Signoret, Simone (1921–1985)
Signoret, Simone (1921–1985)
Academy-award winning French actress and social activist who appeared in a number of film classics during her 40-year career. Born Simone Henriette Charlotte Kaminker on March 25, 1921, in Wiesbaden, Germany; died on September 30, 1985, in Normandy, France; daughter of André Kaminker and Georgette (Signoret) Kaminker; married Yves Allegret (a director), in 1948 (divorced 1949); married Yves Montand (a singer-actor), in 1950; children: (with Allegret) Catherine Allegret (an actress, b. 1947).
Moved to Paris with her family while still a child; eventually forced to work as a typist to support family when the Nazis invaded Paris and her Jewish father fled to London; after several years working as an extra in films, was given her first leading role (1947), beginning her career as a versatile and accomplished character actress of the French screen; won international recognition; received Academy Award as Best Actress for Room at the Top (1958); published two volumes of memoirs and a novel.
Le Prince Charmant (1942); Les Visiteurs du Soir (1942); La Bôite aux Rêves (1945); Les Démons de l'Aube (1947); Back Streets of Paris (UK, 1947); Fantômas (1947); Against the Wind (UK, 1948); L'Impasse de Deux Anges (1948); Dedée d'Anvers (1948); Swiss Tour (Switz., 1949); Manèges (1950); La Ronde (1950); Le Traqué (1950); Ombre et Lumiére (1951); Casque d'Or (1952); Thérèse Raquin (1953); Les Diaboliques (1955); La Mort en le Jardin (1956); Les Sorcières de Salem (The Crucible, 1957); Room at the Top (1958); Adua e le Campagne (Ital., 1960); Le Mauvais Coups (1961); Term of Trial (UK, 1962); Le Jour et l'Heure (1963); Dragées au Poivre (1963); Ship of Fools (US, 1964); Paris Brûle-t-il? ("Is Paris Burning?," 1966); The Deadly Affair (UK, 1967); Games (US, 1967); The Sea Gull (US-UK, 1968); L'Armée des Ombres (1969); L'Americain (1969); Le Chat (1970); La Veuve Couderc (1970); Rude Journée pour la Reine (1973); Défense de Savoir (1974); La Chair de l'orchidée (1974); Police Python 357 (1976); La Vie devant soi (Madame Rosa, 1977); Une Femme dangereuse (1978); Judith Therpauve (1978); L'Adolescente (1980); Chére inconnu (1980); L'Étoile du Nord (1982); Guy de Maupassant (1982); (narration only) Des Terroristes à la retraite (1983).
They were an odd pair and it was an odd meeting place for a first date that March night in 1941. He was a political revolutionary from a wealthy, conservative Swiss family; she was the daughter of a Jewish father and worked as a secretary for a Paris newspaper well known as a mouthpiece for the occupying Germans; and the place chosen for their meeting was the Left Bank's Café de Flore, that bastion of anti-Nazi, anti-fascist intellectuals and artists on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, as yet untouched by the occupation forces roaming the capital. For Claude Jaeger, the evening marked the beginning of his work as an elusive leader of the Resistance movement; for Simone Kaminker, stepping into the Flore that evening was the start of a career in which politics and art would be inextricably bound. "By opening that door," she later said, after adopting her mother's maiden name and becoming Simone Signoret, "I was entering a world that would change the rest of my life."
So momentous was that entry that Signoret would always consider it as important a date as the day of her birth on March 25, 1921, in Wiesbaden, Germany, where her father was stationed as part of the victorious French forces posted in Germany after that country's defeat in World War I. André Kaminker, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland who had settled in France during the previous century, kept his ancestry carefully hidden even from his own daughter. "I don't know very much about my father," Signoret once said, "except that he was born in France, that he had fought for France, and that being French was enormously important for him." André's eagerness to be perceived as French, and never as a Jew, left Simone with little sense of her heritage and, she later said, led to feelings of separation and an anxiety-ridden desire for acceptance. Simone's mother Georgette Signoret continually criticized her husband for betraying his heritage and for flaunting the privileges of a victorious army amid the devastation and misery of a ruined Germany. From Georgette, who came from a working-class family, Simone absorbed something of a social conscience, remembering how her mother would engage her in philosophical discussions, even as a child. Simone was an only child until her family moved back to France and settled in the middle-class Paris suburb of Neuilly, where two brothers—Alain and Jean-Pierre—were born within a year of each other.
