Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Caron Graces ‘L-Shaped Room’

With “The L-Shaped Room,” Leslie Caron brings the same level of grace to a dramatic role that she did to her dancing.

After appearing in such classics as “An American in Paris,” “Lili” and “Gigi,” Caron was desperate to find an adult, non-musical role that would showcase her acting talents. Frankly, she was tired of playing the ingénue.

“The L-Shaped Room” certainly gave her that opportunity. She was thrilled to play Jane Fosset, an unmarried French woman who discovers she’s pregnant. The film is part of the British new wave that brought a grittier reality to the film landscape not typically found in Hollywood and routinely tacked topics that the studios rarely touched.

While “The L-Shaped Room’s” subject matter and revelations are less shocking today, the movie is still powerful, and Caron’s deeply felt performance is wonderful to watch.

The film’s opening credits play over Jane searching for an apartment. She ends up at a run-down rooming house, where landlady Doris (Avis Bunnage) chirps, “We’re just one big happy family here, dear,” as she leads Jane up to the top floor and the small, odd-shaped apartment. The price is right, so Jane takes it. Upon her first night, Jane pulls back the sheets on her bed to discover roaches. She falls into the nearest chair, pulls her coat over her and curls up, exhausted, frightened and dejected.

Soon Jane befriends two of her neighbors (below): Johnny (Brock Peters), who has the room next to her and who can see into her room (but it’s not a “peeping Tom” situation), and Toby (Tom Bell), who lives one floor down and is a struggling writer. He quickly develops a crush on Jane, but she keeps him at arm’s length, not revealing to him – or any of her other neighbors – that she’s pregnant.

Not sure of what to do, Jane visits a doctor about an abortion. He asks, “Can the young man be persuaded to marry you?” She replies, “I don’t want to marry him.” This surprising answer is not what he expected to hear. While he’s neither friendly nor unfriendly, the doctor has an impersonal approach, and his assumptions about Jane result in her decision to keep the baby.

Meanwhile, Toby continues to persist in his affections, and soon Jane finds herself with him even though she knows it’s the wrong thing to do.

The French new wave and the subsequent British new wave were not afraid to tackle themes like this. Often they focused on the working class – the people, their neighborhoods, their friends. And sexuality wasn’t danced around. These films are so different from what Hollywood was churning out in the early 1960s. With rising costs, the studios spent their money on the familiar – big Biblical epics, road-show musicals, and glossy romances and melodramas – in hopes the returns would be big.

If the British new wave didn’t make big bucks at the box office, they were attracting audiences – particularly younger crowds who wanted more realism in their films. And young directors and actors who would come of age by the end of the decade were riveted by such films as “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner,” “A Taste of Honey” and “This Sporting Life.”

Even if it’s clear where “The L-Shaped Room” is going, the drama unfolds beautifully. The women’s movement may be a few years away, but this movie (as well as its American counterpart that year, “Love With the Proper Stranger") isn’t afraid of exploring women’s roles and sexuality. The landlady has a revolving door of men into her apartment; in the basement apartment live two prostitutes. But the unmarried yet pregnant Jane is considered a whore – and she’s not a promiscuous woman.

In fact, the movie also touches on homosexuality, and while it’s not overtly discussed, the issue is there and accepted without relying on broad stereotypes.

Director Bryan Forbes was making only his second film with “Room.” He would direct several other British new wave movies, such as “Séance on a Wet Afternoon” and “The Whisperers,” both featuring lead performances that brought Oscar nods to Kim Stanley and Edith Evans, respectively. Then in the 1970s he made the chilling “The Stepford Wives,” which examines women’s roles within a different genre.

As for “The L-Shaped Room,” the entire cast is excellent in bringing the characters vividly to life, yet the movie’s soul comes out through Caron. She portrays Jane’s search for some direction in her life as beautifully as she danced with Gene Kelly. Even in some of her plaintive conversations, when her emotions get the best of her, Caron conveys an unspoken defiance, as if she’s saying, “What have I done that’s so wrong?” Jane may be shaken, and her journey is not easy, but Caron conveys it all with sureness.

If Caron wanted to prove she could act without dancing, to convincingly play an adult instead of a virginal young woman, she clearly succeeds. Had it not been for Patricia Neal in “Hud,” the Oscar may have been hers. It was her second nomination, the first coming for “Lili,” and she can be proud of her work as Jane.

