It was the first movie musical I ever saw, and I loved every minute of it. I was five years old when Gigi was released by MGM in 1958, and didn’t have a clue what the story was about. It was, in fact, a fairly lecherous tale of a young girl in Paris being trained by her aunt to become what was referred to in reviews as a “cocotte” or “courtesan”—both words mean prostitute. All I knew was that Leslie Caron was luminous, Louis Jordan was debonair, and the music was delightful. Also, Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold reminded me of my grandparents, albeit with French rather than Yiddish accents.
More than thirty years later, I finally got to tell Leslie Caron how much I enjoyed the film when I interviewed her for the radio network where I worked. I thought of that memorable conversation in April when new theatrical versions of Gigi and Caron’s first iconic movie, An American in Paris, opened on Broadway.
Gigi, starring Vanessa Hudgens, has been laundered to fit contemporary sensibilities. And the stunning production of An American in Paris, now nominated for 12 Tony Awards, features British ballerina Leanne Cope as Lise Bouvier, the role that won international acclaim for Leslie Caron in the classic 1951 movie. When Cope flashes her broad smile on stage, she bears an uncanny resemblance to Caron—and in fact, Cope met with the screen legend earlier this year in London to get some insights into the part.
In a recent e-mail interview, Caron, now 83, told me how impressed she was with Cope, who holds the title of “First Artist” at the Royal Ballet School. “What appealed to me when I met her was her freshness, her open attitude,” Caron wrote. “She was complimentary about our film and about the immense work that it represented. Not every newcomer is like that. She radiates real enthusiasm and a healthy ‘no neurosis’ openness about the discipline demanded in that profession.”
In a reflection of the kinds of things many said about Caron herself 60 years ago, she added, “I could also see that she has all the physical qualities to become a star: charming good looks, a very good ballet technique, beautiful feet, long arms, and above all, the gracious neck bearing of English ballet dancers. I think she’ll thrive with leaps and bounds.” Not long after she made those remarks, Cope was nominated for a Tony Award as Best Actress in a Musical.
In our 1990 interview, Caron recalled how she was cast as Lise. “Gene Kelly saw me on the opening night of a ballet where I was playing the Sphinx,” she said. “I was 17, and I didn’t know about this tradition of staying backstage for visits at the end of the show, so I just took off my makeup and went home. He came backstage to congratulate or meet me, but I was gone.”
“So that was that,” Caron continued, “but about a year later, he was looking for a partner to do An American in Paris with him, because Cyd Charisse, who was supposed to be his partner, was pregnant. So he remembered me and came to Paris to do a test with me, and another actress. And my test was chosen!”
The movie, directed by Vincente Minelli and filled with glorious Gershwin music, garnered six Academy Awards and made Caron a bona fide star. Reviews at the time described her as “cute as a button” with a “turned-up nose,” and called her “everybody’s favorite movie pixie.” I asked if that made it tough to be taken seriously.
“I wasn’t taken seriously as an adult actress,” Caron replied, still obviously miffed decades later. “That was my big problem. After that I played adolescents for several years. My favorite part was ‘Lili,’ and I was very thrilled to do that. But then I wanted to move on, and I found it very difficult, because I suppose I was good at it, and the movie studios would have liked to keep me at that age.”
After playing Cinderella in The Glass Slipper, the then-23-year-old Caron decided she’d had enough, and her roles became somewhat more age-appropriate… with Gigi perhaps being the glaring exception three years later.
Caron credits her “transition into maturity,” as she put it, to Jean Renoir. The French director and screenwriter told her he considered her an actress, not just a dancer who also acted. “He wrote a play for me, called Orvet, and directed me on stage, and that was my transition into serious acting. It’s all thanks to him that I dared consider myself an actress”.
Caron virtually blushed when I asked her to repeat the lavish praise Renoir once bestowed upon her. “He wrote in his book that his father (impressionist artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir) would have painted me not once, not twice, but all his life.”
Renoir was, of course, not Caron’s only brush with greatness. Who were her favorite co-stars? “Well, Fred Astaire was somebody I was very, very fond of, and remember with admiration,” she recalls. “Gene Kelly was very firm and disciplinarian and quite severe with me, and rightly so. But also very generous. His house was open to me and he was always ready to help; he was very paternal. He would turn me to the camera. I had a tendency to turn my back to it! He taught me many things.”
Caron’s “who’s who” list of screen idols seems endless. “Then, of course, Cary Grant was somebody very great who taught me a lot about comedy. Warren Beatty was a very serious actor, and also taught me a lot. And Henry Fonda. But Henry was so shy. I don’t think we exchanged more than ten sentences during the whole film we did together! Very shy person, but a gentleman, very fair and very sweet. And Charles Boyer—adorable!”
Was it intimidating working with these icons? “With Cary, yes, and with Fred, yes. A little bit also with Hank Fonda. I was very shy, and it makes it a bit difficult to be familiar and play some intimate scenes and be very free with those very great stars.”
Caron is one of the very few people who can say they danced with Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Rudolf Nureyev, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. But acting, she said, has given her the most satisfaction. “It’s always a discovery for myself. You invest in someone else, and there is a transference that happens when you learn the intimate makeup of another person. It’s a form of knowledge; it’s almost like being a psychoanalyst. You suddenly realize what another person is made of, and that’s very thrilling.”
With that, I handed Caron the cover of a record album that was worn out from years of being played in my childhood home. She smiled and wrote on it, “To Steve, with fond memories we share on this film. Gigi – Leslie Caron.” Twenty-five years later—and 57 years after I first saw her light up the silver screen—it still hangs on my wall.