October 13, 1921 – Yves Montand:
I will shamefully admit, I had no idea who he was until as a 16-year-old musical theatre queer, I saw On A Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970) in the theatre and lost my shit. The film stars Barbra Streisand and Yves Montand and was directed by gay Vincente Minnelli from a screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner based on his 1965 Broadway production of the same name, which has songs with lyrics by Lerner and music by Burton Lane. I think it is one of the greatest musical films ever, and I sort of fell in love with Montand.
I wish that someone had told me that openly gay actor Jean-Claude Brialy, a star in the late 1950s and 1960s and one of the most prolific actors of the French “nouvelle vague”, had an affair with Montand. And, all of France was even more shocked when Braily revealed that Montand had a romance with Reda Caire (born Youssef Gandhour), the son of a high official in Egypt and an aristocratic mother. Caire had the right to the title of Count through his mother, although he never used it. He became a major singing sensation in the 1920s and was a well-established star by the 1930s, appearing in half a dozen films, but is now nearly forgotten. Though flamboyant, openly queer Caire was especially popular in the rather macho city of Marseille, where he met the young Montand, the handsome young son of an immigrant Italian dockworker.
Montand became Caire’s private secretary and was his lover for more than a year. Caire taught the unsophisticated Montand about singing, stage presence, wardrobe, and deportment. In Montands’s memoir, You See, I Haven’t Forgotten (1992) he writes that Caire had made advances to him, which he refused, but still became his secretary. But Brialy’s outing of their affair was no surprise to Parisians. It seems everyone in showbiz knew that Montand had been Caire’s lover. In the 1950s, Montand used to make homophobic jokes about Reda, who called him and said: ”If you say nasty things about me, I can also tell stories about you.”
Reda said of Montand: ”C’est étrange qu’un garçon doté d’un si joli membre puisse sentir si mauvais des pieds.” (It is odd that a boy with such a beautiful member should have such smelly feet.) Montand was known for the size of his ”membre”; his wife, Simone Signoret, called Montand “mon etalon”.
In a 1981 interview with the French weekly Gai Pied, Montand admitted having had sex with other guys. Montand: “You know, like all the boys from the Meditérannée“.
Montand was one of France’s most revered, and versatile, cultural icons, equally at home as a “chanteur pour dames” in nightclubs as well as starring in films.
Described as “the bedroom voice in the body of a lorry driver”, he was regarded as the epitome of virile Gallic charm, yet he was not French at all. He was born Ivo Livi in Tuscany. His Jewish family fled from the Fascists and settled in France. In Marseilles, young Ivo grew up in the back streets and abandoned school at 11 years old for a job.
He escaped the slums to go to the music halls and the local cinema, which specialized in subtitled Hollywood films. He claimed that he brought himself up on Humphry Bogart, Marx Brothers and Fred Astaire.
He began performing in local bistros and changed his name to Yves Montand, inspired by his mother’s call to come upstairs, “Ivo, monta!”
He made his stage debut in Marseilles, singing Dans les Plaines du Far West wearing a cardboard cowboy hat.
During World War II he worked as a dock worker while also taking dancing, singing, diction and English lessons.
In February 1944 he made his Paris debut and within months was the opening act for Édith Piaf at the Theatre de l’Etoile. He was Piaf’s protégé and Piaf’s lover. Montand was 24 years old, and Piaf was 33. She wrote that she was “conquered by his thundering personality, an impression of strength and solidity“, although I am certain it sounds better in French.
Piaf had him performing the poetic songs that were to become his trademark, along with the simple brown shirt and trousers he wore on stage.
Montand’s first film role was as Piaf’s boyfriend in Etoile sans Lumiere (1946). Then he replaced Jean Gabin as the lead in the flamboyantly gay Marcel Carne‘s Les Portes de la Nuit (1946). This film brought Montand’s cabaret repertoire more classic songs, including Feuilles Mortes, which became his signature tune.
Then, Montand joined the crowded list of ex-lovers (some men, some women) of Piaf, and he fell into a deep depression. But in 1949, he met the actor Simone Signoret. In her memoirs, Nostalgia Is Not What it Used To Be (1975), Signoret writes:
”In the course of four days there occurred something dazzling, indiscreet and irreversible.”
They moved into Montand’s apartment and were married in 1951, and soon after, Montand left on a musical tour of Europe and North Africa. In 1953 he filmed Henri-Georges Clouzet‘s The Wages Of Fear, a harrowing tale of four adventurers hurtling round hairpin bends in Central America with a truckload of nitroglycerine. It was a big hit.
The very politically aware Signoret and Montand became the dynamic duo of the French Left. They were invited to Moscow, where they once sat up until the early hours, engaged in a debate about freedom with Nikita Khrushchev. Montand’s Socialist leanings were dampened by the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, and he never officially joined the Communist Party because it would have prevented him from working in America.
His political dexterity paid off. He publicly criticized the USSR, and he was soon signed to make Let’s Make Love (1960) with Marilyn Monroe. That was precisely what they did. Monroe called him ”the most exciting man in the world’‘. Their affair was much more memorable than George Cukor‘s film.
”A man can have two, maybe three love affairs whilst he is married, but three is the absolute maximum. After that, you’re cheating.”
In 1961, he starred on Broadway in An Evening With Yves Montand.
He was singularly unfastidious about the films he appeared in. He costarred with a few of film’s most formidable female stars: Ingrid Bergman in Goodbye Again (1961), Shirley MacLaine in My Geisha (1962), Barbra Streisand in On A Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970), yet his Hollywood work was undistinguished. He was essentially a European star.
His best work in films was when his politics and his profession coincided: Alan Resnais‘s La Guerre est Finie (1966), a powerful denunciation of the Franco dictatorship, which traced three days in the life of a political refugee, and his classic collaboration with the director Constantin Costa-Gavras. They made a series of brilliant, haunting political thrillers: Z (1969), which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and an Academy Award for the Best Foreign Film; The Confession (1970); and State Of Siege (1973). His Costa-Gavras period ended with Clair de Femme (1979), and after that Montand played roles for other directors.
As his film career went into decline, he returned to his songs. He followed up a popular album, Montand D’hier Aujourd’hui, with a three-month engagement at the Olympia, in Paris and then went on a lengthy tour. In 1982, he had a week-long engagement at the New York Metropolitan Opera.
It seemed as if his career had come full circle, and would end with a musical act, where it all started. But in 1986, after his international box-office draw power seemed gone, the 65-year-old Montand gave one of his most memorable performances, as the scheming uncle in the two-part film: Jean de Florette, costarring Gérard Depardieu, and Manon des Sources, with Emmanuelle Béart. The film was a worldwide critical and box-office hits, even in the USA. In this poignant tale of innocence betrayed by a conspiracy between evil men, Montand gave the performance of his career, duplicitous, cruel, and yet so dignified in his final defeat.
While he was filming in Provence, Signoret was dying of cancer. In 1985, after a life filled with cigarettes, alcohol and food, the end came of what Montand described as ”35 years of life together; a long lease.”
”I never allowed myself to reproach Simone. The more she demolished herself the more I loved her.”
His affairs and his political defection never came between them. After Signoret’s death he stepped up his commentaries on the French political scene, and he was seriously mentioned as a candidate for the 1988 presidential elections.
He had marched with Françoise Sagan and Sartre and was Number One in a poll of Frenchwoman’s ideal companion on a romantic holiday. Then at the end, he became a right-wing heavyweight.
Montand was a singular mixture of bruiser and troubadour. He was taken 1991 of a heart attack a week after his 70th birthday.