Yves Montand was Italian by birth, but he nonetheless came to represent the quintessential Frenchman: charming, politically outspoken, and possessing an air that was world-weary but at the same time lighthearted. Shifting effortlessly between the stage and screen throughout his career, he distinguished himself both as a singer and as an actor capable of playing a wide range of roles. In addition to his professional efforts, Montand drew much attention for his association with controversial political causes, as well as for his involvement with some of the world’s most desirable women. So respected and popular was he in France that in the 1980s he was urged to run for public office. The London Times reported his response to that call: “[U.S. president Ronald] Reagan stood because he was a bad actor. Since I’m a good one, I won’t.”
Montand was taken to the south of France shortly after his birth, when his father, the owner of a broom factory, was threatened by the fascists then gaining power in Italy. Growing up in a poor suburb of Marseilles, Montand was a mediocre student, and his formal education was cut short when the family’s financial troubles forced him to go to work full time at age 11.
He continued to work hard throughout his adolescence, finding relief from the burdens of everyday life in the local movie theater, which featured American comedies, musicals, and Westerns. In that theater, his dream to become a performer was born, and before he was 18 years old, he had made his debut at a local amateur night with an act that included imitations of Donald Duck and Maurice Chevalier. By 1939, he had graduated to the respectable Alhambra Theatre in Marseilles and an act with a Wild West theme.
World War II interrupted his career briefly, but by February, 1944, Montand had reached the ABC music hall in Paris, where his cowboy songs were again a success. Within afew months, he had become the lover of legendary French chanteuse Edith Piaf—as well as her protege. She convinced him to drop his cowboy image and provided him with a more romantic, poetic repertoire of songs, which he performed in his first one-man show at the Theatre de l’Etoile in October, 1945. French critics responded enthusiastically, proclaiming Montand to be a major new star.
Piaf continued to boost Montand’s career, providing him with his first screen role in Etoile sans lumiere in 1946. That same year, he starred in Les Portes de la nuit, a musical that failed miserably at the box office but provided Montand with a song that remained his trademark throughout his career—Jacques Prevert’s “Feuilles mortes” (“Autumn Leaves”).
Born Yvo (some sources say Ivo) Livi, October 3, 1921, in Monsummano Alto, Italy; died November 9,1991; changed name to Yves Montand c. 1930; son of Giovanni (a broom maker) and Giuseppina Livi; married Simone Signoret (an actress), December 22, 1951; children: Catherine Allegret (adopted stepdaughter), Valentin (son, with Carole Amiel).
Singer and actor. Worked variously in a pasta factory, a metal factory, a beauty salon, and on the docks; performed as a singer, Marseilles, France, during the 1930s; debuted at ABC music hall, Paris, France, 1944; first one-man show at Theatre de l’Etoile, Paris, October, 1945; made film debut in Etoile sans lumiere (“Star Without Light”), 1946; appeared in 54 films, including Le Salaire de la peur (“The Wages of Fear”), 1953, Let’s Make Love, 1960, Sanctuary, 1961, My Geisha, 1962, Compartiment tueurs (“The Sleeping Car Murders”), 1965, Paris brule-ti-il? (“Is Paris Burning?”), 1966, La Guerre est finie (“The War Is Over”), 1966, Z, 1969, L’Aveu (“The Confession”), 1970, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, 1970, Etat de siege (“State of Siege”), 1973, Cesar and Rosalie, 1972, Garcon!, 1983, Jean de Florette, 1986, and Manon des Sources (“Manon of the Springs”), 1986.
Awards: New York Film Critics Circle Award for best actor, 1966, for The War Is Over.
Upon his return to the Theatre de l’Etoile for another engagement in 1946, Montand was acknowledged as one of the most popular performers in France, but his career took a temporary nosedive shortly after that engagement, when Piaf broke her liaison with him. For many months he toured the provinces, uncertain of what his life held next. Then in August of 1949, he met the next woman who would further his success—actress Simone Signoret, then married to director Yves Allegret.