Although Simone harbored a young girl's fantasies of becoming a famous actress, it seemed her future would be dedicated to more serious pursuits. She studied philosophy in secondary school, helped form a student magazine dedicated to philosophical issues called "The Hyphen," and met a young philosophy professor named Jean-Paul Sartre, who had come to teach at the boys' school across the street. During his daughter's school years, André found work as a translator and interpreter and was disturbed by the content of a speech carried live by French radio that he was assigned to translate. It was Adolf Hitler's Nuremberg speech of 1934, the first major policy statement by the Nazi leader. Not long after, André nervously sent his wife and children to Vannes, in the French countryside, and left France for London, where he served as a translator for the BBC and remained for the duration of the war. Cut off from Paris by the German invasion of 1939, Simone spent the first year of the war helping her mother feed and billet the German soldiers passing through on their way to the capital who winked knowingly at Georgette's claim that the family name was a Breton one. Georgette and her two sons finally returned to Neuilly during the winter of 1940 while Simone finished her education at the Vannes lycée, taking her baccalauréate (the French equivalent of a bachelor's degree) in philosophy.
Georgette's struggle to raise three children on her meager income as a seamstress forced Simone to find work in occupied Paris as a secretary for a collaborationist newspaper, Les Nouveaux Temps, which was owned by the father of a school friend. It was at this point that she met Claude Jaeger and walked into the Café de Flore that March night. There, while German troops roamed the city, she met intellectuals and artists who, like herself, turned their disaffections and anxieties into philosophical tracts, poetry, painting, plays, and films. She renewed her acquaintance with Sartre, just then codifying his thinking into what would be called Existentialism, struck up a friendship with Simone de Beauvoir , and met such luminaries of the French art world as Picasso, Giacometti, and Soutine. She heard the rebellious talk of Communists, Italian anti-fascists, Spanish republicans, and fearful Jews. Although her relationship with Jaeger soon ended, and Simone never actively joined the French Resistance, the political activism that would mark her later life was first nurtured by the relationships formed at the Flore, many of which lasted for the rest of her days. As the first sign of her new direction, she quit her job at Les Nouveaux Temps, telling her employer that she was leaving "because you see, monsieur, you'll all end up being shot." (An accurate prediction, as it turned out: the editor of the paper was executed for treason after the war.) An apartment she shared with Yves Allegret, a young film director she met at the Flore, was an active message center for Resistance activities; and Signoret once discovered that a suitcase she had been asked to deliver for a friend contained ammunition bound for Resistance fighters just outside Paris. "I did not perform a single heroic act," Signoret admitted, "but I did no harm, which in itself is not so bad."
It was because of the Flore, too, that her film career was launched. Among the café's habitues were filmmakers such as screenwriter Jacques Prévert, Marcel Carné, Robert Bresson, and the Allegret brothers, Yves and Marc, all of whom began offering her work as an extra in their productions. Fearing that the German-controlled Vichy government would never grant her a work permit under the name Kaminker, Simone adopted Georgette's maiden name and began studying acting, although her teacher declared she could only be a comic actress because of a minor speech impediment which changed her sibilants to a "ch"—the "Signoret sound" which would later be imitated by thousands of French young women.
