Much more than just France’s first Oscar winner, Simone Signoret’s steadfast activism saw her become the example the morally conscious movie stars of today follow.
Just before her death from cancer on 30 September 1985, French actress Simone Signoret (born 1921) published her first novel.
Adieu Volodia (1985) is a story about two Jewish families, one from Poland, one from Ukraine, who escape persecution in their homelands and move to Paris around 1919. The novel traces the lives of these ordinary people as they make a new beginning in a new country in a troubled time – the rise of Nazism wasn’t far off. The book offers real insights into the Jewish experience between the wars. Someone once called it a “love song for Jewish exiles”.
How did it come about that an acclaimed French actress wrote so richly and so compellingly about Jewish refugees settling in another land?
Simone Signoret’s father was Jewish, originally from Poland. When France was occupied by Nazi Germany in 1940, he fled to England to join Charles de Gaulle’s Free French Forces. It was around this time that Simone took her mother’s maiden name so that she could obtain a work visa. Simone’s mother was deeply concerned about what was happening to Europe’s Jews, and Simone herself had joined a small group of progressive intellectuals in Paris. Her left-wing politics stayed with her until her death. So by her early ’60s, she was clearly determined to try to right as many wrongs as she was able to and giving voice to Jewish refugees through the medium of her novel was, to a certain extent, a culmination of her activist life.
Over the years, she protested against the Vietnam War, the conflict in Algeria, the Hungarian uprising, and the execution of the Rosenbergs in 1953. She and her second husband, singer/actor Yves Montand, whom she had married in 1951, were refused entry to the United States because of their political stance.
So her political views regularly made headlines, but it was her acting for which she is primarily remembered. The US finally granted Signoret and Montand visas when Simone won Oscar for Best Actress in 1960 (the first French actress to win this award) for her performance in Room at the top, in which Signoret portrays an unhappily married older woman (she was 37!) who thinks she’s found true love only to be jilted. It’s a skilled and sensitive performance, made more amazing to me because I can’t see why or how she fell in love with the not-very-nice Laurence Harvey character.
Before Room at the top, Simone had worked in France, beginning as an extra during the 1940s. She made an impact as a big-hearted prostitute in Dédée d’Anvers (1948), directed by her first husband Yves Allégret. Actually, she played prostitutes in a few films, notably Madame Rosa (1977). She had other roles in the 1950s, making a huge impression in Diabolique (1955), a thriller in which Signoret played a murderous mistress with chilling precision.
Simone received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her performance as a drug-addicted countess on her way to prison in Ship of fools (1965) and she dazzled audiences in the espionage thriller The deadly affair (1967), but she was a true Frenchwoman and over the course of her career, made almost 60 films, over 40 of them in France.
It was her sensuality that made her perfect for film. Simone was a beautiful woman – striking and sultry – with the face of an angel, but she had no vanity at all. She never lost those come-hither eyes and that sexy husky voice, but she allowed herself to age in a way most movie stars no longer do. She never shied away from the wrinkles – she was always real. “I got old the way that women who aren’t actresses grow old,” she said.
I think this was why she was so loved in France and beyond. A superb actress, she was also a regular woman, a woman with whom others could identify, and people admired the fact that she stood by her convictions. And she was a writer too. Her memoir Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be (1978) was well received and gave her the confidence to branch out into fiction. Adieu Volodia is a powerfully imagined and skillfully executed novel and it’s a shame she died before she could add to her literary output.
Much could be added about her personal life, particularly her relationship with Montand. He was a renowned womaniser, even allegedly having an affair with Simone’s daughter from her first marriage, Catherine Allégret, but Simone always forgave him. She once said: “Chains do not hold a marriage together. It is threads, hundreds of tiny threads which sew people together through the years. That is what makes a marriage last – more than passion or even sex.”
Those threads clearly meant a great deal to her, and when Montand died six years after Simone, he was laid to rest beside her in the Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
Simone Signoret’s death at the age of 64 left France in mourning, not just for her remarkable contribution to French and world cinema, but for her championship of the oppressed and her no-nonsense approach to whatever life served up.