She stole Gene Kelly’s heart in An American in Paris, went toe-to-toe with Fred Astaire in Daddy Long Legs, and got an Oscar nod at the ripe age of 22 for the 1953 movie Lili. And though that was a long time ago, Leslie Caron is not done yet. The 84-year-old performer is dusting off her dance shoes for a revival of Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks at the Laguna Playhouse through June 8.
“I’ve never believed in retiring,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter from her home in Laguna, Calif., not far from the theater where she plays Lily, an elderly widow who, after a stifling marriage decides to live a little, hiring Michael (David Engel) to teach her to dance, but really more for the companionship. It’s a two hander requiring a lot of talking and a lot of dancing. “I believe it’s the first time that somebody who’s had real ballet training has done the part,” she observes. “So the dancing part of it is really extended quite a bit.”
Playwright David Alfieri’s comedy-drama originally starred Polly Bergen and Mark Hammil when it opened at New York’s Belasco Theatre to lukewarm reviews in 2003. Uta Hagen performed the role a few years before at the Geffen Playhouse in LA, and Rue McClanahan did it in Miami. Gena Rowlands will star in the movie version opposite Cheyenne Jackson, but no doubt none of them went through what Caron did to prepare for the role. First stop was her chiropractor who, after a few adjustments, declared her ready for action. She then committed to an exercise regimen, dancing daily, regular walks and fine-tuning her southern accent by reciting the play over and over.
“I’m living the life of a nun,” she says of her routine. “It’s theatre, rest, theatre, rest. I’m saving my strength just for the play. I don’t even go to restaurants. I have my food brought in.”
It may sound like overkill, but she knows what she’s doing. After all, Caron — who was born in the French suburb of Boulogen-sur-Seine (her mom had been a Broadway dancer; her dad was a French chemist) — has been at it for over sixty years. She was only 16 when she became a dancer with the Ballets des Champ Elysees in Paris. One night she was sitting in a shared dressing room when a fellow dancer’s husband told her Gene Kelly had come by looking to audition her for his new movie, An American in Paris. She had never heard of him, nor had she heard of Gershwin, Kelly’s musical partner on the film. “He’s coming to Paris to meet you,” she was told, but Caron didn’t think a Hollywood musical was quite her style.
“In the days when it happened I thought everything was quite natural,” she says dreamily. “You know how very young people think, well I deserve it. I was very, very, very lucky. But no, I did not realize it then. I realized it later.”
She found Kelly to be a taskmaster but certainly no more so than dance masters like Rudolf Nureyev and choreographer Roland Petit. For Caron, the hardest part was dancing on cement and not wood, and unlearning much of her classical style in order to dance jazz. After the Oscar nod for Lili, she was invited by George Cukor to be in Les Girls, but the role of the seductress (eventually played by Mitzi Gaynor) wasn’t something the pixie-like Caron felt suited her and so she went off to dance with Fred Astaire in Daddy Long Legs instead, infuriating Cukor. But she made it up to him by stepping into the role of Gigi for the 1958 movie that won the Oscar for Best Picture.
Career-wise, the ’50s was her best decade with the ’60s bringing forgettable movies like Father Goose with Cary Grant and Promise Her Anything, on which she had an affair with co-star Warren Beatty, divorcing theatre director Peter Hall after nine years of marriage.
“I introduced him to Jean Renoir,” she says of Beatty. “He had a huge admiration for Renoir and he tried to redo one of Renoir’s films and Renoir wouldn’t, The Lower Depths by Gorky. Renoir had already done it with a great actor (Jean Gabin) and didn’t want to do it again.”
A few years ago she called Beatty looking for work but he told her he would never direct again, and yet he’s currently in production on his long-gestating Howard Hughes movie.
“When you get past aging, people automatically rub you off the list,” she sighs, though she couldn’t be happier doing Six Dance Lessons and hopes other opportunities will follow. “Now that I’ve taken the test, I’d like to continue.”