- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 30, 2001

For the last two decades, Leslie Caron has been conspicuously absent from American films. But the veteran French actress has a brief but incandescent moment in Lasse Hallstrom's "Chocolat."
Miss Caron still radiates a girlish charm that summons up the ingenue who first lit up the screen a half century ago in "An American in Paris." Over lobster and shrimp salads at the elegant Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, Miss Caron covers a range of subjects, starting with "Chocolat."
"The author of 'Chocolat,' Joanne Harris, lived in France," Miss Caron reveals. "And she caught the spirit of those little French towns the disapproval, the gossip, the parochial attitude. There is always some kind of dictatorial authority. In the book, it was the priest who clamped down on everybody's movements. In the film, it's the mayor. He is the one who makes it rain and shine. Into these circumstances, come these two radiant people, a mother and daughter."
Miss Caron has delineated the essence of "Chocolat." Juliette Binoche stars as a mysterious interloper and an unwed mother who commits the gauche offense of opening a chocolate shop during Lent. Soon the town, led by Alfred Molina's autocratic patriarch, is divided over the strange newcomer and her seemingly magical confections that inflame the senses and release dormant passions.
Miss Caron plays a widow who unexpectedly finds a late-blooming romance in her life.
"I think Juliette's character is a witch," she notes. "She can guess people's preferences in chocolate and, one by one, she seduces the whole town and unravels their hearts. Hatred and bad attitudes disappear. It's all done through chocolate. It sounds very artificial and sentimental, but it's done in such a lovely way."
Of course, Miss Caron, still dancer-slender and impossibly chic, looks nothing like the dowdy matron in "Chocolat."
"Well, it was set in the late 1950s," she observes. "But many of our costumes were from the 1940s. My character has been a widow since World War I and my clothes dated from the 1920s. There are a lot of dusty, second-hand hats and shoes. They plopped a white wig on me and I'm down at the heels. But it's a very charming story."
Even more charming is the story of Miss Caron's own storied career. Fifty years ago, a 20-year-old fresh face from Paris was cast in the landmark Vincente Minnelli musical "An American in Paris."
"I was a dancer," she recalls. "I danced professionally since I was 16. But I had my first taste of acting when Gene Kelly chose me for 'An American in Paris.' And I adored it. It was an open window to being someone else, living different lives. That's what's so marvelous about acting. My life is constantly renewed and different.
"I danced in a very prestigious troupe," she recalls. "Gene Kelly came to the opening night of one of our performances and he remembered me. He came to test me to see how I photographed and if I could act. I had forgotten about it and was very happy as a dancer. Then I got a phone call. I was to come to L.A. in three days because MGM had picked up my option. And that's how I became a movie star."
In the '50s and '60s, Miss Caron epitomized grace on the big screen. Among her many remarkable films were "Lili," "Daddy Long Legs," "The Glass Slipper," "Gigi," "Fanny," "The L-Shaped Room" and "Father Goose." She danced memorably with Fred Astaire, as well as Mr. Kelly, and was linked on- or off-screen with many of the greatest stars of the era.
"I've been famous in Paris since I was a girl," she states simply. "Fame is heavy. It's a constant demand, but when you don't have it anymore, you miss it. It's a magnificent and fabulous privilege. A lot of people resent their fame. But if you were loved in your childhood, you can have an open heart about fame."
Miss Caron has no regrets over the derailment of her original plans. In fact, she relishes the unexpected nature of the movie business. Recently, she has been enjoying a seemingly ceaseless promotional tour for "Chocolat" that has taken her from New York to London, back to New York and finally, to Hollywood, where Miss Caron has gotten to play catch-up with old friends. She is quite interested in getting more acting roles.
Along with her career and her family, the other preoccupation for Miss Caron is managing her own inn in Villeneuve sur Yonne, about an hour outside of Paris, in the Burgundy region. The entrepreneurial star is quick to point out that her auberge, La Lucarne aux Chouettes (or "The Owl's Window"), can be booked through www.lesliecaron-auberge.com. She reports that her chef is excellent and she personally tends the flowers herself. One thing she does not do anymore, however, is dance.
"Didn't you see that white-haired old lady in 'Chocolat?"' she asks. "That white-haired old lady does not dance anymore. I do rowing. I don't have a river in my living room, but I do have a rowing machine."

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