Signoret and Montand began a tempestuous affair that led to their marriage in 1951. The actress was, by Montand’s own admission, much more culturally and politically aware than he, and he became her willing pupil, taking part in ban-the-bomb appeals and other leftist political activities. Their refusal to denounce the Communist Party (of which neither was a member) effectively barred them from entering the United States during the McCarthy era.
During 1950 and 1951, Montand made a musical tour of Europe and North Africa, then returned to the screen to play a radical driving through Central America with a truck full of nitroglycerine in the thriller Salaire de la peur( The Wages of Fear). That role established him as a serious actor, and he followed it with an acclaimed performance in a French adaptation of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which also featured Signoret.
The couple then embarked on a tour of the Soviet bloc countries, but their support for the Communists had been cooled by the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and they expressed their disapproval to each Soviet leader they met. On returning to France, Montand enjoyed a six-month engagement at the Etoile in Paris and a record-breaking tour of the provinces. Shortly thereafter, he and Signoret were cordially invited to the United States.
After six sold-out weeks at the Henry Miller Theater in New York City, Montand and his wife travelled to Hollywood, where both were wooed by American movie makers. Montand agreed to star opposite Marilyn Monroe in the musical comedy Let’s Make Love. The film itself generated far less excitement among the public than did the brief affair that occurred between the two leads.
After appearing in several more American films during the early 1960s, Montand embarked on a musical tour of Japan, England, France, and the United States, then took on another dramatic stage role in the French version of A Thousand Clowns. Several films followed, and it was not until 1968 that Montand once again assumed the role of singer. The occasion was a month-long engagement in Paris. The one-man show drew raves, with critics exclaiming that Montand did nothing but improve with age. Ironically, the performance prompted Montand to give up the concert stage for some thirteen years; he was concerned that the adulation he received would destroy his ability to look at himself critically.
The late 1960s and the 1970s ushered in the peak of Montand’s film career. He starred in three classic political thrillers directed by Constantin Costa-Gavras, Z, L ’Aveu, and Etat de siege, as well as numerous other dramas, comedies, and one musical, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, in which he co-starred with Barbra Streisand. He interrupted his screen work only occasionally, to stage benefit concerts for political causes. But as the 1980s dawned, he revived his singing career once again, drawing huge and surprisingly young audiences in Paris, New York, Brazil, and Japan. In 1982, his one-week run at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York made history as the first unaccompanied solo performance ever given there by a popular singer.
Montand was preparing for yet another concert tour in the mid-1980s when he was approached by film director Claude Berri, who offered him the role of the unethical French patriarch whose schemes prove to be his own undoing in the two-part saga Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources. Montand refused at first; he was unwilling to play an old man, and eager to get on with his tour. But he reconsidered, and finally accepted what is generally regarded as the finest movie role of his career. The two films were smash hits on both sides of the Atlantic, with Montand’s performance considered at least as vital as that of co-star Gerard Depardieu.
Signoret died of cancer while Montand was at work on the films, and in the wake of her death, he drove himself at a more hectic pace than ever, promoting the films, continuing his political activism, and planning a television musical. He also became romantically involved with his secretary, Carole Amiel, and in 1988, she gave birth to his first child. He was 67 years old.
Montand slowed down briefly to enjoy his son’s babyhood, but by the time the child had reached the age of three, he had decided to mount a new stage show. The show was in the planning stages, and Montand was filming a new movie with director Jean-Jacques Beineix when he suffered a fatal heart attack. According to People contributor Marjorie Rosen, as he was en route to the hospital where he died, Montand assured the ambulance crew: “I have lived well enough to have no regrets.”
On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (soundtrack), 1970. Montand d’hier a aujourd’hui (includes “Montand, from Yesterday to Today”).
Los Angeles Times, November 10, 1991.
Maclean’s, January 4, 1988; February 22, 1988.
New York Times, September 5,1982; October 9, 1983; May 23,1986; October 18,1991; November 10,1991; June 11, 1992.
New York Times Book Review, November 15, 1992.
People, May 16,1988; August 15,1988; November 25,1991.
Times (London), November 11, 1991.
Variety, December 14, 1992.
Washington Post, September 5, 1982; November 10, 1991.
