Yves Montand, an American Dream

Ivo Livi dreamed of being Fred Astaire or Gary Cooper; in the end, he became Yves Montand. Movie star, music-hall royalty and political activist, he passed away thirty years ago this week. France-Amérique looks back over the extraordinary life of this character who won the hearts of audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.
Yves Montand and Simone Signoret in the United States, 1959. © Patrice Picot/Gamma-Rapho

America has influenced the destinies of many stars of the French chanson genre. Born in Tuscany in 1921, Ivo Livi was just two when his family left Italy following the rise of fascism. His father, Giovanni, hoped to reach the United States, but the Livis only made it as far as Marseille. The southern French city became Montand’s playground and he developed a passion for cinema – particularly American musical comedies. He wanted to “be like Fred Astaire,” although he later admitted than he knew nothing about dancing. He performed on stage for the first time at 17, singing “Dans les plaines du Far West,” imitating Popeye and Donald Duck, and dressed like a cowboy with a Stetson and a revolver. He seemed to be born for show business.

With his exaggerated style, he started making a name for himself and became the opening act for Edith Piaf in 1944. The music-hall queen was won over and took him under her wing before the pair became lovers. A two-year romance ensued. La môme convinced him to swap his all-American look for a more understated allure and brought him into the Parisian scene. In 1946, she asked director Marcel Carné to hire Montand to replace Jean Gabin in Gates of the Night. The role was for Diego, a fortysomething Resistance fighter, and while Montand was only 24, he was given the part. After the film, Montand and Piaf separated. She left him, but both of them came away with broken hearts. Shortly after, Piaf recorded the melancholic love song “La Vie en Rose.”

Born to Sing

Gates of the Night was a monumental dud, but a song from the soundtrack, “Les Feuilles Mortes” by Prévert and Kosma, enjoyed a storming success. When the film was released, the song initially went by unnoticed. Montand later recorded a studio version in 1949, but it still failed to find a following. The same year, American singer Johnny Mercer adapted it in English under the title “Autumn Leaves,” which inspired the name – and the opening music – of the movie Autumn Leaves starring Joan Crawford in 1956. Legendary crooner Nat King Cole made it a jazz classic, and the song was recorded more than a thousand times, covered by the biggest names from Frank Sinatra to Bob Dylan, and praised by Serge Gainsbourg in his “Chanson de Prévert.” In a word, the melody timidly hummed by Montand had become eternal.

After getting over his broken heart, life seemed to smile down upon Montand. He had realized his dream of becoming an actor, but also continued touring as a singer. His versatility worked wonders, and he spent ten years shifting from film sets to stage shows. It was around this time that he met the woman of his dreams, Simone Signoret. Together, they acted in The Crucible inspired by Arthur Miller’s play, in Marcel Aymé’s theatrical adaptation, and in the screen version written by Jean-Paul Sartre. In 1958, while Montand was performing at the Théâtre de l’Etoile, he was spotted by Norman Granz, an affluent producer and Ella Fitzgerald’s impresario who was determined to take him to Broadway. With visas in their pockets and their heads in the stars, Signoret and Montand flew to New York in September 1959.

The singer performed at Henry Miller’s Theater on 43rd Street. The New York smart-set rushed to see the U.S. debut performance of the man behind “Les Feuilles mortes” and the audience included Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, and even Marilyn Monroe. Granz’s gamble had paid off; Montand was a triumph. The show’s run was extended for several weeks and the French singer started a North American tour. As a guest on Dinah Shore’s show on November 15, 1959, Montand danced, sang in French, made eyes at the American viewers, and attempted a few puns in English. Ivo Livi was finally living his American dream.

Beverly Hills Passions

In 1960, Twentieth Century Fox chose Montand over Cary Grant to play Jean-Marc Clément in Let’s Make Love, a comedy with Marilyn Monroe directed by George Cukor. With that, Signoret and Montand set off to Los Angeles, where they lived next door to the Miller-Monroe couple at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The four became friends, and Miller went to work in Ireland several months later. Signoret won the Oscar for Best Actress for her role in Room at the Top, before leaving to film another movie in Rome. Meanwhile, Monroe and Montand stayed in California, and their on-screen romance transformed into a real-life affair that sparked a scandal in the international press.

Signoret was particularly hurt by this betrayal. As for Miller, he blocked the distribution of The Crucible for several decades. The playwright said that the film’s distribution rights had only been partially sold and claimed that he disapproved of Sartre’s adaptation. Yet in reality, the affair between his wife and Montand seems to have inspired his decision. In 2017, twelve years after Miller’s death, the Pathé studios were finally able to acquire the movie’s full distribution rights and a restored version was released on DVD in France.

Yves Montand and Marilyn Monroe on the set of George Cukor’s Let’s Make Love, 1960. © Twentieth Century Fox

Shaken but still standing, Montand acted in one Hollywood production after another, including an adaptation of Françoise Sagan’s novel, Goodbye Again, by Anatole Litvak with Anthony Hopkins and Ingrid Bergman, before returning to Broadway. In 1962, he was the most famous French star in the world, and launched an international tour before going back to France. Marilyn Monroe was found dead in August of that year, but the singer refused to comment on the tragedy.

Mr. Montand Goes to Washington

Whether by luck or fate, Montand’s life in America was filled with twists and turns. Eternally associated with Marylin Monroe, he crossed paths with another man who was taken with the actress, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. In January 1963, the French singer was invited to perform at a fundraising gala in Washington as part of the second anniversary of JFK’s inauguration. Montand was so successful that even the political world wanted to meet him. However, this was somewhat delicate given the Signoret-Montand couple’s support of the Communist Party, their tours of the Soviet Union, and their outspoken feelings against McCarthyism. But the deep voice and soft eyes of the renowned “French Lover” seemed to melt away any remaining American reluctance! Montand thought of Kennedy again in 1979 when director Henri Verneuil gave him the role of an attorney investigating a president’s murder in I as in Icarus, largely inspired by the assassination in Dallas.

Given his extraordinary life and status, “immense” is the only way to describe Yves Montand. This could refer to his height (just over 6 feet 1), his career, his success, and his charisma both on stage and on screen. “Immense” was also the perfect word for the final venue that hosted him in the United States: the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Montand was the first popular artist to sing solo at the Met, and his unique, week-long show in September 1982 combined his greatest hits with the poems of Jacques Prévert, Aragon, and Baudelaire. Not exactly an ordinary operatic line-up, but after all, Montand was anything but ordinary.