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It was while watching "The L-Shaped Room" that I thought about the Best Actress race from 1963 and doing a blogathon. So far the results have been terrific, and here is the lineup with links:
Monday, Feb. 21: Classic Film and TV Cafe will profile Rachel Roberts, nominated for "This Sporting Life" NOW POSTED!
Tuesday, Feb. 22: Kevin's Movie Corner will present Shirley MacLaine in "Irma La Douce" NOW POSTED!
Wednesday, Feb. 23: Classicfilmboy will cover Leslie Caron in "The L-Shaped Room"
Thursday, Feb. 24: ClassicBecky's Film and Literary Review will examine Patricia Neal in "Hud" NOW POSTED!
Friday, Feb. 25: Noir and Chick Flicks will look at Natalie Wood in "Love With the Proper Stranger" NOW POSTED!

We hope you enjoy this look back at the Oscars -- leave us plenty of comments and let us know what you think!

18 comments:

  1. Excellent review of a movie that is not known as well as it should be. I believe that Leslie Caron was Patricia Neal's real competition in 1963 because of her breakout performance in this film. It's strange how things have changed for unwed mothers. Most people now don't even know about how it used to be, and many who were around have forgotten the seriousness of a pregnant, unmarried woman's dilemma. The scene in the doctor's office always stands out in my memory -- like Love With the Proper Stranger, the whole issue of unwed status and abortion was considered extremely controversial. As you said, even the prostitutes were held in higher regard than a decent but pregnant girl. Crazy...

    Brock Peters is a favorite actor of mine, and he brings a lot to the film. I want to see it again, because it's been a long time. It doesn't seem to be shown on TV at all.

    I liked your take on the British new wave movies. You mentioned my favorite from that time, A Taste of Honey. Some very important and soul-stirring movies were turned out at that time. And I think Bryan Forbes' poignant movie The Whisperers was a marvel, with Dame Edith Evans performing one of her best roles. Forbes' work on The L-Shaped Room was wonderful.

    Your 1963 blogathon is showing some very interesting articles about this Oscar race, and your article is just wonderful!

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  2. An excellent and fascinating post in all respects--your description of the film and its treatment of topics American films shied away from, the British New Wave, and especially Caron's wonderful performance. You summed up her performance beautifully when you wrote, "If Caron wanted to prove she could act without dancing...she clearly succeeds." She didn't win the Oscar, but she did pick up a BAFTA award for this movie.

    I am a huge fan of these British films of the sixties, but one I've never been able to see (it's not available on home video) is "A Taste of Honey." TCM will be showing it March 10, and you can bet I'll be watching. I second Becky's praise for the blogathon you've organized. It's brought me a great deal of pleasure.

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  3. Thank you, Becky. I am looking forward to your post tomorrow! I'm glad you like "A Taste of Honey." Outside of film lovers like ourselves, no one has heard of it, yet when I saw it many years ago, I was riveted by its frankness and realism.

    Thank you, R.D. I didn't know about the BAFTA, so I'm glad she received something for her fine work. And I'm glad you mentioned that TCM is showing "A Taste of Honey." I haven't seen it in years!

    I'm glad both of you are enjoying the blogathon. I'm grateful to Rick for creating the CMBA and bringing us all together. I hope my blogathon encourages other members to organize events like this. It encourages conversation among people who love the same thing.

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  4. R.D.: I just noticed the poster that I use at the top of my post mentions (in small letters) her BAFTA win. Ha! I should have read it more closely :)

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  5. This sounds really good. I'm afraid I've never seen it, but after reading your write-up I want to see it. I only saw "Hud" once years ago and never "Love with the Proper Stranger" so I really need to brush up on my 1963 movie viewing.

    I'm also looking forward to "A Taste of Honey." I've enjoyed this blogathon series as well. Looks like some good films to discover.

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  6. A wonderful review, to what sounds like a very unusual film. I have only seen Leslie Caron, perform in musicals.

    I will be watching for the film, "A Taste of Honey." on TCM next month. Another new to me film. Thank you for putting together this blogathon. I have really enjoyed reading about movies that I'm not that familiar with.