Nationality: French. Born: Ivo Livi in Monsummano Alto, Tuscany, Italy, 13 October 1921; raised in Marseilles, France, from age two. Family: Married the actress Simone Signoret, 1951 (died 1985), stepdaughter (adopted following Signoret's death): the actress Catherine Allégret; son with Carole Amiel: Valentin. Career: Left school at age 11, and worked at a variety of jobs before becoming a singer in Marseilles and Paris; 1945—performed at Moulin Rouge; Edith Piaf helped him in his career; 1946—feature film debut in Étoile sans lumière with Piaf; 1950–51—six-month musical tour of Europe and North Africa; 1953—breakthrough role in Le Salaire de la peur; 1954—appeared with Signoret in stage play The Crucible, and in film version, 1957; 1958—highly publicized and criticized tour of Soviet Union and Eastern-bloc countries, with Signoret; 1959—one-man show on Broadway; 1965—co-starred with Signoret in Compartiment tueurs, first of several films by Costa-Gavras; 1968—acclaimed oneman show in Paris; late 1970s—released enormously popular album of songs, Montand d'hier à aujourd'hui (Montand, from Yesterday to Today); 1982—became first popular singer to perform solo at New York's Metropolitan Opera House, followed by U.S. caberet tour, then tour of Brazil and Japan; 1986—acclaimed performance in pair of international hits, Jean de Florette and Manon des sources; produced and starred in one-man TV special, Montand à la une; 1987—named president, Cannes Film Festival; 1988—long politically active, received serious mention as a possible French presidential candidate, but he declined to pursue; 1991—at time of death, was preparing a singing tour. Awards: Best Actor awards, French Étoile de cristal and New York Film Critics Circle, for La Guerre est finie, 1966; special tribute, Film Society of Lincoln Center, 1988. Died: Of a heart attack, in Senlis, France, 9 November 1991.
Films as Actor:
Silence . . . antenne (Lucot—short) (as singer)
Étoile sans lumière (Star without Light) (Blistène) (as Pierre); Les Portes de la nuit (Gates of the Night) (Carné—released in U.S. in 1950) (as Jean Diego)
L'Idole (The Idol) (Esway) (as Luc Fenton)
Souvenirs perdus (Christian-Jaque) (as singer); Paris chante toujours (Montazel) (as singer); Parigi e sempre Parigi (Emmer) (as singer)
Le Salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear) (Clouzot) (as Mario); "Mara" ep. of Tempi nostri (Our Time; The Anatomy of Love) (Blasetti)
Napoléon (Guitry) (as Marshal Lefebvre)
Les Heros sont fatigués (Heroes and Sinners) (Ciampi) (as Michel Rivière)
Marguerite de la nuit (Autant-Lara) (as Mephistopheles); Uomini e lupi (De Santis) (as Ricuccio)
Les Sorcières de Salem (The Witches of Salem; The Crucible) (Rouleau) (as John Proctor); Poet Iv Montan (Yves Montand chante en U.S.S.R.) (Sloutky and Yutkevitch)
La lunga strada azzura (La Grande Strada Azzura; The Wide Blue Road) (Pontecorvo) (as Squarcio)
Le Père et l'enfant (Premier Mai) (Saslavsky) (as Jean); La Loi (Where the Hot Wind Blows; Le legge; The Law) (Dassin) (as Matteo Brigante)
Let's Make Love (The Billionaire; The Millionaire) (Cukor) (as Jean-Marc Clément); Yves Montand Chante (filmed concert/doc)
Sanctuary (Richardson) (as Candy Man); Aimez-vous Brahms? (Goodbye Again) (Litvak) (as Roger Desmarest)
My Geisha (Cardiff) (as Paul Robaix)
Le Joli Mai (Marker—doc) (as narrator)
Compartiment tueurs (The Sleeping Car Murder) (Costa-Gavras) (as Insp. Grazzi)
