Simone Signoret

An icon of French cinema and the 'thinking man's sex object' actress Simone Signoret was born in Germany in 1921 to French parents and grew up in Paris among the middle-class. After gaining a teaching licence she tutored in English and Latin for a time and worked part-time for French collaborationist newspaper, Les nouveaux temps as a typist.

During the Occupation, as a teenager she became a regular patron at the Café de Flore, a popular meeting place for leftist artists and intellectuals. It was during this time Signoret decided to venture into acting, encouraged by her then lover, Daniel Gélin. As her father, linguist, André Kaminiker was a Jew who had fled to England in 1940, she chose her mother's maiden name professionally, to avoid uncomfortable questioning from the Nazis.

Earthy Appeal

Although Signoret was suitably gorgeous and glamorous in her early years, she was not a dazzling beauty in the conventional Hollywood sense...not for long anyway. Throughout her career however, she possessed intensity and a seductive charm. The wide spaced and smoky heavy-lidded eyes, full mouth and soft blonde hair helped to project the sensual image of a woman of passion. She also had the look of a woman who has suffered...perhaps one who has loved and lost, known tragedy and maybe even been tossed around a bit by life's vicissitudes. Indeed, for these reasons, she was often cast as a prostitute or fallen women...she seemed to be able to manifest internal pain through expression and nuance. Film critic Phillip Kemp described her as projecting a 'vulnerable strength'.

As murderous accomplice Nicole Horner In Diabolique

Film Triumphs

Scenes from 'Room at the Top'
Scenes from 'Room at the Top' 
Signoret made several films in the 1940's but her first widely successful role was in 1950, as a streetwalker in Ophüls' La Rond,(Circle of Love) a portrait that attracted International attention. This was followed a year later by Becker's Casque d'or,(The Golden Helmet) a part loaded with erotic intensity. However it was her role as the deceptively vulnerable schemer Nicole Horner in Clouzot's Les Diaboliques (The Fiends) in 1955 that firmly established her as an International player.

Perhaps predictably, she was criticized by the beauty worshippers for 'letting herself go' and consciously rejecting glamour as she grew older - however, as a character actress, age was never an insurmountable barrier to her screen success and in fact some of her greatest film triumphs were roles in which she appeared as the 'older woman'.

Signoret was one of the few actresses who's career options expanded with age. At 38 she was cast as the sensitive and knowing older woman, Alice Aisgil, for which she won an oscar, (the first French person to do so) in director Jack Clayton's 1959 drama about sacrifice and brute ambition, Room at the Top.The role earned her wide critical acclaim and set the stage for a transition into the next phase of her career.
A face that tells a story
A face that tells a story 
~Hordes of young girls never copied my hairdos or the way I talk or the way I dress. I have, therefore, never had to go through the stress of perpetuating an image that’s often the equivalent of one particular song that forever freezes a precise moment of one’s youth.~
Simone Signoret

While not adverse to taking on dreary, unflattering roles, Signoret more and more rejected the prevailing philosophy of attempting to obscure the vagaries of age at whatever cost...she was not afraid to be herself and declared she would 'go on acting until she could play grandmothers'.
In rejecting mores of artificially induced glamour and 'youthfulness' Signoret had sacrificed little by way of charm and her trademark intensity. With a tender smile, she could conjure a screen presence of great depth and sensitivity. Indeed she remained a key figure in French Cinema for over forty years, appearing in over sixty films.

Often she seemed to prefer roles that portrayed women oppressed by the past -playing a concentration camp survivor to effect in Sydney Lumet's Lumet's 1967 thriller, The Deadly Affair and the following year offering up an impressive performance as Arkadina in Lumet's screen adaption of Chekhov's The Sea Gull.

Yves and Political Philosophy
~Chains do not hold a marriage together. It is threads, hundreds of tiny threads, which sew people together through the years.~Simone Signoret

Simone and Yves
Simone and Yves Montand
Simone Signoret's first husband was director Yves Allégret but by 1951 the marriage had been dissolved and she remarried, this time to the legendary French actor and singer, Yves Montand...a lasting relationship that threw the actress into political controversy and oftentimes, personal emotional tumult.

Montand had worked his way from the docks of Marseilles to stardom, having reputedly been discovered singing in a nightclub by Edith Piaf, who became his lover. Montand was allegedly a womaniser and said to have several affairs during his marriage to Signoret, including one with Marilyn Monroe, of whom Signoret broadmindedly said "If Marilyn is in love with my husband it proves she has good taste, for I am in love with him too." Even after his death Yves ignited controversy, the body having to be exhumed by court order for a paternity test.

The couple were known for possessing a strong social conscience and engaged with several causes . They campaigned publicly against the atom bomb, the Vietnam and Algerian Wars and Montand became an active member of the French Communist Party. Their leftist politics earned the couple admiration in many quarters, vilification in others..particularly in the United states in the 50's, where rabid McCarthyism put a temporary halt to any US career aspirations. Later on, all was forgiven (at least by some) and they were welcomed.

Gone but not Forgotten
Signoret was also a writer and in 1978 penned her melancholic but amusing memoir La nostalgie n'est plus ce qu'elle était’ (Nostalgia's not what it used to be) and in the year of her death, 1985, published the the novel Adieu Volodya. Simone Signoret died at 64, after suffering a long (cancerous) illness and is buried in the cemetery Père-Lachaise in Paris, next to Yves, who died in 1991 .

Jack Lang, French minister of culture, once eulogized, “Miss Signoret was an unshakeable militant, in the front rank of all the battles for human rights, under all regimes and on all horizons. It was faith that sustained her, faith in her ideals of liberty and progress." Yet Simone Signoret will be remembered for much more than her political activism.. The actress was fearless in most aspects of her life, including as a performer and to many, she remains the personification of an ideal of womanhood....strong, sensuous, suffering, sensitive and soul-searching. Ssssspecial...