Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Gigi Makes a Charming Lili in L.A.

Los Angeles was graced by a touch of joie-de-vi’vre this past weekend, as legendary dancer, actor, and star Leslie Caron arrived to make a few major appearances in the area. First up was a 50th anniversary showing of Gigi at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Samuel Goldwyn Theater. Before the film screened, host Stephen Farber took the stage to introduce a couple of clips to the oversold house (approximately 1,000 people attended the event, and it was stated many had to be turned away). The first clip featured a digitally restored segment from the iconic ballet sequence in An American in Paris, wherein Gene Kelly and Ms. Caron, aided by ultra-romantic lighting, sensuously dance around a fountain. The next clip was fantastic. Culled from the Academy’s Film Archives, the silent footage showed Caron and Fred Astaire rehearsing a dance maneuver used at the end of the “Something’s Gotta Give” number in Daddy Long Legs. Ms. Caron jumps on a moveable service cart, then is spun around by Astaire a few times, until her partner stops the tray to sit with Caron at the song’s end. The stars make it all look easy in the final product, but watching them rehearse illustrates how much hard work went into the number, especially by Ms. Caron, who had to stay balanced and dexterous on that cart while being whirled around to a fare-thee-well by her agile costar.

After the footage, the lights went up and Ms. Caron, looking petite and stylish in a silver top and white pants, took the stage to loud applause and a standing ovation. Farber started the interview by asking Ms. Caron about her thoughts on working with Gene Kelly in Paris and Fred Astaire in Legs. Caron mentioned that “Fred had a way of throwing me around, as you can see” before commenting on his skill and professionalism, and saying both Kelly and Astaire were “fabulous.” Although “Give” may have required careful rehearsal, Caron stated she found it easy working with her costar, and another dance with Astaire was essentially done on the spot with no run-through (Caron did not mention what number in Legs she was referring to).

As for Kelly and Paris, Caron said that whenever she reads an article detailing her discovery and venture to MGM to make the film, “I’m always a different age.” She set the record straight by informing the audience that she came to America to make the film at 18 (in June of 1950), and turned 19 in July of that year. In 1948 Kelly discovered Caron dancing in a ballet on her native soil; however, Ms. Caron stated she only agreed to test for the role of Lise to meet Kelly and “to be polite,” as she had her heart set on becoming a prima ballerina, not a film star. Caron said she forgot about the test until she was suddenly beckoned to Hollywood to make the film. As she prepared to start shooting the movie, Caron’s rebellious nature came out. The star said she felt no one understood what look would suit her best for Paris, so she cut her hair the night before the first day of shooting. She remembered standing outside the main soundstage the next morning to be faced by a mortified Kelly, producer Arthur Freed, and director Vincente Minnelli, then stated, “they cancelled shooting for two or three weeks” until her now-short hair was presentable for the cameras. Caron had “great affection” for Freed, and talked of his “infallible taste.” She claimed the mammoth ballet finale took about a month to rehearse, and revealed her costar was “a choreographer who knew the camera. Gene placed the camera for all the musical numbers.”

Discussing Lili, Ms. Caron said she worked closely with her acting teacher and, following the Stanislasky method, was able to completely inhabit the role of the awkward, wide-eyed orphan. Caron then got up and demonstrated the walk she used in the film, then told a story how personnel at MGM became worried when they saw the formerly vivacious newcomer walking around the lot in character as the lonely, sensitive Lili. One day, Freed visited her on the set and expressed concern over Caron’s transformation. Freed told her they needed to work on another film, as “we must restore your glamour.” When he asked Caron if she had any project she thought might fit the bill, she mentioned Colette’s Gigi.

Ms. Caron stated she took time off to get married and have a child before filming begin on Gigi a few years later, and related, “I’m very proud of the fact I was already a mother when I played Gigi.” Caron acknowledged that “the film owes an enormous debt to Cecil Beaton” and his “concern for authenticity.” Farber and Caron discussed the film’s controversial subject matter, saying the story was turned into a musical to “drown the fish.” The star stated she found it amusing that “mothers would bring their little girls (to the film) and say ‘Look at Gigi!’ And I’m playing a hooker.” Farber then asked Caron if it ever “gave her pause” seeing Maurice Chevalier sing “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” whereupon Caron good-naturedly replied that she thought the song was meant to be innocent, and “Chevalier always liked adult women.”

