The L-Shaped Room
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Twenty year old French ballerina Leslie Caron became MGM's resident gamine after she made her movie debut co-starring with Gene Kelly in An American in Paris (1951). She starred in some of the studio's most memorable musicals, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Lili (1953). Caron chafed at the typecasting and restrictions of the studio system, and sought more varied roles. Her final film under her MGM contract, The Doctor's Dilemma (1958), offered her a more adult role, but was not a success. After leaving the studio, she played dramatic roles in several films, but it was not until she appeared in the small British independent film The L-Shaped Room (1962) that she was taken seriously as an adult actress of considerable skill and range.
Caron plays Jane, a young French woman living in London, who finds herself pregnant after a brief, loveless affair. Deciding not to go through with an abortion, she makes friends with her fellow lodgers at a shabby rooming house where she lives in the L-shaped room of the title. Jane and Toby, a failed writer, fall in love, but she keeps her pregnancy secret for fear of losing him. The wispy plot is secondary to the character studies of the band of outsiders who find comfort and acceptance in each others' company. Tom Bell, who plays Toby, spent most of his career playing villains (one of his last roles was in the popular television drama Prime Suspect in which he played a formidable rival to Helen Mirren's Detective Jane Tennison). Toby was one of the few early roles that gave him a complex character to play. American actor Brock Peters, who had recently played the black man wrongfully accused of rape in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), is also touching as a jazz musician who is Toby's best friend. And beloved British character actress Cicely Courtneidge plays a jolly retired vaudevillian.
The The L-Shaped Room was a product of the British New Wave of filmmakers, sometimes called the "Kitchen Sink" school of filmmaking for its emphasis on the gritty realities of working-class life. As Bosley Crowther wrote in the New York Times, "In contrast to all the tough films coming from Britain these days, this has, too, a chin-up tolerance of the Establishment AND the Kitchen Sink." The L-Shaped Room was the second film directed and scripted by actor-screenwriter-director Bryan Forbes, following the wonderful Whistle Down the Wind (1961). Forbes would go on to direct other quirky independent films such as Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) and The Whisperers (1966), as well as the glitzy Hollywood cult film, The Stepford Wives (1975). The L-Shaped Room was co-produced by another actor-turned-director, Richard Attenborough.
Leslie Caron received some of the best reviews of her career for The L-Shaped Room. According to Bosley Crowther, "The actress pours into this role so much powerful feeling, so much heart and understanding, that she imbues a basically threadbare little story with tremendous compassion and charm." Her performance earned Caron her second Academy Award nomination as Best Actress. Although she lost to Patricia Neal (Hud, 1963), she did receive a best actress award from the British Film Academy. More importantly, she proved that, at the age of 32, she was no longer Hollywood's favorite French gamine, but an actress to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, she has never had a role to equal it in the years since, as her private life took precedence. When she does appear in an occasional role in films such as Damage (1992), or in her Emmy-winning guest appearance in the television series Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (2007), her performances are as subtle and eloquent as ever.
Director: Bryan Forbes
Producer: James Woolf, Richard Attenborough
Screenplay: Bryan Forbes, based on the novel by Lynne Reid Banks
Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe
Editor: Anthony Harvey
Costume Design: Beatrice Dawson
Art Direction: Ray Simm
Music: John Barry
Cast: Leslie Caron (Jane), Tom Bell (Toby), Cicely Courtneiege (Mavis), Brock Peters (Johnny), Avis Bunnage (Doris), Bernard Lee (Charlie), Patricia Phoenix (Sonia), Gerry Duggan (Bert), Emlyn Williams (Dr. Weaver).
by Margarita Landazuri