Saturday, May 22, 2010

Actress Files: Leslie Caron

Leslie Caron, The L-Shaped Room
★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1963 Best Actress Oscar to Patricia Neal for Hud)

Why I Waited: First, the search for a print worth the trouble, which I finally resolved with a DVD I bought in the BFI shop, right before Tim and I saw The Trespasser. Then, by a combination of hope and skepticism that this really is the game-changer for Caron that I'd heard described.

The Performance: By this point in my Best Actress viewing, the only titles left to explore entail films, performances, or both about which I'm highly intrigued. Really, I haven't had to hold my nose since heading into Ship of Fools, and even that had some night-of-a-dozen-stars appeal. Bryan Forbes has coaxed such rich, unshakable performances out of bonkers Kim Stanley in Séance on a Wet Afternoon and surly Katharine Ross in The Stepford Wives, both of them gripping and atmospheric films to boot, that the prospect of The L-Shaped Room enticed me (and that's to say nothing of Edith Evans's nominated lead for Forbes's The Whisperers, coming up on a future post, which everyone seems to love). Unquestionably, though, of my remaining thesps, Leslie Caron is by far the most heavily sandbagged in terms of my past distaste for her work. It's not that she's a bad actress in An American in Paris, Lili, or Gigi so much as she's an empty one, seeming too girlishly deferential to her male co-stars and yet too much the p's-and-q's introvert to warrant a term like "girlish." Her catlike features are probably right up someone's alley in terms of adorability, but not mine, and her later-years appearances in small roles in Damage, Chocolat, and Le Divorce (where she at least shows a modicum of spunk) only reinforce the impression of someone who stumbled into movies as though by accident, finding them an inoffensive lark but not a prompt to real artistry, and serving some presumed niche-market in the audience that I'd be hard-pressed to sketch, much less to join.

The one caveat I'll supply about her work in The L-Shaped Room is that, for all its tremendous sensitivity and groundedness, it's the kind of excellent work that makes its strongest claims while you're actually watching the film. Something about Caron, some curtailing of complexity or a fundamental inhibition from bigger, nervier risks, precludes even this performance from lodging in the brain the way that Stanley, Ross, and Evans all manage so superlatively to do in their work with Forbes. (Yes, I'm a little ahead in my viewing from what I'm publicly admitting.) The performance grows a little vague in retrospect, maybe because the movie itself is such a delimited character study of a ragtag coalition of residents in a London boarding-house. Making do with the makeshift and crumbling walls, with each other's eccentricities, and with the problems weighing on their own hearts, the residents do not come to love each other. It's achievement enough that they come so close to liking each other, and yet the warm glow you might generically expect to be gradually lit from within The L-Shaped Room remains modest and fitful as warm glows go—soothing, but hardly effacing the uneasy dilemmas that these characters are still contending with, largely on their own, by the end of the film. What's special about The L-Shaped Room, allowing Forbes's usual weak-spots of overplayed mood and some trouble sustaining the narrative, is how palpable but fragile their bond as a "community" feels. As usual for this undervalued director of actors, his work yields strong psychological insights.

You could say the same for Caron's own achievements here, with even more emphasis on the positives. Sometimes, in that early-Binoche way, she opts for beatific lamp-lighting of broad emotion rather than precise delineations of how her character inhabits and shifts within a specific scenario, and I suppose, too, that the character doesn't navigate as complete or as rich an arc as an even more resourceful actress might have allowed. But even as I write that, I rush to defend myself from myself, for Caron does develop a very scared and secretive girl named Jane Fosset, unwed and pregnant, into a young woman who's learning to breathe a little easier and to trust a bit more in her own fortitude, even as she remains deeply unclear about her future and about the various enigmas of friends and lovers. The early scenes are lensed with such inky Gothic chiaroscuro, as a distasteful landlady leads the soft-voiced Jane up a huge set of stairs to the clammy, bare-brick attic room of the title, that I initially suspected Jane had some prior, Anne Radcliffe-style, but as yet undivulged relation to this haunted flat. Forbes keeps tunneling in for intimate, wide-angled close-ups, in which Caron's fretfulness and her tears threaten to be overplayed by the camera, though not by the actress. After over-exerting itself to put us on edge, though, The L-Shaped Room soon relieves itself of such broody intrigue as an end in itself. Jane is spooked by her room as anyone in her position would be: because she is lonely, with child, and seemingly cut off from any sources of solace. She's also got ants in her thin mattress, and an early sign of Caron's strength, of her immersion in the role rather than a preoccupation with the melodramatic contexts of the role, is that she responds to these bugs like a woman perturbed by having bugs in her newly-rented room—not like a meek or an overwrought heroine who processes every setback as a symbol of her cosmic trials, or as a soapbox from which to remind us How Hard She Has It. Jane discovers some backbone in having to stand up to Avis Bunnage's slatternly proprietress about the infestation, and it's nice to see how crisply Caron serves her own letter of intent to the audience: that she'll be playing the character appealingly but not preciously, and from the inside out rather than from the vantage of how paternalistic producers or castmates might wish to position her.

