Simone Signoret (1921 – 1985) was a French cinema actress often hailed as one of France's greatest film stars. She became the first French person to win an Academy Award, for her role in Room at the Top (1959). In her lifetime she also received a César, three BAFTAs, an Emmy, Cannes Film Festival recognition, the Silver Bear for Best Actress awards and a Golden Globe nomination.
Signoret was born Simone Henriette Charlotte Kaminker in Wiesbaden, Germany, 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 Jewish army officer of Polish descent, 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 the English language in school, earning a teaching certificate. She tutored English and Latin and worked part-time as a typist for a French newspaper, Les nouveaux temps.
During the German occupation of France, Signoret mixed with an artistic group of writers and actors who met at a café in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés quarter, Café de Flore. 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.
In 1958, Signoret acted in the English set Room at the Top (1959), which won her numerous awards including the Best Female Performance Prize at Cannes and the Academy Award for Best Actress. She was the only French cinema actress to receive an Oscar, and the first woman to win the award appearing in a foreign film. She was offered films in Hollywood, but turned them down, continuing to work in France and England—notably opposite Laurence Olivier in Term of Trial (1962)—until 1965. 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.
In her later years, Signoret was often criticised for gaining weight and letting her looks go, but she was never concerned with glamour, ignored the insults and continued giving finely etched performances. 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).
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 (1944–49), with whom she had a daughter Catherine Allégret, herself an actress. Her second marriage was to the Italian-born French actor Yves Montand in 1951, a union which lasted until her death.
Signoret died of cancer in Auteuil-Anthouillet, France, aged 64. She is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris next to her second husband.