Sunday, October 16, 2016

Admittedly, Other Letter Shapes Would Be Strange

Film: The L-Shaped Room
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

I’ve made no secret on this blog that I’m not a fan of Leslie Caron. I don’t mind her in An American in Paris where she is pretty harmless. The same is true of her role in Chocolat and I actually don’t mind her at all in Father Goose. But I genuinely dislike Gigi and Lili and I didn’t think a great deal of Fanny. With The L-Shaped Room, I think I’m officially done with any movies she’s in as they touch on my Oscar categories. I have to say I’m relieved. I think I understand why a certain generation seems to like Caron, but I really don’t understand the fascination. There was far too many instances of her playing much younger than her real age and too much effort to pitcher her as the essence of womanhood, something she wasn’t really capable of being. It’s sort of the same opinion I have of Claudette Colbert, although I think Colbert had more acting chops.

With The L-Shaped Room, at least Caron is playing something close to her age, and this might actually be the key to me not disliking Leslie Caron. In Fanny, for instance, she was 30 playing 18 and it falls apart. Here, she’s about 32 playing 27, and it’s close enough to work. Caron can past for 27 here, so I’m not immediately pulled out of the plot. That seems to be a big part of my immediate dislike of Caron on screen, so we don’t have that problem here. The other problem—the fact that she often looks like she’s just smelled something unpleasant is something that seems to follow her wherever she goes.

In The L-Shaped Room, Jane Fosset (Caron), shows up at a bug-infested boarding house looking for a room. She rents the titular room from Doris (Avis Bunnage) for the equivalent of about $225/month and slowly adjusts. Helping in that adjustment are a few of her fellow boarders. There is Johnny (Brock Peters), a trumpet player who is almost embarrassingly nice. There is Mavis (Cicely Courtneidge), an aging actress more concerned for her cat than anything else. But most especially there is Toby (Tom Bell), a down-and-out failed writer. It’s not long before Jane is spending a great deal of her time with Johnny and Toby, and even more with just Toby, who soon professes his love for her.

The problem with this is that Jane is pregnant, and not by Toby. Complicating matters is that Toby isn’t aware of this when he professes his love for Jane, nor is he aware of this when he and Jane spend the night together. This event, while it happens in the middle of the film, is the start of the rifts that will shape the end. Johnny overhears Jane’s night with Toby and doesn’t approve, eventually telling Jane to go live with the prostitutes in the basement flat, perhaps implying that Toby spends time there as well.

Additionally, it’s soon evident that Johnny knows about Jane’s pregnancy. He has the adjoining apartment, after all, and hears her sick every morning. Mavis knows as well, since she hears Jane on the phone with a doctor. Everyone—the doctor, Mavis, and it seems the rest of the world—assume that Jane wants to get rid of the baby, assumptions that only make her more and more determined to have the child, almost to spite everyone else.

The most overriding problem throughout the film is poverty and squalor, though. When Toby does find out about the baby, everything changes between him and Jane, but how everything changes seems to be at least in part dependent on the crushing poverty and the dirt in which they all live. Perhaps had they money or opportunity or something then this wouldn’t be so damn tragic. The real hell of it is that there are multiple real solutions for everything these people are going through, but they are too mired in their poverty, too buried in what they think must be correct, or simply so exhausted, hungry, and beaten down that they can’t do anything else.

I’m a little surprised that this didn’t make the grade for Best Adapted Screenplay. This is a very smart screenplay, one that (because of when this was made) can’t come right out and talk about things like abortion. Instead, the dialogue walks around these topics carefully, never saying outright what it’s actually talking about and yet making things completely obvious. Later, simply through a few phrases and a few looks, we learn that old Mavis is a lesbian. Again, this isn’t something that the film could talk about overtly, but it’s clear. That takes smart writing.

And so here we are—after seeing her in more than half a dozen films, I’ve finally discovered that Leslie Caron can act. Who would’ve guessed? Caron is actually quite good here, and no one is more surprised than I am. Perhaps my problem with her is less with her than it is with many of the roles that she seemed to choose. This is the sort of thing she should have been playing all along. There’s a tragedy to Jane that doesn’t require her to be “all that is woman.”

Why to watch The L-Shaped Room: A fascinating plot for its time.
Why not to watch: There’s a griminess here that seems to come through the screen.

4 comments:

  1. While she's not one of my favorites I like Leslie Caron more than you do, although I HATE An American in Paris and just about everything about it-it tries far too hard to be an Important Picture. I can't completely blame her for all those winsome roles she played, yes she accepted the parts but she was a contract actress so it was often take what was offered or don't work and AAIP had definitely typed her.

    But that problem of the age gap between the character and herself is perhaps more noticeable in retrospect than it was then when audiences were more willing to not be bothered by such things, look at Mary Pickford's career.

    Anyway this is her best performance, at least it is of her work that I've seen. She's very low-key and is able to adapt her natural grace to the situation. Her elegance is innate but she never seems to be slumming in the part. It's her movie but the other performers are very good as is the direction. I wouldn't hurry to watch it again but I was glad I got to see it.

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    1. Yeah, I think we're in agreement here. She feels much more natural here, like she's forcing the performance a lot less than she seems to in other films. That makes the whole thing work better.

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  2. This one seems like an interesting companion piece to Love with a Proper Stranger (1963), although from your description it sounds like Robert Mulligan's film tackles abortion much more openly.

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    1. It almost certainly does, because Jane's decision early on is to have the baby. The topic comes up a few times, but the moment it does, Jane shoots it down.

      Love with the Proper Stranger is on the queue eventually. It's not one I considered important until you've mentioned it.

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