Born March 21, 1921 in Wiesbaden, Germany to French parents, Simone Henriette Charlotte Kamiker was a legendary French actress known professionally as Simone Signoret (her mother’s maiden name). Her mother was a French Catholic. Her father, who had Polish Jewish roots, left France to join General DeGaulle in England in 1940. Upon completing secondary school during the Nazi occupation of Paris, she was forced to work as a typist for a French collaborationist newspaper to support her mother and two younger brothers.
On screen in minor roles from 1942, Signoret rose to leading roles after the war, making her English language debut in the 1948 British film, Against the Wind. Her portrayals of prostitutes in 1950’s La Ronde and 1952’s Casque d’or made her an international star. She won the first of three BAFTA awards for the latter. 1955’s Diabolique and 1957’s The Crucible AKA The Witches of Salem earned her further acclaim. She won her second BAFTA for The Witches of Salem.
Briefly married to director Yves Allégret from 1948-1949 with whom she had two children, she married actor Yves Montand in 1951. Hollywood was interested, but the timing was off as their progressive political activities clashed with McCarthy era politics and they were denied visas until he came to America in 1960 to star opposite Marilyn Monroe in Let’s Make Love and she became the first lead female Oscar winner in a non-Hollywood film.
Signoret won her Oscar for the 1959 British film, Room at the Top over Doris Day in Pillow Talk, Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story and both Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor in Suddenly, Last Summer. Her next British film was 1962’s Term of Trial opposite Laurence Olivier. She received a second Oscar nomination for 1965’s Ship of Fools opposite Oskar Werner and later that year starred along with husband Yves Montand and daughter Catherine Allégret in Costa-Gavas’s first film, The Sleeping Car Murder. Extremely popular now, she worked continuously for the remainder of the decade in such films as The Deadly Affair, Is Paris Burning? , Games and The Seagull.
1969’s Army of Shadows in which Signoret played a French resistance fighter, was not released in the U.S. until 2006 when it won numerous awards. In 1970, she starred opposite Montand in Costa-Gavras’s The Confession
Her last film to achieve great success in the U.S. during her lifetime was 1977’s Madame Rosa in which she played a retired prostitute. She won several acting prizes for it, and the film itself won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Although she was expected to earn a third Oscar nomination for her performance, it wasn’t to be.
Signoret continued to make theatrical films in France through 1982. She subsequently made two TV movies, one of which was released posthumously.
Simone Signoret died of pancreatic cancer on September 30, 1985 at 64.
DIABOLIQUE (1955), directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot
Signoret had her most famous role as a teacher and mistress of a cruel headmaster in a provincial French town in Clouzot’s masterpiece in which she and the headmaster’s wife (Vera Clouzot) drown him in Signoret’s bathtub. They bury him in the school’s filthy swimming pool, but when the pool is drained, his body has disappeared. The wife, who has a weak heart, almost dies of shock when a student says he has spotted her husband. The film is filled with mystery, suspense, real-life horror and dread as no other film ever has been. They keep trying to duplicate its hold on its audience, but they always come up short. This one was the real deal.
ROOM AT THE TOP (1959), directed by Jack Clayton
Signoret is heartbreaking as the older woman who loses the man she loves to a younger woman and his ambition to get ahead and have money in this classic British kitchen sink drama. Laurence Harvey is the callous lover who discards her. Oscar nominations went to the film, its direction and screenplay as well as Best Actor (Harvey), Actress (Signoret) and Best Supporting Actress, Hermione Baddeley in a small but finely etched performance as Signoret’s friend. Signoret and the screenplay won. Heather Sears, who played Harvey’s young wife was replaced by Jean Simmons in the 1965 sequel, Life at the Top opposite Harvey.
SHIP OF FOOLS (1965), directed by Stanley Kramer
Katherine Anne Porter’s mammoth best-seller was a microcosm of 1930s society on board a second-rate German passenger ship making its way from Veracruz, Mexico to Bremerhaven, Germany in 1933. Signoret is at her best in her second Oscar-nominated role as a drug-addicted Spanish countess headed for a German prison for her “traitorous” activities in Cuba. Oskar Werner, also Oscar-nominated, is the world-weary doctor with a bad heart who treats her. Vivien Leigh as a middle-aged divorcé trying to recapture her youth, Lee Marvin, José Ferrer, Elizabeth Ashley, George Segal and Supporting Actor nominee Michael Dunn co-star.
THE SLEEPING CAR MURDER (1966), directed by Costa-Gavras
Costa-Gavras’s first film is an intriguing murder mystery that begins aboard a night train from Marseilles to Paris in which a woman is murdered. Was the killer one of the other five passengers in the second-class sleeping car or an outsider? Catherine Allégret and Jacques Perrin, the awkward young man she lets sleep in the car’s empty bunk, try to get to the bottom of it before the police think they’ve involved in the killing. Signoret is both funny and heartbreaking as an aging actress who is among the passengers in the car and Yves Montand is the intrepid police inspector. Jean-Louis Trintignat is Signoret’s much younger lover.
MADAME ROSA (1977), directed by Moshé Mizrahi
Signoret was often criticized for letting herself go, getting fat and looking much older than her age. Still in her fifties, she uses both to her advantage to play the titled retired prostitute, an Auschwitz survivor, who is a foster mother to the children of other prostitutes in her sixth-floor walkup in Pigalle. Her favorite is her oldest, Momo, an Algerian boy she raises as a Muslim, who she depends on more and more as poor health and age limit her ability to take care of her brood. Signoret’s poignant performance propelled the film to an Oscar for Best Foreign Film and earned her several international awards, but not a predicted third Oscar nomination.
SIMONE SIGNORET AND OSCAR
- Room at the Top (1959) – Oscar – Best Actress
- Ship of Fools (1965) – nominated – Best Actress