La Guerre est finie (The War Is Over) (Resnais) (as Diego); Paris-brûle-t-il? (Is Paris Burning?) (Clément) (as Marcel Bizien); Grand Prix (Frankenheimer) (as Jean-Pierre Sarti)
Vivre pour vivre (Live for Life) (Lelouch) (as Robert Colomb)
Un soir, un train (One Night, a Train) (Delvaux) (as Mathias); Le Diable par la queue (The Devil by the Tail) (de Broca) (as Cesar Maricorne)
Mister Freedom (Klein) (cameo as Capt. Formidable); Z (Costa-Gavras) (as Deputy Z); Le Deuxième Procès d'Artur London (Marker—doc); Jour de tournage (Marker and Depouey—doc)
L'Aveu (The Confession) (Costa-Gavras) (as Gerard); On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (Minnelli) (as Dr. Marc Chabot); Le Cercle rouge (The Red Circle) (Melville) (as Jansen)
La Folie des grandeurs (Delusions of Grandeur) (Oury) (as Blaze)
César et Rosalie (César and Rosalie) (Sautet) (as César); Le Fils (Granier-Deferre) (as Ange Orahona)
Tout va bien (Just Great) (Godard and Gorin) (as He); Etat de siège (State of Siege) (Costa-Gavras) (as Philip Michael Santore)
Le Hasard et la violence (Labro) (as Laurent Berman); Vincent, Francois, Paul, et les autres (Vincent, Francois, Paul and the Others) (Sautet) (as Vincent); La Solitude du chanteur de fond (The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Singer) (Marker—doc) (as himself); T'es fou, Marcel (Rochefort—doc)
Le Sauvage (The Savage; Lovers Like Us) (Rappeneau) (as Martin Coutances); Section spéciale (Special Section) (Costa-Gavras) (cameo)
Police Python 357 (Corneau) (as Marc Ferrot); La Grand Escogriffe (Pinoteau) (as Emile Morland)
Le Menace (The Threat) (Corneau) (as Henri Savin)
Les Routes du sud (The Roads to the South) (Losey)
Clair de femme (Womanlight) (Costa-Gavras) (as Michel); I comme Icarus (I as in Icarus) (Verneuil)
The Case against Ferro (Corneau) (title role)
Le Choix des armes (Choice of Arms) (Corneau) (as Noel Durieux)
Tout feu tout flamme (All Fired Up) (Rappeneau) (as Victor Valance)
Garçon! (Waiter!) (Sautet) (as Alex)
Jean de Florette (Berri) (as César "Le Papet" Soubeyran); Manon des sources (Jean de Florette 2; Manon of the Spring) (Berri) (as César "Le Papet" Soubeyran)
Trois places pour le 26 (Three Seats for the 26th) (Jacques Demy) (as himself)
Netchaïev est de retour (Netchaïev Is Back) (Deray) (as Pierre Marroux)
IP5: L'île aux Pachydermes (IP5: The Island of Pachyderms) (Beineix) (as Leon Marcel)
By MONTAND: books—
Du soleil plein la tête, with Jean Denys, Paris, 1955.
Tu vois, je n'ai pas oublie, with Herve Hamon and Patrick Rotman, France, 1990; published as You See, I Haven't Forgotten, New York, 1992.
By MONTAND: articles—
Interview with R. Predal, in Cinéma (Paris), March 1974.
Cinéma (Paris), July/August 1980.
Interview with Harlan Jacobson, in Film Comment (New York), vol. 23, no. 5, 1987.
Interview in Film und Fernsehen (Potsdam), no. 5, 1990.
Interview in Talking Films: The Best of the Guardian Lectures, edited by Andrew Britton, London, 1991.
Interview with Y. Poncelet, in Grand Angle (Mariembourg, Belgium), February 1991.
On MONTAND: books—
Megret, Christian, Yves Montand, Paris, 1953.
Remond, Alain, Yves Montand, Paris, 1977.
Rouchy, Marie-Elisabeth, Yves Montand, Paris, 1980.
Cannavo, Richard, and Henri Quiquere, Yves Montand: Le Chant d'un homme, Paris, 1981.
Laneque, M., and R. Gallot, Montand: De Chansons et images, Paris, 1981.
Remond, Alain, Montand, Paris, 1981.
Monserrat, Joëlle, Yves Montand, Paris, 1983.
Semprun, Joseph, Montand: La vie continué, Paris, 1983.
