‘Suddenly there is this infatuation with the not-so-young woman’
The living room of Simone Signoret’s Paris apartment is a cozy clutter of remembrances of things past, of the 28 years she and her husband, Yves Montand, have lived there. Montand’s baby grand, where he rehearsed many of the songs that made him France’s leading chanteur, occupies a good part of the room. Family pictures fill the walls and the mantelpiece, along with a drawing by Picasso, dedicated to the Montands. Simone’s 1959 Oscar for Room at the Top stands on a bookshelf. There is also a copy of her autobiography, Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used to Be.
When she enters the room, kicks off her shoes, sinks back gratefully into the couch and lights up a cigarette, it is clear that Signoret isn’t what she used to be either. The smoldering temptress of Dédée d’Anvers and Les Diaboliques is gone, replaced by a thick-set, worn woman of 57. Her face is lined, like a map of the Tour de France, without a trace of makeup to disguise the years; her wayward hair is flecked with white. Only her shapely legs and Wedgwood, come-hither eyes are the same. And yet, although she may not be what she was in the years when she trolloped through scores of sexy roles, Simone Signoret is still a woman to reckon with. She is rich, famous and laureated.
Her touching portrayal of an ancient whore in Madame Rosa won that production the Academy Award for the best foreign film of 1977 and the French Academy’s César—that country’s Oscar—as best actress. Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used to Be (the title was filched from graffiti on a Manhattan wall) was a best-seller in France last year, with 500,000 hardcover sales. The American edition was published last week. The book has earned Signoret more money, she says, than any acting role. She has just completed a new film, tentatively entitled A Dangerous Woman, in which she plays Judith Therpauve, an aloof provincial editor who tries and fails to stop an absentee press lord from taking over her newspaper.
At an age when most actresses have long since retired to their Sunset Boulevards, the indomitable Signoret has registered a stunning comeback. The thought of it brings a smile to her sensuous mouth: “When I was young and beautiful I never appeared on the cover of a magazine. And now at 57 I am on the cover. Suddenly there is this infatuation with a not-so-young woman. It is ironic.”
As an actress, Simone’s technique is to have none. “Basically, you know nothing about this craft,” she writes in Nostalgia. “And there is nothing to learn. As one ages, one needs less and less of its science. There are two schools of thought: There are those actors who explain to you that they know exactly how they’re going to do the part…And then there is the other method, which is to have no method at all. This is mine.” Instead she lets the characters she portrays take possession of her, to become “the tenants of my skin” during the making of a film or play. Oftentimes she remains possessed by the character for weeks afterward.
Last week Signoret was vacationing at a hotel in St. Paul-de-Vence, in the hills overlooking Cannes, exorcising the character of the woman editor (“She hasn’t yet left the rented flat that happens to be my body”). She is resting from 10 weeks before the cameras and playing with her grandson, Benjamin Castaldi, 8. Therpauve, she says, will be easier to shake than Madame Rosa: “She touches my heart less.” And Madame Rosa was easier to evict than Alice Aisgill, the middle-aged married woman who became the mistress of the youthful Laurence Harvey in Room at the Top. For weeks after she returned to Paris from England, where the film was made, Signoret remained in character, continuing to wear Alice’s hairdo and blazer. Then one day it became apparent that Alice didn’t live in that “rented flat” any more. “I had my hair cut and took out my Hermes suits. I realized that she had left me for good.”
Room at the Top was a watershed film for Signoret, opening up a new repertory of mature roles to her. She was 37 and still a voluptuous beauty when she undertook the part. “That is a difficult age for an actress to make such a choice,” she says. “It means that when she is still pretty good-looking, she must decide that interesting parts are going to be on the other side of the line and that it is useless to hang onto those branches of youth.” Madame Rosa represented an even greater leap: a hideous, bloated Jewish harlot who survived the horrors of Auschwitz concentration camp and, too old to walk the streets, established a foster home for children of younger prostitutes in a Paris slum. It was a part without a vestige of glamor. Montand urged her not to accept it, and for a year she resisted. But eventually director Moshe Mizrahi and Rosa won her over. “A role like that comes every 20 years. It is a cake. She is everything—liar, sincere, gourmand, poor, stupid, intelligent, warm, nasty. And she dies on top of that. If I had said ‘no,’ and another woman had played it, I would have been sick.” So Signoret allowed herself to be coarsened and aged 10 years, to have her wrinkles deepened, her cheeks bloated with cotton, and her shapely legs padded and wrapped in Ace bandages. She agreed to be photographed from unflattering angles to appear even more gross. Limping Madame Rosa took over Simone Signoret and showed that there is room at the top at any age for an actress of consummate skill.
