Simone Signoret: Aging and Agency
Leahy, Sarah, Studies in the Literary Imagination
Simone Signoret is not the only French actress to have continued working into middle age and beyond. Arletty, Danielle Darrieux, Jeanne Moreau, and Catherine Deneuve are all stars who have also continued working well into their sixties and in some cases beyond, and Moreau and Deneuve have achieved a kind of mega-stardom in the later part of their careers. (1) Signoret is arguably the third figure of a triumvirate of female superstars of post-war French cinema--known as international icons of French womanhood, and who--unlike Brigitte Bardot, for example--did not retire from making films once their youthful beauty had gone. Signoret's star sign, however, developed differently from those of Moreau or Deneuve, for while they could be said to have aged gracefully (and in Deneuve's case, possibly with the help of plastic surgery), Signoret was seen to grow old and ugly suddenly and prematurely. Born in 1921, Signoret made it as a star in French cinema in the immediate post-war period, her career having been delayed by the war: half-Jewish, she was unable to work in Occupied or Vichy France, and so was already relatively old by the time she made her name).
She became known for her roles as femmes fatales in films such as Dedee d'Anvers (Woman of Antwerp), Maneges (The Wanton), and Casque d'or (Golden Marie). Through her performances as women striving by various means to overcome their dependence on men, these films vividly portray the ambivalent situation of women in a France that had allowed them the vote, but now required them to resume their proper role in the domestic sphere. (2) After a lull in her career in the latter half of the 1950s, Signoret returned to the spotlight in a spectacular way with her Oscar-winning role in the British film Room at the Top--a film which had critics commenting on her courage at appearing as she really was in front of the camera. (3) By 1969, with her performance as the resistance fighter Mathilde in L'Armee des ombres (The Shadow Army), the change in her appearance is dramatic. She is no longer the long-legged, smooth-complexioned beauty with shining eyes and lips of Dedee d'Anvers, or Casque d'or, nor even the sensual older woman of Room at the Top. Just ten years on, in her late forties, her face has hardened, her eyes are hooded, her body bloated and marked by alcohol and cigarettes. And by the time she is fifty, she can play opposite Jean Gabin in Le Chat (The Cat), and the seventeen-year age difference between them at times appears almost imperceptible.
Signoret is remarkable among film stars in that she did not shrink from the loss of her stunning beauty, but instead turned this to her professional advantage, assuming agency over her own aging body in the middle and later parts of her career. Signoret herself comments on this matter in her 1975 autobiography, La Nostalgie n'est plus ce qu'elle etait: (4)
aging has helped me to cross boundaries and ... my lack of corporeal discipline has provided me with alibis.... [It] isn't courage, it's a form of pride, even vanity, to show yourself as you are in order to better serve the character you've been offered as a gift.... (313-14) (5)
And, discussing her role as the aged prostitute in La Vie devant soi (A Life Ahead), she put it more succinctly: "I'm fat and ugly, and I'm going to make use of that to play Madame Rosa" (Monserrat 271).
Signoret consistently asserted that her appearance enabled her to play more interesting roles--an unusual opportunity for the aging female star since, as Beugnet points out in this volume--decent parts for older women were few and far between in French cinema. What is most remarkable, though, is that Signoret continued to be sought after for roles which enabled her to continue to assert her agency and thus to resist stereotypes of elderly femininity. Indeed, as Susan Hayward's recent book-length study of the star makes clear, she was more in demand from film and television producers in the latter part of her career when she was "old and ugly" than when she was at the height of her beauty. …