Helpfully, her tempting love interests in The L-Shaped Room are a jocular pair of fellas her own age in the boarding-house: Tom Bell's struggling writer and Brock Peters's warm, music-loving expat. Here, too, you start prepping yourself for a cutesy Truffautian triangle of romantic bonhomie, but without making Jane enervated or rigid, Caron shows us how Jane, for all her keenly felt loneliness, is also a bit annoyed at having her solitude impinged upon. Romance is the last thing on her mind. Toby, the prankish livewire so charmingly played by Bell, who likes to call Jane a "French maniac" when she has a mood swing or a misty moment, seems aroused, at least partially, from the moment he meets Jane. Peters's Johnny is more circumspect and maybe more complex as to why he comes on strongly as a buddy but less so as an angling suitor. But again, Caron holds fast against playing Jane as a wounded or an exasperated woman who cannot bear to think about men while she's living in a tenement, carrying an unwedlocked child. She's not uninterested in having a boyfriend so much as she's jealous of the time and space to think privately about what she's going to do for herself. In that way, Caron nicely rewrites The L-Shaped Room not as a maudlin story of a maid forced to resolve her fate in a damp, tawdry, unenviable little sublet but as a story about a woman who, after riding out her initial shock of this unappetizing real estate, is desirous more than anything of a room of her own. In other words, her L-Shaped Room is not about a woman who is suffering but, with much richer dividends, about a woman who is thinking.

Gigi and Paris's Lise Bouvier had less content at characters, and yet Caron had a tendency to play them as icons of cuteness, yearning, confusion, incipient restlessness. In The L-Shaped Room, she shows unprecedented dispositions and talents for playing Jane as no symbol of anything but as a girl with a problem, whose oscillating sense of what to do with herself grows even trickier to fix because living among this passel of London misfits inevitably pulls her into a wider circle than she intends, and most of these new acquaintances disrupt some preconception she has harbored about the ways people feel, or for whom they feel, or the ways people manage to be happy, or how happy they need to be. Caron's reflexes toward watchfulness, which sometimes make her seem too demure or self-effacing at the center of her own vehicles, serve her beautifully here, once Jane has broken her chrysalis enough to really start studying people. In these scenes, we realize that Forbes's entire approach to the material, not just with Caron, is to forestall as much cliché as you possibly can in a film that climaxes with a Christmas birth. Though some of what Jane learns from the introspective prostitute, the aging spinster, or the jealous and unrequited admirer sound entirely banal on paper, the adept performers of these roles redeem these moments into spontaneous, credible drama—but Caron herself is a crucial ingredient in how this happens, listening intensely and signaling a very active, subtle consciousness in response to what she sees and hears.