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  7. I thoroughly enjoyed your post and am very thankful that you organized this blogathon. This was an excellent idea to put us in the mood for the Academy Awards Sunday!

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  8. I didn't notice the fine print at the top of the poster either! I forgot to mention that Leslie Caron also received a Golden Globe for this performance. The Oscar winner, Patricia Neal, was nominated for a Golden Globe for best supporting actress but lost to supporting actress Oscar-winner Margaret Rutherford.

    I also should mention that TCM will be showing Elia Kazan's "America, America," a key film of 1963 that received several nominations including best picture and director and that I've never been able to see. It's playing in early April.

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  9. I haven't seen THE L-SHAPED ROOM and, sad to say, didn't realize it was a British New Wave film--which is one of my favorite mini-genres. L-SHAPED ROOM is definitely on my wanna-see list now thanks to your fine review. Indeed, it's been a great month for learning about the British New Wave films of the 1960s. I'm thinking someone ought to organize a blogathon along those lines (dibbs on GEORGY GIRL, which fits most of the criteria). The fascinating part of this blogathon has been the similarities among the characters played by the Best Actress nominees of 1963. They are independent, willing to take risks, and are much stronger than the men in their lives. It's a stark contrast to 1962, when the nominees included Bette Davis as a murderer, Geraldine Page as a faded movie star, and Lee Remick as an alcoholic. Looking forward to the upcoming blogathon posts on Patricia Neal and Natalie Wood.

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  10. Thank you all for the comments. Kevin, Dawn and Rick: Please check this one out. I think you will like it, especially Rick, since you like British New Wave films, as I do. Toto: I'm glad it's getting everyone in the mood for this year's Oscars. I've seen four of the five best actress nominees for this year (I missed Michelle Williams in "Blue Valentine").

    Rick, I like the idea of a British New Wave blogathon. Would love to participate in that.

    For everyone watching "A Taste of Honey" next month, we should all blog about that movie together or save it for Rick's British New Wave event :)

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  11. R.D.: Forgot to acknowledge your suggestion on "America America." I saw it years ago and really liked it. It's an Elia Kazan movie that people don't think about, but Kazan said it was important to him because of his own family's immigration to this country (I think his parents came from Greece).

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  12. great salute to a great film and a great era of British film making..I have never heard the term "british new wave", but it is apt...better than the constant references to "angry young man" films, of which there were about two...saw ALL these films above in the late sixties...SEANCE is a must see...and ELIA KAZAN'S ancestors were from TURKEY, but of GREEK descent!!

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  13. Thank you for the comments, Doctor, and the clarification of Kazan's ancestors. I've also heard the British films of this era called "the kitchen sink dramas." I like British new wave better :)

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  14. I loved Lynne Reid Banks' novel 'The L Shaped Room', and felt the movie was very true to its themes, with Leslie Caron and Tom Bell's performances especially sticking in my mind. Great review, and I agree the new wave beats the kitchen sink!

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  15. I'm a fan of British New Wave films and thought you captured The L-Shaped room beautifully. There were so many great films coming out of GB in those days - I'm reminded that the so-called "British Invasion" consisted of films as much as music and fashion.
    Am enjoying the '63 Best Actress Blogathon - a great idea.
    Hoping you don't mind that I've tweeted a link to this post on Twitter.

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  16. Thank you, Judy. Glad to hear the movie was true to the book's themes. Thank you for stopping by!

    Thank you, Eve. I'm flattered you sent this link out on Twitter! And I agree ... the '60s British Invasion included all aspects of pop culture. What an interesting period on so many levels.

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  17. Hi Cfb,
    I apologize for my lateness in getting to the Blogathon!
    I have to admit that I've never been a big fan of Leslie Caron nor have I seen this film.
    Of course that doesn't take away from how much I enjoy your write ups! This Blogathon was truly enjoyable and a great lead up for the Oscars.

    This is this first year that I've seen every nominated film pre-broadcast which should make it all the more entertaining this year.
    Page

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  18. Hi Page, Always glad you can stop by and read my posts, and thank you for the compliment. You'll have to check out this film someday.

    Congrats on your Oscar milestone! I hope you enjoy the telecast. I have not missed seeing all nominated best pictures before the telecast starting in 1982. Last year it came down to the wire ... I was watching "District 9" the afternoon of the telecast!

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