As for her Paris and Gigi director, Caron said, “Minnelli had my heart. He called me “angel,” and that was the end of it. We worked extremely well together. He had a remarkable sense of rhythm, charm, and elegance.” She then addressed the well-known opinion that Minnelli was a perfectionist by recalling the director making her do many takes for a shot in “I Don’t Understand the Parisians,” as Caron sat by a pond while swans drifted by in the background. After several takes, Caron became concerned, as she was unsure of what Minnelli wanted her to do in the scene. Then, around Take 18, Caron stated Minnelli exclaimed, “Cut! Print! The swans were great!!” (Interestingly, no swans actually appear in the film during this sequence- they show up later, as Louis Jourdan sings the memorable, Oscar-winning title song).

As Farber mentioned the Alan Jay Lerner screenplay and remarkable score by Lerner and Frederick Lowe, Caron simply said, “Perfect, perfect” before making the sage observation that she felt at the time of filming, “This is so perfect, it could go wrong. We could become arrogant. Everything was so good, you could easily get lazy and become arrogant.” With this idea in mind, Caron said she made an extra effort to work hard to ensure the film came off as it does- perfectly.

Farber then brought up the scene wherein Gigi has a lunch consisting of little birds with her Aunt Alicia (Isabel Jeans). Caron recalled, “Isabel Jeans had puff pastries (for birds), but I had real birds. Isabel got nervous because she knew I was eating little bones, and she started forgetting her lines. So I had to keep eating more and more G—damned bones.”

Discussing her post-Gigi career, Caron said she found it hard to escape ingenue roles, and was only given one opportunity during her years at MGM to play against type- in 1952’s Glory Alley. Caron described her character as a naughty, wild girl who spends time “dancing on a chandelier” before stating it was probably a good thing the audience didn’t remember Alley, “but I looked good on that chandelier.” Concerning her Oscar-nominated work in 1963’s The L-Shaped Room, Caron said she “was thrilled to do a dramatic part.” Finally, Farber brought up her teaming with Cary Grant in Father Goose. Caron said doing the film in Jamaica was “terrific fun, terrific fun. Both Cary and I had villas during the shoot.” The star then explained she had a robust butler, George, who was usually dressed to the nines; however, each morning George would roll up his sleeves, then “climb a tree and chop a coconut off at every breakfast. Of course, that’s not in the movie.” As for her charismatic costar, Caron glibly remarked, “Listen, working with Cary Grant, I was very impressed with myself,” then discussed how fortunate she was to land a role opposite her debonair leading man.

Concluding their discussion, Farber brought up that Caron has been working on an autobiography. Caron replied that the evening had brought to mind the fact she “had so many friends. Did I say anything nasty about them (in the book)? I’ll have to revise it.” No need to worry, Ms. Caron. As Louis Jourdan observes in Gigi, you’re always a “sheer delight.”

So was the film. Presented after a new digital restoration, the Cinemascope production was a joy to watch with the packed house. Applause came after nearly all the numbers, and Caron remains the center of attention in seemingly effortless fashion, while interacting exquisitely with Chevalier, Jeans, Jourdan, and Hermione Gingold. Everyone probably has a favorite Gigi moment: for me, enjoying “The Night They Invented Champagne” on a big screen with a mammoth audience was the highlight, with the funny, touching “I Remember it Well” Chevalier/Gingold duet a close second.

Sunday evening was equally delightful, with the captivating Ms. Caron taking the stage with Leonard Maltin at the more intimate Aero Theater in Santa Monica, after a showing of another Caron peak, her Oscar-nominated work in 1953’s Lili (the star also appeared on Saturday night at “A Celebration of Puppetry,” but I missed this event). Mr. Maltin introduced the film by describing how Lili became the sleeper hit of 1953, and was a movie that “captured people’s hearts.” Maltin explained that MGM didn’t expect much of an audience for the offbeat film, but the film surprised everyone with a smash, year-long engagement at the Trans-Lux Theater on 52nd street in New York City, while also playing for a year or more in many other theaters, as it brought back customers for repeat viewings (Mr. Maltin reminded the audience no VHS tapes or DVDs were available during the 1950's- if you missed a movie in the theater, that was it. A side note: several years ago on the Academy Awards a segment was included wherein stars were asked to recall the first film they ever saw, and I vividly remember Michael Douglas responding, “Lili. I saw it nine times.”). Maltin then asked for a show of hands for people who had never seen the film; quite a few in the audience hadn’t, and Maltin aptly ended his introduction by stating they were in for a treat.