Despite the German occupation, the French film industry remained relatively unaffected for much of the war and turned out 120 films in the period, some of them still considered classics of French cinema—like Bresson's Les Anges de Péchés (Angels of the Streets) and Carné's Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise), starring Arletty . Signoret learned her craft in small roles for these and other directors, such as Sacha Guitry, Abel Gance, and Henri-Georges Clouzot. Carné cast her in her first significant, although non-speaking, role in 1942's Les Visiteurs du Soir (released in subtitled English as The Devil's Envoys), while Signoret made her first stage appearance the same year as "a woman of the people of Thebes" in a modest
production by a tiny repertory company in Paris. By war's end, Simone's craft had matured to the point where even a small role could be burnished to perfection in her care. Typical of such parts was her performance in Yves Allegret's Démons de l'Aube (Demons of Dawn), in which she was given only one scene as a barmaid attempting to excite the passion of a simple-minded village boy with a kiss. "A classic scene, apparently without much scope for variation," a crew member remembered many years later, "which is why on the set, we all suddenly had a sense of revelation. She was born for the cinema, there were no two ways about it. Her performance was like a second birth." The metaphor was an apt one, for Signoret was at the time pregnant with Allegret's child—a girl, Catherine, born just before the film's release in 1947. The couple's relationship had begun during the war, but it was not until after Catherine's birth that Simone and Yves were married, in 1948.
I haven't done all I would have liked to do, but I've never done anything I didn't want to.
Démons de l'Aube marked Simone's acceptance as a serious actress, bolstered by her performance as a hard-hearted streetwalker changed by the power of love in 1948's Dédée d'Anvers, also directed by Allegret, and in that same year's Impasse des Deux Anges. "Simone Signoret has finally found the part she was looking for," Paris-Presse told its readers, "which immediately raises her up with the first rank of French screen actresses." Le Figaro was particularly impressed with her ability to silently communicate emotion. "Her silences are as important as her words," the newspaper said. "She acts with her mouth, her eyes, and her skin." Audiences fell in love with the character of Dédée, and were particularly struck by Signoret's dazzling, almost regal beauty and smoldering sensuality, "glowing like a greengage," as one reviewer put it. But Signoret was more concerned with developing a convincing character and went to great lengths with makeup and wardrobe to help her with the transition. "It's almost chemical, the way you turn into that other person," she once observed. "I forget that I'm Signoret." Filmgoers were so attached to Dédée that Simone's work as the manipulative, greedy Dora in 1950's Manèges (also directed by Allegret) brought howls of protest, even after Signoret defended herself by claiming that it was a film's message as a whole that was important to her, not merely her own character. "I can easily play a Gestapo informer in an anti-fascist film," she said, "but I can't play a model mother or a proud mistress in a fascist film." Among Signoret's other films during the immediate postwar period were the first of many pictures dealing with wartime heroism, 1948's Against The Wind, a British film in which Signoret played a French Resistance fighter aided by British paratroopers.
After working in twelve films in less than eight years and establishing herself as a leading actress of the French screen, Signoret retired to the south of France during the summer of 1949, taking Catherine and Allegret's son from a previous marriage with her. It was during her stay at a luxurious hotel in St. Paul-de-Vences, not far from Nice, that Signoret's life took another turn, as significant as the night nine years before when she had walked into the Café de Flore. She met and fell in love with Yves Montand, a nightclub and cabaret performer about to become the most popular entertainer in France. Montand had come to the same hotel to recover from a two-year affair with singer Edith Piaf , and often recalled his first sight of Simone Signoret in August 1949, standing "formidably blond, in a sundrenched courtyard … surrounded by hovering doves. I approached softly, trying not to disturb the doves." The next four days was a swirl of l'amour fou. "We had been struck by lightning," Signoret said, "and something indiscreet and irreversible happened." Yves Allegret was surprised to find Simone waiting on the road near the hotel with the children on the day he came to join her, and was forced to accept Signoret's declaration that she had fallen in love with another man and wanted a divorce. Leaving her daughter with Allegret, Signoret moved in with Montand at his flat in Neuilly. The two became inseparable, Simone forsaking her film work, not to mention Catherine, to accompany Montand on tour. "If Yves cannot live without singing," she declared, "I cannot live without him."
