I’m not certain if I would otherwise have done a post on singer/actor Yves Montand (Ivo Levi, 1921-1991) before I learned of his early years. In America, we thought of him as one of a handful of French stars who found some footing in Hollywood, Montand was somewhere below Maurice Chevalier, Charles Boyer, and Louis Jourdan in terms of recognition. To me he always looked something like Mel Ferrer, who was half-Cuban but born and raised in the U.S., but it confused matters. At any rate, his roots in French music hall make him more compelling a figure to me.
Montand was actually ethnically Italian. His folks moved from Tuscany to the French Riviera when he was two years old due to to the advent of Mussolini (his father held left wing beliefs). By his early ’20s he was singing in Parisian cabarets like the Olympia and the Moulin Rouge. His career got a sizeable boost in 1944 when Édith Piaf became a fan and incoporporated him into her act. He began appearing in films in 1946, married Simone Signoret (his frequent co-star) in 1951, began cutting records in 1952. His career as a singer never ceased; he continued releasing record albums throughout his life. Influenced by his father, in his younger years he was a Communist. In the mid 1950s he made a tour of the USSR and the countries of the Soviet Block.
In 1957 Montand starred as John Proctor in the first screen version of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a French production with a script adaptation by Jean-Paul Sartre. In 1959 and 1961 he had one man shows on Broadway; he appeared on The Dinah Shore Chevy Show to support them. And this is the period in which he also became an international movie star. His films include George Cukor’s Let’s Make Love (1960) with Marilyn Monroe, Tony Richardson’s Sanctuary (1961) with Lee Remick, Anatole Litvak’s Goodbye Again (1961) with Ingrid Bergman, and My Geisha (1962) with Shirley MacLaine. 1966 was a sort of peak, with Alain Resnais’s La guerre est finie, René Clément’s all-star Is Paris Burning? and John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix released all in the same year.
Some later things include Minnelli’s On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970) with Barbra Streisand, Godard’s Tout va Bien (1972) with Jane Fonda, Joseph Losey’s Roads to the South (1978, a sequel to La guerre est finie), and the major comeback films in 1986, Jean de Florette and its sequel Manon des Sources (Manon of the Spring). His appearances on American television were rare, but he did do guest shots on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The David Frost Show, and Late Night With David Letterman. Montand died of a heart attack on the set of his last film The Island of the Elephants (1992), just as it was wrapping.
For more about on the variety arts, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.