My Own Movie Stars: Actresses Who Left Indelible Impression on My Life–Simone Signoret

Simone Signoret (March 25, 1921–September 30, 1985), one of France’s greatest film stars, became the second French person to win an Oscar Award, for her role in Room at the Top (1959).

She also received two Césars, three BAFTAs, an Emmy, a Cannes Film Fest Award, the Silver Bear for Best Actress awards, an NBR Award and a Golden Globe nomination.

Signoret was born Simone Henriette Charlotte Kaminker in Wiesbaden, Germany, to André and Georgette (Signoret) Kaminker, as the eldest of three children, with two younger brothers. Her father, a pioneering interpreter who worked in the League of Nations, was a French-born army officer from a Polish Jewish family, who brought the family to Neuilly-sur-Seine on the outskirts of Paris. Her mother, Georgette, from whom she acquired her stage name, was a French Catholic.

Signoret grew up in Paris in an intellectual atmosphere and studied English, German and Latin. After completing secondary school during the Nazi occupation, Simone was responsible for supporting her family and forced to take work as a typist for a French collaborationist newspaper, Les nouveaux temps, run by Jean Luchaire.

During the German occupation of France, Signoret mixed with an artistic group of writers and actors who met at the Café de Flore in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés quarter. By this time, she had developed an interest in acting and was encouraged by her friends, including her lover, Daniel Gélin, to follow her ambition.

In 1942, she began appearing in bit parts and was able to earn enough money to support her mother and two brothers as her father, who was a French patriot, had fled the country in 1940 to join General De Gaulle in England. She took her mother’s maiden name for the screen to help hide her Jewish roots.

Signoret’s sensual features and earthy nature led to type-casting and she was often seen in roles as a prostitute. She won considerable attention in La Ronde (1950), a film which was banned briefly in New York as immoral. She won further acclaim, including an acting award from the British Film Academy, for her portrayal of another prostitute in Jacques Becker’s Casque d’or (1951). She appeared in many notable films in France during the 1950s, including Thérèse Raquin (1953), directed by Marcel Carné, Les Diaboliques (1954), and The Crucible (Les Sorcières de Salem; 1956), based on Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

Signoret acted in the English independent film, Room at the Top (1959), which won her numerous awards including the Best Female Performance Prize at Cannes and the Best Actress Oscar.

She was the only French cinema actress to receive an Oscar until Juliette Binoche in 1997 (Supporting Actress) and Marion Cotillard in 2008 (Best Actress), and the first woman to win the award appearing in a foreign film.

Signoret was offered films in Hollywood, but turned them down, continuing to work in France and England, most notably opposite Laurence Olivier in Term of Trial (1962).

Earning another Oscar nomination for her work on what would be Vivien Leigh’s final film—Columbia Pictures’ Ship of Fools, also starring Lee Marvin—Signoret appeared in a few other Hollywood films before returning to France in 1969.

In 1962, Signoret translated Lillian Hellman’s play The Little Foxes into French for a production in Paris that ran for six months at the Theatre Sarah-Bernhardt. She played the Regina role as well. Hellman was displeased with the production, although the translation was approved by scholars selected by Hellman.

Signoret’s one attempt at Shakespeare, performing Lady Macbeth opposite Alec Guinness at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1966 proved to be ill-advised, with some harsh critics; one referred to her English as “impossibly Gallic”.

Unconcerned with glamour and physical appearance, Signoret ignored sexist and ageist insults and continued giving finely etched performances to the end of her career.

She won more acclaim for her portrayal of a weary madam in Madame Rosa (1977) and as an unmarried sister who unknowingly falls in love with her paralyzed brother via anonymous correspondence in I Sent a Letter to my Love (1980).

She was in many movies up to her death in 1985.

Signoret’s memoirs, “Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used To Be,” were published in 1978. She also wrote a novel, Adieu Volodya, published in 1985, the year of her death.

Signoret first married filmmaker Yves Allégret (1944–1949), with whom she had a daughter Catherine Allégret, herself an actress.

Her second marriage was to the Italian-born French actor-singer Yves Montand in 1951, a union which lasted until her death. They had no children.

Signoret died of pancreatic cancer in Autheuil-Authouillet, France, aged 64.