Although Signoret's acting career was on hold, her social activism was not. With the Cold War now firmly dividing East and West, both she and Montand were among the first to sign the so-called Stockholm Petition in 1950, which called on the world's nations to stop the testing and development of atomic weapons and which was suspected by political conservatives of being inspired by the Soviet Union. The two were also prominent in protests against France's bleak colonial war in Indochina, soon to be inherited by the United States, and were known to be sympathetic to the Communist Party, especially after neither of them denied an accusation published in Le Figaro that they were, in fact, party members. Signoret claimed in later years that neither she nor Montand had ever actually joined the party and had ignored Le Figaro's report only to avoid lending it legitimacy by responding to it. Nonetheless, their left-leaning proclivities along with the notoriety of their relationship now began to affect their careers, especially outside France. Although both Signoret and Montand had earlier signed contracts with American producers—Signoret with Howard Hughes' RKO Pictures and Montand with Warner Bros.—the politically conservative atmosphere that now gripped Hollywood during the years of the McCarthy hearings denied them any hopes of traveling to the United States. Both contracts were quietly allowed to expire.
In December 1950, Signoret and Montand were formally married. Catherine was brought to live with her mother and stepfather in an old bookshop on Paris' Île de la Cité, near the Pont Neuf. Simone returned to films with one of her most radiant performances, in Max Ophuls' La Ronde, a witty, risqué comedy of manners set in 19th-century Vienna, and in Jacques Becker's Casque d'Or (The Golden Helmet), appreciated much more 30 years later than when first released in 1952. Becker's dark tale of underworld treachery and murder in turn-of-the-century France, in which Signoret appeared as a gangland mistress with the aggressively blonde coiffure from which the picture took its name, met with modest success elsewhere in Europe but was a failure in France, where it was not shown again for ten years after its short-lived opening in Paris. Simone announced after the film's demise that she was leaving the screen for good and retiring to the country home in Normandy that she and Montand had just purchased. But little more than a year later, her performance in Maurice Carné's 1953 version of Thérèse Racquin, in which she played Zola's passionate, doomed heroine, was received to great acclaim and was credited with helping the film to win the Golden Lion at that year's Venice Biennale. Carnè's picture was followed by the classic suspense thriller, Henri-Georges Clouzot's Diabolique, which starred Signoret and Vera Clouzot as the mistress and spouse, respectively, of the bullying headmaster of a boys' school. The film is still much admired for its famous concluding plot twist and the scene in which the two women collude in the husband's bathtub drowning and then carry the body downstairs in a wicker basket. As with Casque d'Or, the movie has fared better in retrospect than it did at the time of its release. The shoot itself was far from a pleasant experience for Simone, who constantly battled with the imperious Clouzot and his loyal wife Vera. To make matters worse, Signoret was at the same time in rehearsal for a French stage version of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, in which she had the role of the saintly Elizabeth Proctor . "I went straight from a murderess to a New England Puritan without any transition," she said, "and the next day I would be a murderess again … when the director, his wife, and I were no longer on speaking terms." She derived some consolation from the fact that Montand was playing opposite her as John Proctor when the play opened in December 1954, and that her old friend Sartre was working on a film version (released in 1957 as Les Sorcières de Salem) which was to be shot in what was then East Germany. Miller, whose play was widely interpreted as a condemnation of McCarthy's "red-baiting," was unable to attend the opening, having been questioned about his ties to suspected Communists by McCarthy's congressional committee and denied a passport to travel outside the United States.
As if Signoret's willingness to shoot a picture in East Berlin weren't enough to confirm her critics' accusations of Communist sympathies, Montand's acceptance of a concert tour through Eastern Europe finished the job. A further crisis arrived when, only a few months after Montand agreed to the tour, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary to repress growing anti-Communist sentiment and the right-wing clamor against Signoret and Montand increased precipitously in volume. "For Montand and me," Simone later recalled, "November of 1956 was the most absurd, the most awful, the saddest and most instructive month of our … years together." Montand turned to Sartre for advice, but Sartre could only offer the unhelpful opinion, "If you go, you support the Russians. If you stay, you support the fascists." In the end, Montand decided to honor his contract by claiming he was traveling behind the Iron Curtain as an emissary of peace to prevent further brutalities by Moscow. Signoret remained very much in the background during the tour, although she and Montand politely demanded an explanation for the invasion from Nikita Khrushchev during a much-reported dinner at the Kremlin, during which Khrushchev claimed his army had been invited to enter Hungary by "Hungarians afraid of the fascists."