Desneux, Richard, Yves Montand: L'artiste engagé, Lausanne, 1989.
Pascuito, Bernard, Montand: le livre du souvenir, Paris, 1992.
Ginies, Michel, Yves Montand, Paris, 1995.
On MONTAND: articles—
Hamill, Pete, "Yves Montand," in New York, 6 September 1982.
Andriotakis, Pamela, "Paris Isn't Burning, Just Marking Time as Yves Montand Tours America," in People Weekly (New York), 20 September 1982.
Schupp, P., "Yves Montand: Le Rebelle au grand coeur," in Séquences (Montreal), August 1987.
Current Biography 1988, New York 1988.
Darrach, Brad, "Yves Montand: Amid Memories of Old Wars and Lost Loves, the Most Seductive of Frenchmen Looks Ahead to New Conquests," in People Weekly (New York), 16 May 1988.
"Yves Montand," in Film Dope (Nottingham, England), March 1990.
"Yves Montand," in Stars (Mariembourgh, Belgium), December 1990.
Obituary in New York Times, 10 November 1991.
Obituary in Times (London), 11 November 1991.
Obituary in Variety (New York), 18 November 1991.
Taboulay, C., obituary in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), December 1991.
Sineux, M., "Yves Montand: Eloge de l'intercesseur," in Positif (Paris), January 1992.
Iskusstvo Kino (Moscow), November 1991.
Iskusstvo Kino (Moscow), October 1994.
On MONTAND: film—
Montand, documentary directed by Jean Labib, 1994.
* * *
After a brilliant beginning as a cabaret singer, helped along the way by Edith Piaf, Yves Montand made a number of films that were disappointing. In fact, just at the time when he was about to abandon his film career, he accepted a role in Clouzot's Le Salaire de la peur that made him famous as a film star. The film, full of dramatic tension, depicts the desperately courageous trip of four drivers with a dangerous load on a treacherous road, and is now reckoned to be—because of its subject, its technical qualities, and its performances—one of the finest films of its time. Yet for the next decade Montand's films were not successful. Only in the late 1960s did he manage to move in a natural way before the camera, and from the time of his making Compartiment tueurs onwards, his acting took on an authority it lacked before. La Guerre est finie, Vivre pour vivre, and Un soir, un train show this, especially the last, about the complicated relations of a couple seemingly on the boundary of dream and reality.
With his association with the director Costa-Gavras, which began in 1965 with Compartiment tueurs, his acting reached a mid-career peak. His participation in Costa-Gavras's politically oriented works reflected his own political convictions, about which he was never silent. Z and Etat de siège deal with the restriction of civil rights in Greece and Chile, respectively. In L'Aveu, based on a book by Arthur London, one of the accused in Slansky's trial in Czechoslovakia, he created with a shocking persuasiveness the character of a man who suffers the monstrous power of a state determined to make good its charges of conspiracy, betrayal, and class and racial hatred.
Montand also made comedies and love stories as well as crime stories. In Le Fils he created the character of a mafioso who returns to Corsica from America and is involved in a vendetta, and in La Choix des armes he played a man in whose house two escaped convicts take shelter. He acted with Cathérine Deneuve in Le Sauvage, with Romy Schneider in César et Rosalie and Clair de femme, and with Isabelle Adjani in Tout feu, tout flamme.
Although he had a notable late-career comedic role in 1983's highly praised light comedy Garçon! playing the waiter, Montand's film career had hit a valley in the late 1970s and early 1980s. A final climax would come in 1986, however, with his scheming village elder in the wonderful two-part multicontinent smash hit Jean de Florette and Manon des sources. Based on novels by Maurice Pagnol, the films were made back-to-back by director Claude Berri in the costliest production in France up to that time. For his part, Montand drew on his rural Italian roots in perfectly capturing a proud old peasant whose greed leads ultimately to an ending reminiscent of Greek tragedy. In one of his best performances ever, Montand held the central role through both films, even next to Gérard Depardieu's strong portrayal of Montand's nemesis in Jean de Florette—a fitting culmination to the career of an actor beloved by his fellow French and unusually popular outside France as well.
—Karel Tabery, updated by David E. Salamie