Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Birthday Take: Leslie Caron in "Lili" (1953)

Leslie Caron in Lili
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Leslie Caron
Born: July 1, 1931 (84 years old)
Nomination: Best Actress in Lili (nominated) as Lili Daurier

The Take

While Leslie Caron has appeared in two Best Picture winners (An American in Paris, Gigi), she seems to be largely forgotten as a major actress. In fact, the year that she was nominated for Lili, she lost to newcomer Audrey Hepburn for Roman Holiday. It would be easy to make a lot of similarities to the two, largely because they played similar roles throughout the 50's and 60's both in film and in theater. However, it creates a major disservice to those trying to understand the charm of Caron, whose innocence and joy benefited her performances and helped to turn her into an elegant, forgotten gem of film culture.

Among the more forgotten films is Lili, which is summarized as being about a little girl who runs away to a carnival and communicates to puppets. Yes, it is pretty much that film and it does require a certain stretch of imagination to fully appreciate. However, what makes the film particularly watchable is Caron, who is mostly required to react to puppets and wander around opportunistically as she deals with very innocent issues. Along with a third act dance that sees her metaphorically saying goodbye to her time at the carnival, there's a certain beauty that is on display. Some may be disturbed by the puppet designs, but the rest is wholesome family entertainment that may be a little dated and slow, but still is above average.

It is likely that if you watched Mad Men, you will be familiar with a little bit of Lili. During the episode "Lost Horizons" character Roger Sterling plays "Hi Lili, Hi Lo" on a piano. For those who know the song, it is a nice little moment. The song itself is a nonsensical attraction song that is meant to showcase Caron's naivety. Thankfully, the bouncy rhythm matched with the simple lyrics are themselves infectious enough to make one of the film's few songs pop. It also works because it is a convincing carnival song that people would be forced to sing. While the context between Lili and Mad Men may not be more than referential, it does have some charm and proves that there's some legacy in this film.

The film itself is a coming of age film that is an interesting study of love. While it is a largely innocent film, the clever twist that Lili is in love with the puppeteer adds a certain sentiment to their performances. Again, it may not be among the greatest films or musicals, but it is a reflection of how performances can impact a film's overall quality. While there's debate on if Caron's later work, specifically Gigi, has her playing figures attracted to older men in a disturbing way, she at least makes it unassuming while you're in the moment. As problematic as that may seem to contemporary audiences, it doesn't create too many problems here.

If there's one actress who may deserve some further consideration, it is probably Caron. She may not have the shiniest of filmography, but she does definitely have the grace and charm. While she has slowed down in her older age, she continues to work, including a supporting role in Chocolat. Even if this isn't the case, it will be interesting to acknowledge the works where she best shines and consider just how underrated she really is. This is why I'm hoping that if you get one inspiration out of this piece, it is to check out a film of hers and see for yourself why she may have not done the greatest movies, but she usually did a good job in them.

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