Yves Montand was an enormously popular singer in France, his adopted country, from the 1940s until his death. He also gave concerts around the world, but he was better-known internationally as an actor.
Montand was born Ivo Livi on October 13, 1921, in the village of Monsummano Alto in the Tuscany region of Italy near Florence. He was the youngest of three children of Giovanni Livi, a broom maker, and Giuseppina (Simoni) Livi. His father was involved with the Communist Party, and in May 1924 the family was forced to move to France to escape political persecution from the Fascists led by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. They settled in Marseilles and became naturalized French citizens in 1929. At 11, Montand dropped out of school to help support his family during the Depression by working in a noodle factory. He left that job two years later and began working in a hair salon run by his older sister; eventually he passed the test for his barber's license and got a job in another salon. But in September 1938, at age 16, he first sang at an amateur show, and he soon began making professional appearances. Recalling his mother's shout to come home to the family's second-floor residence for dinner, "Ivo, montes!" ("Ivo, come on up!"), which, in her Italian-accented French sounded like "Ivo, monta!," he adopted the stage name Yves Montand.
Montand's singing career was short-circuited by the start of World War II in September 1939. In 1940, he worked in the Marseilles shipyards as Germany overran northern France; he was not able to return to singing until the spring of 1941 under the German occupation. That fall, he first headlined his own vaudeville show in Nice, and he had his first screen appearance as an extra in La Prière aux Etoiles (Prayer to the Stars), shot in January 1942. But from March to October 1942, he had to work in a youth labor camp, as were all 20-year-old French males at the time. In February 1944, fearing that he would be forced to work for the Nazis, he left Marseilles and moved to Paris, where he began performing again. In July 1944, he was booked to open for Edith Piaf at the Moulin Rouge. The two became a couple, and with France being liberated by the Allies, they toured the country in the fall and in the spring of 1945. Montand was then given his first credited role in a film, singing two of his stage favorites, "Luna Park" and "Les Plaines du Far West," in Silence ... Antenne (You're on the Air!). He also took a small part in Etoile Sans Lumière (Star Without Light), a film starring Piaf that opened in April 1946. Starting on October 5, 1946, he headlined at the Etoile theater in Paris for seven weeks; during this period, he and Piaf broke up. Director Marcel Carné's Les Portes de la Nuit (Gates of the Night), Montand's first film in which he had the starring role, opened on December 4, but was poorly received.
Meanwhile, however, he had signed to Odéon Records, which began issuing his recordings. He did not have another film role for more than a year, when L'Idole appeared in February 1948, and his subsequent appearances in such low-budget films of the early 1950s as Paris Chante Toujours (Paris Always Sings), Paris Sera Toujours Paris (Paris Will Always Be Paris), Souvenirs Perdus (Lost Souvenirs), and L'Auberge Rouge employed his talents more as a singer than as an actor. They helped to enhance his status as a stage performer. On March 5, 1951, he began a four-month run at the Etoile in which he appeared for the first time in a "one-man show," (i.e., without any supporting acts on the bill). That summer, he began what turned out to be a long shoot on Henri-Georges Clouzot's Le Salaire de la Peur (The Wages of Fear), a drama in which he played a truck driver hired to transport nitroglycerin to stop an oil-well fire. When it finally appeared in the spring of 1953 (it opened in the U.S. in 1955), it was an enormous success, winning the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival and finally establishing Montand as a serious actor.
Nevertheless, singing remained his first priority. On December 21, 1951, he married the actress Simone Signoret; two weeks later, he was off on a tour that included France, Switzerland, and Belgium. He made another film, Tempi Nostri (The Anatomy of Love) in 1953, but devoted much more time to singing. On October 5, he opened at the Etoile, where he performed until April 4, 1954, selling nearly 200,000 tickets. During the run, Odéon presented him with a gold record marking sales of one million copies of "Les Feuilles Mortes" ("Autumn Leaves"), a remarkable achievement in the relatively small French record market. (He later switched to Philips Records.) In 1954, he turned to the legitimate stage, co-starring with Signoret in a French adaptation of Arthur Miller's play The Crucible in Paris entitled Les Sorcières de Salem. The play ran through 1955, and a film version was made. This further enhanced Montand's reputation as an actor, and he appeared in more movies in the mid- '50s. But he also found time in 1956-1957 to tour the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, a trip that began to open his eyes about totalitarianism.