Caron glows in a dream of a showcase role- she’s tender, funny, and very moving as the romantic, innocent sixteen-year old looking for her place in the world after the death of her father. The subject matter (introverted girl takes up with a carnival and becomes a sensation working in a puppet show, wherein she believes the puppets are real) could easily become maudlin in the wrong hands, but director Charles Walters skillfully guides his cast through the excellent Helen Deutsch screenplay, and keeps most of the overt sentimentally at bay. Although Caron is definitely the heart and soul of the movie, her fine costars- somber Mel Ferrer, slyly sexy Jean-Pierre Aumont, and a jaw-droppingly gorgeous and glamorous Zsa Zsa Gabor- also make strong impressions.

Following the film, Mr. Maltin was the excellent, well-prepared host you’d expect him to be, asking a series of pertinent questions regarding Leslie Caron’s career during the satisfying forty-five minutes the star graced the Aero stage with her endearing presence. After Ms. Caron’s entrance was met by a standing ovation, Mr. Maltin asked Caron how she felt about seeing Lili again. Caron said she hadn’t viewed the film in a while and stated, “She’s very young” before calling the movie a “lovely souvenir.” Caron said memories of living in very difficult circumstances in France during World War II helped her imbue her role in Lili with a sense of melancholy. She also mentioned that, unbeknownst to her, Pier Angeli was the first choice for the part, but after Deutsch saw dailies of Caron in Paris, the screenwriter insisted Caron be given the role. Caron claimed that “working with the puppets was very easy. I just listened to them, and reacted. It wasn’t really acting, I just responded to them.” Maltin then stated, “but you were acting, really” whereupon a mock-serious Caron replied, “Oh, no, I was really backward.”

Caron stated she adored Charles Walters, and agreed with Maltin the director and former dancer’s career was underrated (she also mentioned she believes Walters appears in disguise as one of the dancing puppets in the film’s final dream sequence). The star then opined how she found Mel Ferrer to be “sensitive and intelligent. He wasn’t a dancer, but he worked hard on the (final) dance. . .I thought he was very good.” In reverent tones, she discussed how important a figure Jean-Pierre Aumont was in the French Cinema, before stating, “It was nice to have another French player on the set.” Then, without prompting, Caron commented on possibly her most famous Lili collaborator: “And Zsa Zsa. Well, Zsa Zsa had priorities. Priority #1 was her hairdresser, and priority #2 was her poodle. I’d try to tell her, ‘Zsa, Zsa, we need to rehearse our scene,’ and she’d say, ‘Oh, yes darling, but first I have to take my poodle to have his bath, and then I must get my hair done.’ She never did show up. She really had no concept of what a rehearsal was. But she was very generous. One day she was wearing a lovely shirt, and I said, ‘Zsa Zsa, where did you get that wonderful shirt.’ The next day, she had had the shirt cleaned, and she gave it to me.” Caron stated director Walters had a little trouble with Gabor during a scene wherein Zsa Zsa’s Rosalie responds to one of Lili’s quieries with “And vy not?” Caron said, “Charles could not get Zsa Zsa to lose her Hungarian accent. He would say the line for her, ‘And why not, and why not.’ And then Zsa Zsa would say, ‘Oh yes- “and vy not.”’ ” (later, an audience member asked Caron if she would comment on working with Eva Gabor in Gigi. Caron retorted in short-and-sweet fashion, “Eva could say, ‘And why not.’”).

Caron remembered going to New York City for the premiere of Lili, where “There was great affection for the film, as you can see” (here Caron motioned out to the large audience). Caron recalled that while walking around New York after the film opened, “a mother asked me to hold her baby so she could take our picture. Another mother was walking by with her little girl, and the mother pointed at me and said ‘you see, she’s (Lili’s) alright’.” Staying at the Plaza Hotel after the premeire, Caron said she started to receive “Good Morning, Lili” wake up calls. “A few years later, I started getting ‘Good Morning, Gigi’ calls. So I had a friend at the hotel.”