Caron doesn't overplay her reaction shots and never comes across as a particularly technical actress, but her emotional identification with Jane and, therefore, with Jane's series of encounters and her evolving judgments about herself and others add up to a rich characterization and a very detailed lens through which to watch the rest of the film. You believe that she's a young woman who would say in retrospect that "in the end I decided my virginity was becoming rather cumbersome," even as she lives out the heavy consequences of a physical relationship. Her bouts of despair, never histrionic but very sobering all the same, feel as genuine as her moments of mirth, and in long, key scenes like her barroom exchange with the father of her baby, she expresses so much of what Jane does and doesn't expect from this man, and of how she is responding to every moment of their conversation. This feels less like "consummate underplaying" and more like a settled, confident ability to be the character, lacking even the traces of fuss that often accompany naturalistic acting or ostensible underplaying. Within that gallery of Forbes's women, she "does" much less than Stanley or Evans do in their infinitely showier roles, which, thank heaven, they are both such inspired, captivating performers that you want them to tackle those characters as energetically as they do. Caron is much closer to what Ross managed in The Stepford Wives, a largely reactive performance in a film that's nonetheless about her, watching and listening in completely un-timid ways, adding up to a potent internal portrait of the watcher-listener and a rangy tour of her own affects and personality. Neither Ross nor Caron ever found another part as good as these, but they aren't the kind of actors for whom one necessarily imagines a long string of comparable triumphs even if the roles had been forthcoming. To watch Caron in The L-Shaped Room is to find her, at long last, ideally cast and utterly of a piece with her character, effacing any clichéd rhetorical line about what is "strong" or "weak" about Jane. In an era of British cinema full of restless, lunging, malcontented men, Caron moves more slowly and expresses herself less floridly, arriving at no higher perspective about how her troubles or her feelings have been rigged on her behalf by the the social apparatus. She's just a girl getting older and smarter before our eyes and, sometimes, getting hurt in new ways. If that reads like a hackneyed or a miniature or a lamely bourgeois journey, it certainly doesn't in light of the clarity, directness, and unflamboyant emotional heft with which Caron communicates the micro-shifts of feeling at a charged turn in the character's life, the day-to-day textures and tiny epiphanies of becoming Jane.

The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 17 to Go

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Blogger Dame James said...

I hate get all fanboyish, but I must admit that I love you and this piece. You perfectly captured what makes this performance work so beautifully while remaining a performance that's hard to precisely remember upon reflection. I know I, for as much as I rave about this film and Caron's performance, find myself wondering on occasion what I found so special about this movie. I suppose that it's how you described the way Caron spends a lot of the time watching everyone else that makes her so hard to define in retrospect. I have nothing of substance to add, but I just wanted to thank you for summing up my feelings on this performance.

12:30 PM, May 22, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

Thanks so much! Given how we're agreeing that it's an easy performance to love but a very tough one to evoke in writing, I had a bear of a time choosing my words for this write-up and especially appreciate the vote of confidence.

Against anything I would have predicted, she's giving Neal a run for her money, in terms of whom I'd have voted for in '63.

1:47 PM, May 22, 2010  
Blogger Laika said...

You've convinced me to go back and give this performance another go - I'd more or less filed it under 'competent, functional, a little dull'.

Still, the more-or-less unbearable preciousness of the novel's narrator had probably soured me on the film and the character beforehand.

2:45 PM, May 22, 2010  
Blogger Calum Reed said...

This was my first and only Caron viewing, which probably indicates future disappointment, based on your comments about her other performances. Nevertheless, she's excellent enough in this to atone for that. Love the write-up.

I don't know what it is with Bryan Forbes and Actresses (Evans really is brilliant). Perhaps it's the socio-realism, since Mike Leigh seems to have similar success.

5:43 PM, May 22, 2010  
Blogger Tim said...

An excellent look at a performance I haven't seen from an actress that I generally have no use for at all (just rewatched parts of An American in Paris, and was startled to once again find how much energy she sucks from that movie), and once again you've got me interested in a film that I wouldn't necessarily have sought out on my own.

But did you really, sir, think you could slip this by just by hiding it in the last paragraph: "the day-to-day textures and tiny epiphanies of becoming Jane." I have a weakness for awful wordplay, and I still can't get behind that.

3:37 AM, May 23, 2010  
Blogger Matt said...

I love this performance. I think Caron should have won the Oscar for it.

It's beautiful work, in part because Leslie Caron conveys the impression that she is being herself, using herself simply and mining the best parts of herself for the role. In some way, she becomes a conduit for the script, with its natural, yet rich and evocative dialogue. I remember the wonderful hospital sequence, in which she tells Tom Bell, "Love . . . that's what matters. If you take that away, then there's nothing left." She speaks it simply, yet the feeling she brings it makes me feel the beauty of the line.

In fact, I think she's almost always done wonderful work. It, perhaps, is easy to write her performances off in her MGM musicals, especially the treacly vehicles, such as "Lili." But I find that she is, as in "The L-Shaped Room," often using herself, and not playing some idea of generalized gamine charm. In "Gigi," for example, she brings intelligence, humor, gravity, precociousness, grace, tartness, and maturity to different moments in it. She supplies different beats throughout, and it always seems as if they're coming from her, the person inside. Caron may have been groomed by MGM to be a musical ingenue, but she also proved to be a real actress.

9:06 PM, July 31, 2010  

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