After more film work in 1957 and 1958, Montand launched a major concert tour in September 1958 that began with some preliminary performances before settling into the Elysée music hall in Paris for five months, a run that continued until March 8, 1959, playing 160 performances before 200,000 fans. In December 1958, Montand was approached by American impresario and record company executive Norman Granz, who wanted to bring him to America. Previously, the anti-Communist McCarthy Era in the U.S. would have prevented Montand from obtaining a visa. (Although he himself was not a member of the Communist Party, he was sympathetic to its aims, and his older brother was an official of the party in France.) By the late 1950s, however, this situation was easing in the U.S., and Granz was able to get Montand a visa and book a tour. Prior to that, in the spring and summer of 1959, he toured Europe and performed in Israel. But on September 22, 1959, An Evening With Yves Montand opened at Henry Miller's Theater on Broadway to positive reviews. The show played 42 performances, then Montand appeared in Montreal, Toronto, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. His belated breakthrough in the U.S. and the favorable notices it attracted led to a flurry of stateside record releases of material old and new. Columbia Records brought out One Man Show before the end of the year and in 1960 released both An Evening With Yves Montand and Grandes Chansons. The same year, Monitor Records issued Yves Montand & His Songs of Paris, and Granz's Verve label had Aimez-Vous Yves? Meanwhile, Montand was forced to postpone a Japanese tour when he received an offer from 20th Century-Fox to co-star opposite Marilyn Monroe in the movie musical Let's Make Love. He shot the film in the winter and spring of 1960 (also engaging in a much-gossiped-about affair with Monroe), and had two singing performances, "Incurably Romantic" and the title song, both featured on the original soundtrack album released by Columbia. He continued what might be called the American phase of his career by quickly shooting a series of Hollywood films, Sanctuary, Goodbye Again, and My Geisha, in 1960-61, and on October 24, 1961, returned to Broadway for 55 performances of his musical act before moving on to Japan and England in early 1962 and opening again at the Etoile in Paris in November 1962. (Meanwhile, in America, Columbia released More Yves Montand and Verve countered with On Broadway.) But, while his efforts on-stage and before the cameras in the U.S. in 1959-61 expanded Montand's international reputation, they did not make him a star in the U.S. His concert audience was a sophisticated one interested in hearing songs sung in French, but his records did not reach the charts. And on film he remained an exotic who had learned his lines in English phonetically. So, he returned to working primarily in Europe. After his Paris performances, he also, for the first time, turned primarily to filmmaking, relegating his singing career to one of occasional comeback shows for the rest of his life. (Meanwhile, Philips issued Yves Montand Recital Paris, 1963 in the U.S. in 1963, and Columbia had Yves Montand, Paris in 1964, but thereafter his American record releases were few.) The first of those comebacks consisted of 33 shows performed in Paris in the fall of 1968, after which Montand formally announced his retirement from concertizing.
For the rest of the 1960s and in the 1970s, Montand worked frequently in film. His most notable performances included a series of political dramas made with director Constantin Costa-Gavras, Z (1969, the Academy Award-winning Best Foreign Film and a Best Picture nominee), The Confession (1970), and State of Siege (1973), films that condemned oppressive acts carried out by both right-wing dictatorships and Communist regimes. Montand did find time for one more Hollywood movie musical, starring opposite Barbra Streisand in an adaptation of the Broadway show On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970), directed by Vincente Minnelli. He sang the title song with Streisand and soloed on "Melinda" and "Come Back to Me" in the film and on the original soundtrack album released by Columbia, which spent almost six months in the charts, but was a modest seller by Streisand's standards.
In 1974, in the wake of the previous year's military coup in Chile, Montand performed a benefit show for Chilean refugees, his first live singing in six years and his only such work of the decade. But at the start of the 1980s, he rescinded his retirement from the stage, and from October 7, 1981, to January 3, 1982, he played to sold-out houses at the Olympia theater in Paris, followed by 48 shows around the country before continuing on to North and South America and Japan, the entire tour lasting more than a year. He worked less frequently in film in the 1980s, his most notable performances being in Claude Berri's Jean de Florette and its sequel Manon of the Spring in 1986. In the second half of the 1980s, he was frequently mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in France, but he declined to run. He did, however, sing a few songs on a television program broadcast during the speculation, Montand at Home, in December 1987. And he was invited to visit Poland during that country's first free elections in the spring of 1989, obliging by singing "Les Feuilles Mortes." In June 1990, he gave a few final performances at the Olympia in Paris. He continued to make occasional films, completing his last one, IP5: The Island of Pachyderms, just prior to his death from a heart attack at age 70 in November 1991.
Although outside France he is viewed largely as a film star, Montand occupies an important position as a post-war French popular singer who followed Charles Trenet and Maurice Chevalier with an earthier, more direct style who anticipated such immediate followers as Jacques Brel and even the rock & roll era. Largely because of the language barrier, his appeal as a singer was restricted largely to his own country, but there it was gigantic and continued without diminution throughout his life. ~ William Ruhlmann