In the swirl of ideological accusation and recrimination, Signoret's career seemed to grind to a halt. She was caught between her political detractors, who considered her a dangerous leftist, and young French directors like François Truffaut, Louis Malle and their New Wave comrades, who avoided her as an icon of the old régime they were seeking to undermine with their brash new style of filmmaking. "The future belongs to very young girls and pretty young woman," Signoret lamented, even though she was only in her 40s at the time. A further blow was struck in 1958 when her younger brother, Alain, a promising director in his own right, drowned while shooting a documentary about the French fishing industry.
It was an offer of work in a British film that helped her recover from her brother's death and, at the same time, resuscitate her career. Room at the Top, shot in 1958, brought with it international acclaim and an end to Signoret's screen reputation as a hard-hearted mistress or a street-walker. Her portrayal of Alice Aisgill, the vulnerable French housewife who indulges in an illfated affair with a younger man in a dreary Yorkshire industrial town, is generally considered to mark the peak of her career. Room at the Top was one of the top-grossing pictures of the late 1950s in nearly every Western country except, ironically, France, where film audiences were perhaps less fascinated with stories of adulterous amours. The film was released just as Signoret was traveling to America (on a restricted visa) with Montand, who had been signed for a one-man Broadway show. By the time they arrived in New York, Signoret's fame had grown to such proportions that she feared she might overshadow her husband whom, she worried, "people might take for an actress' husband." But Montand's Broadway debut was equally acclaimed, making the two of them the darlings of the international jet set and sending the couple to a newly liberalized Hollywood, which handed Signoret its Best Actress award for Room at the Top and offered Montand a contract for two pictures, one of which was George Cukor's Let's Make Love. The scandalous publicity surrounding Montand's brief affair with co-star Marilyn Monroe hit the trade press in the middle of shooting, but Signoret knew her marriage to Montand was strong enough to survive the incident, although she was less sure about Monroe's marriage to Arthur Miller. Maintaining a calm demeanor amid the furor, she answered one reporter's question by inquiring politely, "You know many men, do you, who would have stayed indifferent while having Marilyn Monroe in their arms?" Many years later, she wrote, "[Monroe] will never know how much I didn't hate her, and how I understand the story, which only concerned the four of us." Besides, there was much to otherwise occupy her attention at the time, chiefly the news that she had won the Best Actress award from both the British Film Association and the Cannes Film Festival for her work in Room at the Top.
Signoret worked nearly continually during the tumultuous 1960s, gracefully accepting roles as middle-aged housewives or heroic Resistance fighters in pictures such as 1961's Les Mauvaises Coupes (released in the U.S. as Naked Autumn), another older woman-younger man story set against the German occupation of France; 1962's Le Jour et l'heure (The Day and the Hour), about a bourgeois housewife who smuggles an American flyer to safety during the war; and in Stanley Kramer's 1965 production of Katherine Anne Porter 's novel Ship of Fools, in which she appeared as the Contessa opposite José Ferrer and Vivien Leigh . She returned to the Paris stage as the greedy Regina in a French version of Lillian Hellman 's The Little Foxes (which Simone had translated into French), and in London as Lady Macbeth opposite Alec Guiness. All were roles for mature women. "After you're forty—come on, let's say forty-five," Signoret pointed out, "you can take one of two routes. Either you cling to parts that keep you looking thirty-five or thirty-six as long as possible, or you can be like everybody else and quietly accept the idea that forty-five puts you on the road to forty-six, not forty-four."
