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Oscar-winning Simone Signoret rejected Hollywood life

Character(s): Joe Lampton, Alice Aisgill 
Film 'ROOM AT THE TOP' (1959)
LAURENCE HARVEY & SIMONE SIGNORET Character(s): Joe Lampton, Alice Aisgill Film 'ROOM AT THE TOP' (1959)

She was the German-born Frenchwoman who conquered the USA with an English movie – Simone Signoret was a bit special!

It was 60 years ago, in 1959, that the British-made film Room At The Top caused a sensation globally, with Signoret at its heart.

Nominated for half a dozen Oscars, she became just the second Frenchwoman to win Best Actress. Claudia Colbert had been first.

Hermione Baddeley, a bit further down the cast, was even nominated for Best Supporting Actress, and she only appeared in it for two minutes and 32 seconds!

That tells you what an effect the film had, and it was very hard-hitting stuff for its time, sexy, violent and even better than the novel it was taken from, written by John Braine, Bradford-born and one of the so-called Angry Young Men writers so hip and popular at the time.

Nobody, however, was quite as hip as the stunning Signoret, and with a life as interesting as hers, it’s no surprise she was such a fine actress.

She was born Simone Kaminker in Wiesbaden, Germany, in 1921. Her father Andre was a French Jew, a League of Nations interpreter who obviously had to get out of Germany before long.

Her mother was Georgette, a Catholic, and Simone would take her surname for the stage name that made her famous.

Ironically, given her father’s religion, when she was a bit older and they lived in Paris, Simone had to write for a collaborationist paper to bring in some money for the family.

Getting to know all sorts of interesting, arty people, Simone took the Signoret name to hide her Jewish roots and began getting work as an actress.

Her beautiful features and her speaking voice and earthy appeal saw her land roles as a call girl or a young woman on the wrong side of the tracks, and in the post-war years she was already well-established in continental movies, but it was when Britain came calling that she got the role that would make her a household name.

Room At The Top, a novel about a young man of humble background but fiercely ambitious, appealed to all sorts of readers in the years after the conflict, when a lot of younger people were making their way in a world still getting back on its feet.

It cried out to be made into a movie, and Brighton-born Jack Clayton, who specialised into turning great books into even better films, was brought in as director.

They got Laurence Harvey to play Joe Lampton, the lead role, and by 1959 he was a huge star – he’d also appear that year alongside a certain Cliff Richard in Expresso Bongo, and would soon be cast with John Wayne in The Alamo!

A real pin-up glamour boy needed a real female equivalent opposite him, and Simone Signoret was just right.

Together, they would cast a spell over cinema audiences across the world, and the movie would make them both superstars.

She played Alice Aisgill, a married but unhappy older woman with whom Joe has an affair, though he is also still keen on Susan Brown, daughter of a wealthy local magnate.

Such a storyline was extremely close to the knuckle back then! It got even more shocking when he had his evil way with Susan, only to realise it was the older married woman he was actually in love with.

She feels likewise and they decide Alice has to persuade her brute of a husband to give her the divorce she wants, but instead he vows to ruin both of them and do all he can to prevent them being together.

When Joe eventually gives up hope of having her and goes back to Susan, Alice gets drunk, gets in a car and crashes it, slowly dying over several hours.

Shocking as a storyline in 2019, it was absolutely incredible in 1959, and nobody could have played such a woman quite like Simone Signoret did.

It would be almost half a century before another French actress, Marion Cotillard, won a Best Actress Oscar. Juliette Binoche didn’t get one for Chocolat, and Leslie Caron, Catherine Deneuve and others all tried and failed.

If Tinseltown thought that giving her the ultimate accolade would persuade Signoret to instantly relocate to Hollywood, it was mistaken.

Simone said thanks but no thanks and continued making movies in France and England, starring with another Laurence, Olivier, in 1962’s Term Of Trial.

She got another Oscar nomination, however, for Ship Of Fools, the last film to star Vivien Leigh.

Simone would turn up in a few more Hollywood movies, but Europe was her home and it didn’t seem to matter to her what kind of tempting offers America made – she just preferred it on our side of the Atlantic.

Her first marriage had lasted just five years, to director Yves Allegret, 16 years older than her. In 1951, however, she had married Yves Montand, the French-Italian actor discovered by Edith Piaf.

Some have claimed that Marilyn Monroe was expecting his child when she died, but that’s another Hollywood tale we’ll never get to the bottom of.

In 1977, Simone was still being given roles where she portrayed world-weary women on the seedier side of life, like the madam with a heart of gold who looks after prostitutes’ kids in Madame Rosa.

It earned her more rave reviews, and despite her own very happy and fulfilling life, Signoret just naturally knew how to play people living through very hard times.

She had one child, Catherine, with her first husband, and Simone Signoret was such an influence that the great singer Nina Simone took her name from her.

Simone Signoret passed away in 1985.