Kelly, she accepted an offer to appear in An American in Paris (1951) with the expectation that she would return to serious ballet. She became a movie star instead. Her screen debut led to a career of significant, if sporadic successes. Seen as a foreign outsider in America, and rejected by the French film industry as a Hollywood sell-out, Caron struggled to find a place where she belonged. Still, she made some of the best musicals of the fifties, and her transition to dramatic acting brought her critical acclaim and two Academy Award nominations (for Lili (1953) and The L-Shaped Room (1962)).
Caron worked with some of the great legends of Hollywood, and she writes about her costars with candor and compassion. She describes Kelly as a supportive mentor and exacting teacher, who showed her the ropes in Hollywood and offered friendship to a naïve teenage dancer in a new country. Her bittersweet experiences on the set of Daddy Long Legs (1955) include amusing stories of Fred Astaire’s well-rehearsed professionalism (he filmed a routine that was expected to fill a day of filming in one take) and heartbreaking moments when the dancer stopped rehearsal to quietly sob over the recent loss of his wife to cancer. Cary Grant was perhaps her most complex costar—a strong, intelligent ally with sometimes amusing, and occasionally exasperating quirks. For the most part, she is generous towards her costars—though she makes it clear, without saying why, that she did not enjoying working with David Niven. (What could the most popular man in Hollywood have done to anger her?)
In one of the richest passages of the book, Caron lovingly describes her enduring friendship with Jean Renoir, and their fruitless struggle to work together . On the other hand, her writing style becomes choppy and erratic when she discusses her bumpy affair with Warren Beatty. While Caron has remained friendly with Beatty, she seems traumatized, and a bit baffled by her relationship with the self-absorbed star.
Personally, Caron endured depression, an unsettling attachment to alcohol, four failed marriages and the suicide of her mother, but managed to maintain a positive relationship with her two children—despite a work schedule that required extensive travel. When acting work dried up for her in later years, she bought an auberge (inn) in Burgandy with her son and threw herself into the expensive and arduous process of remodeling. Eventually, she found herself back on the screen, in a series of high profile supporting roles in movies (including Chocolate (2000) and Le Divorce (2003)) and in a in a guest starring role as a rape victim on Law and Order which won her an Emmy in 2007.
Overall, Caron seems to view herself as a flawed, but worthy work in progress, as impressed by the vibrant life she has led as she is frustrated by the obstacles she has met along the way. Though Caron attempts to reveal herself fully, she is only somewhat successful--and often holds back when the details get too painful. Still, she tells a fascinating story.