Leslie Caron had quite an impressive career start in the 50s – her first movie role was opposite Gene Kelly in the Best Picture winner An American in Paris and only 2 years later she would receive an Oscar nomination for Best Actress as a young, depressive girl who forms a strange relationship to a puppeteer in the musical drama Lili. After this, critical success became rather slim although she did star in another Best Picture winner, the musical Gigi. In this movie, just like in Lili, she played a young, inexperienced girl who needs a man to fulfill her own happiness. Finally, in 1963, Leslie Caron left her child-like image behind and starred as a young, unmarried and pregnant woman in the Black-and-White drama The L-Shaped Room. This controversial role is certainly as far removed as possible from the colorful, entertaining and sing-along world she had been mostly known for up to this point. And this time, critics were fully convinced and a win at the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs must have made her a strong competitor for the Oscar statuette. Today, Leslie Caron does not necessarily hold a reputation as a strong dramatic actress – not only is she mostly remembered for her musical roles because these movies still have a lasting appeal while movies like The L-Shaped Room are largely forgotten but it seems that people want to remember her for her parts as Nina, Lili or Gigi, as if the innocence and sweetness she portrayed in these roles are the only aspects of her personality and her abilities as an actress that are worth cherishing. Leslie Caron may not have the same irresistible screen presence as another actress who started her career in the 50s, Audrey Hepburn, and she also was not really able to turn these roles into showcases for her talent and dedication like Audrey did, but she did possess a certain charisma that helped her to pull of such rather empty and thin characters because these characters mostly needed charisma to become alive. In her most famous parts, Leslie Caron may never be outstanding in any way and a more skilled actress might have realized these roles with more depth but Leslie Caron also never disappointed and gave performances that were satisfying enough to either carry the picture or become an enjoyable part of it.
In The L-Shaped Room, Leslie Caron did not have her usual advantages – being sweet or innocent would neither help her in a Black-and-White drama nor would it be believable in this kind of role. Furthermore, she could only use her acting talents in this case – the movie itself did not help her by surrounding her with entertaining situations that would enable her to show her charm and appeal, may it be by singing a song with four puppets or dancing through her apartment with a bottle of Champagne. No, The L-Shaped Room completely depended on her ability to communicate her character’s fears and worries while showing how her interactions with various inhabitants of an old English house, in which her character rents an l-shaped room to live in during her pregnancy, slowly changes and strengthens her character without either exaggerating or downplaying this transformation. In her role, Leslie Caron had to find new ways to use her usual screen personality while redefining it at the same time. And while Leslie Caron may not be the greatest actress in movie history, she was always able to portray her character’s inner feelings and emotions with a surprisingly subtle facial work that could easily build a connection between her and the audience without making it appear as if she was acting for the audience. Leslie Caron could easily portray likeable heroines that become an easy object of affection for her male co-star or the viewer. This aspect certainly helped her to find the necessary appeal in Jane because even though the character may not resemble her usual parts, it still benefited from her way of appearing so naïve and child-like but also so practical, grown-up and experienced.
In the 1963 Best Actress line-up, Leslie Caron is the only nominee who truly had to carry her picture. Both Patricia Neal and Rachel Roberts faced slightly limited parts and also played second fiddle to their powerful male co-stars who were the real centre of Hud and This Sporting Life. Shirley MacLaine’s role in Irma La Douce was considerable longer but Billy Wilder’s direction made it very clear that he was only interested in providing a showcase for Jack Lemmon’s comedic talents and considered Shirley MacLaine as an obligatory necessity. And Natalie Wood played the female lead in a romantic comedy with serious undertones but a movie like this obviously also featured an equally important male lead. In this case, Leslie Caron’s performance stands out among the nominees this year but at the same it’s surprising that hers is by far the most ‘passive’ and reactive part out of the five contenders – Jane is a character that mostly reacts and listens, one who is influenced by her own journey of thoughts and experiences. Because of this, Leslie Caron needed to craft Jane with even more dedication because the character could easily have gotten lost in a movie that is actually about her. And Leslie Caron achieved this goal beautifully by presenting Jane as an ever-developing character – she did not present her with any clear ideas or thoughts of how Jane should behave or what she expects. Instead, she showed that Jane is a woman who has no idea about her future, about her life and her present – she is still developing her own feelings and thoughts about both her current situation and her life when her child will be born. In this way, she used her usual screen presence as a woman who is wondering about what life will bring her while denying the audience her usual sugar-coated approach to this material. Usually, Leslie Caron’s presence was mostly needed for some more emotional, maybe even superficial moments – even in her own star-vehicle Lili, the more dramatic depth was given to her co-star Mel Ferrer. But in The L-Shaped Room, it fell upon Leslie Caron to provide the dramatic arc of the story while her male co-star Tom Bell was the one to provide charm and sweetness.