Although earlier in the decade Signoret had signed a petition against the continued French occupation of Algeria, she realized she was too old to become involved in the 1968 student riots that swept France in May of that year and kept her distance, spending much of that spring and summer in Sweden shooting Sidney Lumet's adaptation of The Sea Gull, in which she played Irina. Nonetheless, both she and Montand appeared in two ideologically opinionated films by Costa-Gavras (portraying in one the parents of a character played by Catherine, in her first film role), and lent their support to a workers' hunger strike at a Renault factory—although when the resulting riots ended in the shooting death of one of the protestors, Signoret once again had to defend herself against charges of misplaced sympathies. She denied her actions were politically inspired, saying she preferred the term "social activism," and pointed out that she had never joined any formal party or engaged in militant activities.
Signoret entered what friends kindly called her "mature period" with her appearance in 1970's Le Chat (The Cat), a marital drama in which she and the great French actor Jean Gabin appeared as an argumentative older couple. Audiences were shocked at Simone's puffy face, limping gait, and excess weight, while film magazines gossiped that she had become too cynical to maintain her former good looks. Fans were convinced Signoret's career was over when she published the first of two volumes of memoirs in 1976, which sold well even though certain reviewers claimed she hadn't written it herself. (Signoret sued one magazine for libel and won.) Adieu Volodia, a novel based on her imaginings about her father's life as a Jew in Paris before World War I, appeared in the early 1980s. "As soon as I stop acting," she told her readers, "I feel the urge to write. When you're writing a book, what is exciting is being your own director … and best of all, your own producer."
Her willingness to use her age as a catalyst for her acting produced a stunning performance in 1977's La Vie devant soi (released with English subtitles as Madame Rosa), her riveting portrayal of an aging Holocaust survivor who also happens to be the good-hearted madam of a brothel. As careful with her wardrobe and makeup at 56 as she had been at 18, Simone wore a gaudy flowered housedress several sizes too small to make her look grossly obese and, more subtly, had a concentration camp number borrowed from her makeup artist (an actual survivor of the camps) inked onto her arm. The number is never seen in the film, covered by wardrobe, but Signoret's meticulous attention to characterization demanded it be placed there.
In 1980, Signoret was admitted to a Paris hospital for what was publicized as a gallbladder operation, but which many friends privately believed was the first sign of cancer. Her eyesight, too, began to suffer, although she continued working. Her last film was 1982's Guy de Maupassant, in which she played the French writer's mother. By the time she worked on what would be her last role, the 1985 television drama "The Music Hall," she was virtually blind, although no one could tell when the cameras rolled and she became the loud, boisterous elderly patron of a German music palace in 1935. "When I hear the clapper board," she told an interviewer, "it's like seeing." After filming was completed, Signoret returned with Montand to their beloved Normandy, where her cancer worsened. "Don't come too early," she told a friend who telephoned to ask if he might drop in for a visit, "or you'll find me very tired. If you come at an early hour, you can take a nap in my beautiful garden." On September 30, 1985, with Montand and Catherine at her side, Signoret quietly passed away.
Simone Signoret's admirable career successfully merged the introspection of an intellectual, the social concern of an activist, and the passion of an artist to produce a body of work respected as much for its commitment and professionalism as for its quality. In her personal life, too, Signoret never lost her honesty or her dignity as a woman, mother, and wife in the midst of the entertainment industry's glitter and artificiality. Her last words reported by Montand indicate she had finally come to terms with the dislocations and anxieties of her childhood. "I am," she is said to have murmured, "at peace."
Darrach, Brad. "Yves Montand: The Most Seductive of Frenchmen Looks Ahead to New Conquests," in People Weekly. Vol. 29, no. 19. May 16, 1988.
David, Catherine. Simone Signoret. Translated from the French by Sally Sampson. London: Bloomsbury, 1992.
Josselin, Jean-François. Simone: deux ou trois choses que je sais d'elle. Paris: Grasset, 1995.
Signoret, Simone. Le lendemain, elle était souriante … Paris: Seuil, 1979.
Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York, New York