Although they seem to be quintessentially Parisian, neither Signoret nor Montand is quite that. She was born Simone Kaminker in 1921 in Wiesbaden, Germany, where her father, the son of Austrian and Polish Jews, was serving in the French army of occupation. Montand was born Yvo Livi, also in 1921, the son of an Italian laborer who emigrated to France with his family when Yves was 2, to escape Mussolini’s persecution. Simone had a shabby-genteel childhood in a Paris suburb and managed to get her high school baccalaureate diploma before World War II blew her world apart. Father André Kaminker, a professional translator, fled to England with de Gaulle, and in occupied Paris Simone, 19, supported her mother and two smaller brothers as an English and Latin tutor and later as a secretary at a newspaper. After work she began dropping in at the Café Flore on the Left Bank, a hangout of actors, artists and left-wing intellectuals. Mingling with the likes of Picasso, Sartre, Camus, Soutine and Giacometti at the tables of the Flore was a heady experience. When her friends told her the paper she worked for was pro-Fascist and anti-Semitic, she quit her job—a smart move, since the editor was executed by firing squad after the war for collaboration with the Germans. Her young brothers’ identity cards were changed from the Jewish Kaminker to Signoret, her mother’s maiden name, to protect them—but Simone refused to do so herself. “I was playing a game of pride,” she admits. “It was a crazy imprudence.” With the help of actor friends (and using Signoret as her professional name only) she began to get parts in films as an extra and later as a “silhouette,” or speaking extra. With the liberation of Paris, the silhouettes filled out into fatter film roles until by 1949 Signoret was a rising star of European cinema.
In the meantime, she writes, “I had begun my life as a woman,” moving into a fifth-floor walkup with Daniel Gélin, an actor. The affair was tender and brief: “Since Daniel and I were the same age, I was too old for him. That was when I met Marcel Duhamel.” But Duhamel, a film director, was married and 40—too old. Simone’s next liaison, with another director, Yves Allégret, lasted through five years of unwedded bliss, a year of marriage and two children. A son died in infancy, and a daughter, Catherine, now 32, is a TV and film actress. And then, when she was vacationing at St. Paul-de-Vence, at 8:30 p.m. on Aug. 19, 1949, Yves Montand entered her life.
She remembers it well. Montand, the top crooner and homme fatal of French music halls, was singing on the Riviera that summer. He had had a spectacular rise to the top, working as a dockwalloper, ironmonger and hairdresser in Marseilles before drifting to Paris as a young folksinger. There he caught the eye of Edith Piaf. She taught him everything she knew about singing, had a torrid offstage affair with him and then, when he became as famous as Piaf, she dropped him. Simone was a married woman, just cresting as a film star, and under contract to Howard Hughes to go to Hollywood. She scuttled it all for Montand. “I left my husband and my home, which was bad,” she says. “I left my child, which was worse. People didn’t like it, but I had to do it.”
In 1951 Simone and Yves formalized their union at a marriage ceremony in St. Paul-de-Vence with Catherine Allégret and Mme. Charles David—better known as Deanna Durbin—as witnesses. They had already settled into the small duplex, formerly a bookstore, on the lie de la Cité in the heart of Paris, where they still live. The apartment in a 15th-century building is usually overrun with friends or business associates, and when one of the Montands has an interview or rehearsal in the living room, the other retires upstairs to the bedroom. The restaurant next door, Chez Paul, has become an extension of the Montand kitchen, and they eat most of their meals there. On pleasant afternoons, when Simone wants to have a drink at one of Chez Paul’s sidewalk tables, she parks her office telephone on the windowsill where she can easily reach it. As they grew more affluent, the Montands acquired an estate in Normandy.
Through the years, though, neither has lost the leftward political orientation they were raised with. Simone recalls her mother returning a toothbrush she had bought after discovering it had been made in “Fascist Japan,” and hiding Jewish refugees from Germany in her apartment. Yves grew up among radical working-class people and Spanish Loyalist exiles in Marseilles. As political activists, they signed the notorious “Stockholm Resolution” opposing the atomic bomb, a document that was denounced as Communist propaganda. As a result, they were barred from the U.S. for almost a decade. But, Signoret points out, they have just as often opposed hardline Soviet policies: Although she was kissed by Nikita Khrushchev in the Kremlin on New Year’s Eve 1956, she condemned him to his face for the invasion of Hungary. She and Montand have never been members of the Communist party, she says: “We were engaged, but we did not marry.”
Through the decades with Montand, Signoret has periodically “retired,” only to return to acting when an irresistible role beckoned. More often she preferred to accompany Montand on his concert tours and movie assignments as a self-styled groupie. Her possessive, watch-and-ward instincts may have been justified, for Montand has always been something of a ladies’ man. On at least one occasion when they were apart—while he was filming Let’s Make Love with Marilyn Monroe in 1960—he indubitably strayed. Today Simone remains the protective wife. “I detest women who come too close to him,” she once said. “Our friends are very carefully selected.”
More of an old-style woman than new, she has mixed feelings about women’s liberation: “I am certainly not with them in that little war they seem to be fighting against that enemy which is men. Let’s face it. It’s like any revolutionary movement. They take 10 steps and then go back three. But there are always seven steps that have been won.
“For me there are no laws,” says Signoret. “You do what you want and know is right. That is the only law. Individual courage is the only interesting thing in life.”