Her discovery by Kelly for Paris was also mentioned, and Caron recalled how, in order to save money, she and her mother took up residence at the Culver City Hotel after arriving on the West Coast, without knowing they were staying at an inn of ill-repute. When she called Gene Kelly, he stated, “Where are you? We’ve been looking for you everywhere!” When she mentioned her surroundings, her costar exclaimed, “What?! That’s where the 3rd Assistant takes the chorus girls!” before immediately finding more suitable lodgings for MGM’s newest star. Caron also stated after the filming of Paris ended, she worked for 12 weeks as a ballet instructor, as she had trouble making ends meet with her $75 dollar a week contract.

The 1955 fantasy The Glass Slipper was also brought up, and Ms. Caron revealed she had an unusual inspiration for her role. “I’d just seen On the Waterfront, and I was so impressed with Marlon Brando, I tried to be Brando in Slipper. If you look for it, you can see me doing Brando.” Caron said the brooding Brando presence made her want to approach her role in ultra-serious fashion, and she took the “Cinder” in Cinderella literally, applying soot to her face frequently to lend a realistic quality to the character.

Maltin opened up the discussion for a Q&A session with the audience, and Ms. Caron answered each query in a polite, charming manner. Regarding her beginnings as a dancer, Ms. Caron stated she started dancing at nine with Russian teachers. The star then said the hard work and discipline it took to become a professional dancer has served her well throughout her life. Someone mentioned they wished Caron was working more, whereupon Maltin brought up Caron’s 2007 Guest Actress Emmy Award for Law and Order, which was greeted by applause. She also reflected on Louis Jourdan, saying she wished she’d said more about him at the showing of Gigi. Watching the film again, Caron stated she was “impressed by Jourdan’s charm” and his wonderful work in the film. One audience member mentioned 1953’s The Story of Three Loves, and Caron fondly recalled the film, saying she loved her storyline and working with Minnelli- “most people forget we also made that together.” Another gentleman mistakenly remembered Cyd Charisse as one of Caron’s Paris costars, but this err allowed Caron to briefly comment on one of her top contemporaries in the 1950’s. “We didn’t work together, but I saw Cyd in the rehearsal hall, and I was very impressed with her.” After many other questions were addressed (Maltin did a wonderful job making sure people in every section of the audience were called on) Ms. Caron finally bid adieu, and received another standing O for her wonderful appearance.

Personally, it was a very enjoyable weekend. Special props to the Academy employee in charge of doling out the standby tickets- definitely a “hands on” employee, he really seemed to care about his job, and did everything possible to ensure as many people as the law would allow made it into the showing of Gigi. At the Aero, I had the pleasure of briefly talking to Miles Kreuger, President of the Institute of the American Musical. I informed Mr. Kreuger I’d attended a recent salute to Celeste Holm he hosted at the Egyptian Theater. I told him I couldn’t recall his name as I wrote about the event for my blog, but while I was writing the piece I happened to put in a documentary included in the Carmen Miranda boxset, and there he was. Kreuger said, “Oh, you can’t get away from us.” After telling me he’s done work for the second Alice Faye boxset, he graciously answered my query regarding any other of his upcoming projects by stating he’s involved in a forthcoming two-disc special edition of The Robe. I then obtained an autograph from Mr. Maltin (I have to admit, after watching Maltin for years on Entertainment Tonight and on many DVD special features, I was almost as overwhelmed seeing him in person as I was with Leslie Caron). I also briefly invaded 1930’s child star Jane Withers’ space, and she proved to be just as gregarious and lively in person as when I’ve seen her in interviews (when I mentioned how much I’d enjoyed her comments on the Giant DVD, Ms. Withers exclaimed, “Oh, yes! I just talked and talked!"). Ms. Withers also signed my program, but I did not get the opportunity to ask Ms. Caron for an autograph; however, during the Q&A session I did mention her deserved Oscar nod for Lili, and asked if she’d attended the awards, to which she replied she was on location out of the county at the time, and had watched the show on television in her hotel room. As I left the theater and walked into the night, I was a bit dizzy with all the stardust I’d just been surrounded by.