In her role, Leslie Caron benefited the most from the fact that her movie takes such an unspectacular look at her personal situation – The L-Shaped Room never feels like a cheap attempt to ‘shock’ the audience of 1963 with an unmarried, pregnant woman nor like a voyeuristic look into the exciting life of a ‘girl in technical difficulties’, as Gregory Peck called it the Oscar ceremony that year. Instead, The L-Shaped Room is as subtle, quiet and straight-forward as possible (even though it does feature some occasional melodramatic moments) – it takes a completely ordinary approach at this extraordinary story, treating Jane with a welcoming distance that allows her to develop as an independent creation while also letting Leslie Caron’s performance work in beautiful harmony with this unspectacular style. Her simplicity in a part that could have been an over-the-top portrayal of worries, grief, regret, hope, love and desperation is beautiful to watch and by playing her role just as unspectacularly as the screenplay writes it, she creates an atmosphere that is neither overly tense nor tired but moves the picture along smoothly, with a touching quietness and captivation. Sadly, there are moments when Leslie Caron tends to become that cute, little girl again, may it be Gigi or Lili, who only wants to be loved by a man, especially when the screenplays asks her to show a more desperate side or when she is worrying about the whereabouts of Toby. In these moments, the effect of her work becomes somewhat less satisfying but Leslie Caron finds enough positive moments in her work as a compensation. Her big, dramatic speech to Toby at the top of the stairs is played with just the right mix of over-the-top and honest reality and her tears never feel forced and her voice never appears to be trying too hard. Overall, her chemistry with Tom Bell is one of the strongest aspects of The L-Shaped Room, no matter if the characters are fighting or lying in bed together. Unfortunately, the role of a man in Jane’s life is often too overemphasized in a movie that is actually about a woman trying to organize her life alone – an obligatory love story was probably wanted but not truly needed. Still, Leslie Caron did her best by never insisting that Jane is actually looking for a man. Instead, she seems to enjoy Toby’s presence and certainly feels an attraction towards him but she never truly wanted this relationship to develop the way it did – Jane likes the idea of being loved but sees herself alone. This way, Leslie Caron avoided to turn Jane into ‘the woman’ even though she does sometimes exaggerate her needs for affection.
But apart from Tom Bell, Leslie Caron also works well with the other players of The L-Shaped Room. Since the journey of Jane is influenced so much by the other characters she meets in the little house, Leslie Caron always has to step back a little while those characters and actors get their little moment in the sunlight but Leslie Caron did her best to show that Jane is not only listening to their words but is actually also touched and influenced by them. This way, the journey of Jane turned into the journey of a woman who finds new ideas for her life but who also remains the same person she was before. During her stay, Jane accepts certain ideas while remaining strong about her own. She may have used this little, l-shaped room to retreat from the world but she used it to develop and face this world again. Leslie Caron shows Jane as a woman who tries to hide her fears and who does not have any illusions about her live but who is still a little puzzled by it. When she decides to keep the baby or shows Jane’s happiness when she realizes that she did not lose it, Leslie Caron never portrays these worries as grander than they really are – her Jane never tries to become a symbol of lost hopes or regret of the past. In this way, Leslie Caron succeeded the same way Patricia Neal succeeded in Hud – by focusing on the character instead of trying to go for more. And especially in the scenes opposite the father of her unborn child, Leslie Caron crafts Jane with a refreshing individualism – Jane neither wants to apologize for her behavior nor does she expect any support in this moment, from the father or the audience. Instead, she is very honest as a woman expecting nothing.
In this very emotional performance, Leslie Caron gives a quiet and subtle piece of work that may be limited by the way her character was written but is also much more memorable than any exaggerated overacting would have been. What the character of Jane may miss in mystery, depth or really captivating qualities, Leslie Caron makes up by finding beauty in the ordinary. For all of this, she receives