When the startling film adaptation of the daring 1960 Lynne Reid Banks bestseller The L-Shaped Room (1962) debuted in its native Britain 55 years ago today, it was transformative for its star Leslie Caron, who jumped at the opportunity to play this story’s determined heroine Jane Fosset, a young French woman who comes to London harboring a secret pregnancy from an affair with an ex-lover whom she decided not to marry. Single motherhood being a sensitive subject in this era, caution and care – lest the repressive arm of censorship be deployed – in its depiction of the book’s events and eccentric lower-class characters in the East End boarding house (in the now gentrified, then shabby Notting Hill Gate neighborhood) where Jane comes to live and establish connections with her fellow tenants, particularly a struggling writer (Tom Bell) with whom she falls in love, and his buddy, a gay jazz musician (Brock Peters) down the hall. The ambitious Caron was fully game to leave behind her gamine image (memorably forged by An American in Paris, Lili, The Glass Slipper, Daddy Long Legs and Gigi) and was determined to have her say in making Jane reverberantly real. When the project’s original director Jack Clayton had to bow out, she voiced to co-producer James Woolf a decided preference for the film’s adapting scribe. In her 2009 memoir Thank Heaven, Caron wrote: “I immediately mentioned Bryan Forbes, whose enchanting Whistle Down the Wind (1961) had just come out and who’d done beautiful work on our script. He had written a grand melodrama, with plenty of colorful characters, rich intrigue, and a semi-happy ending that was realistic rather than sentimental. I was thrilled when he agreed to direct.” Even so, she felt that Jane on the page was “too passive.” She recalls: “So there I was, developing my argument to Bryan Forbes, who seemed to be doodling with a pen, hardly looking at me, to the effect that I expanded and repeated my point several times, with more and more conviction. I finally stopped, thinking Well, isn’t he rude? He doesn’t even listen to me. At that point Bryan handed over the pages he was writing on and said, ‘Is this what you mean?’ He had rewritten the scene while I was speaking. It was perfect, and we played it word for word as it had been set down then. Bryan was a very rapid wit with an ear for popular vernacular. If I found his directing a little controlling at times, I am immensely grateful for his help in peeling away the onion skins until I reached the right level of emotion.”
The pair’s commitment to breaking away from the lady’s regimented studio past was total. As she told British Film Institute interviewer Sue Harris two years ago when contrasting the making of an MGM musical with a stark “kitchen-sink” drama: “If a photographer came on the set, you had to smile, you had to be always pleasant, always good mood. There was all this phony sunshine that we had to adapt ourselves to, whereas, when I started on this, I said to Bryan, ‘Now, I expect you to wipe the smile off my face, because I was so well-trained by MGM to always look so pleasant and so pleased, that I need your help to have realistic reactions.” Caron’s book vividly recounts the “realistic reaction” of a visitor to the filming: “To be as authentic as possible in the scene just prior to the baby’s delivery, I wore my old blue nylon dressing gown, stretched out of shape on a realistic nine-month belly, when the American columnist Sheilah Graham walked onto the set. I heard her lungs empty with an ‘Ohhhhh!’ of shock.” Future exclamations would be those of approval for the film and its leading lady, encapsulated in The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther’s appraisal of her “stunning, mature performance,” in which “Miss Caron brings to life a radiant being, full of bravery and inspiration. And the final episode in the film puts a perfect punctuation to her clear glow.” That glow would extend to Best Actress British Academy and Golden Globe® Awards and an Oscar® nomination. Co-starring beloved British character players Avis Bunnage, Cicely Courtneidge, Patricia Phoenix, Bernard Lee and the great (and here, particularly vile) Emlyn Williams, The L-Shaped Room endures, in the view of Time’s reviewer, as “a beautiful and refreshing film” that “marks Leslie Caron’s successful transition from gamine to grownup. Her love scenes with hawk-faced Tom Bell are vivid; her way of mumbling silently to herself in moments of despair evokes such heartbreak that viewers will want to hug her and say, there, there, everything will be all right. There is a taste of Honey and an aftertaste of Anger about The L-Shaped Room that give it an honorable place among British slice-of-life films.” With a lively Audio Commentary featuring Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, and derived from an all-new 4K restoration transfer, it will be given hi-def birth in time for the holidays December 19 on Twilight Time Blu-ray. Preorders open December 6.