Yves Montand in Nairobi in 1966
By Tony Hall
On the face of it it may seem strange for a film star to speak so much on politics. But for Yves Montand and his wife, Simone Signoret, one of the really distinguished couples in the world of serious entertainment, taking a stand on burning political issues is part of every citizen’s duty.
It is a view shared by many of their friends, such as artist Pablo Picasso, and the playwright Arthur Miller.
The name of Yves Montand is a household name in Europe as a singer, dancer and serious actor in films like the ‘Wages of Fear.’ In fact he needs very little introduction anywhere in the world.
Tony Hall: You are a top international star today. Did you have a difficult start in your career as an entertainer and a film actor?
Yves Montand: Yes and no…I come from a poor Italian peasant family. We moved to Marseilles when I was two years old.
I started to sing when I was 18 in the suburbs of Marseilles in the little bistros and cafes on Saturday nights. I must say it caught on quite well straight away.
No, there wasn’t much difficulty…but then I had some trouble finding song material and routines and to find my personality.
Because you see your personality doesn’t come just like that out of the blue. It comes from the people you meet and other external circumstances; you come across people who are simple and modest or people who are highly educated. It’s their influences which help to form your personality.
During the Nazi occupation, you had to be one thing or the other. I would call that a time for commitment. And when there is this situation you must take a stand – if you are man.
Q You have reached the heights in two directions – as an actor and as a ‘chansonier‘. Which achievement are you most proud of?
A Well in fact I do a one man show only every three or four years – I’m not a chansonier. I am a little fortunate because I can also do a play when I want to like The Crucible, which my wife Simone Signoret and I did . And two years ago I appeared in an American play called A Thousand Clowns.
It was a comedy, very funny and very strong. When I have this kind of play, or a wonderful story like we are doing now or like the last picture I made with Frankenheimer called Grand Prix…all the sequences were for real.
For a month we took driving lessons with a champion racing driver Jim Russell…when you have this kind of story, I prefer to make a movie.
Four years ago I made four pictures in America, but I don’t think they were successful – especially in Hollywood it’s very dangerous because they want to use you in Hollywood as the oo-la-la, l’amour toujour kind of Frenchman – you know the kind of thing.
Now I’ve stopped it, I don’t want to shoot in Hollywood any more – except that last picture, but we did the shooting in England, France, Belgium, Germany.
Q It was an international film?
A Yes, in Cinerama. I don’t know if the picture is good, but I can tell you the racing sequences are just fabulous.
I think motor races come over well on Cinerama. And Frankenheimer saw racing drivers as ‘the gladiators of our time’.’
It’s true because in every race somebody dies or is wounded. And the accidents you see in the picture are all real accidents, which happened many years ago.
How do you feel about what is happening in [Apartheid] Southern Africa?
Q Before we go any further into your present work, I’d like to go back to your past – and ask you if you were ever in the Communist Party?
A What are you? FBI or something…? No, I assure you I’ve never been in the Communist Party. But I was with the Left-Wing during the war, because they were the people who really fought.
At one point they brought out the Stockholm Appeal, like Bertrand Russell is asking for now on Vietnam. I don’t regret I signed that at the time.
I signed appeals for the Rosenbergs. I signed petitions for peace – for many things like that.
It wasn’t easy at that time, now it’s easy because many people are signing, everybody is doing something in every country, even in New York and Hollywood nowadays.
But in Paris it wasn’t easy to do. I don’t regret it. The only thing that changed me – not my mind, but it affected my conscience, was what happened in Budapest, in Hungary in 1956.
It seemed to me then that things were not so simple and so clear, and that in every movement you have contradictions; good and bad.
During the war my stance was very simple: You are with them or you are against them. During the Nazi occupation, you had to be one thing or the other. I would call that a time for commitment.
And when there is this situation you must take a stand – if you are man.
But when this condition does not exist, when the issues are not confronting you, you must see people as they are, and not consider a man an enemy if he is not of your class.
You mustn’t be a fool and sectarian about it.
For example, I am 80 per cent for DeGaulle. He is an intelligent courageous man. He is a brilliant politician. What we can criticise him for are things inside France. We need more housing, more hospital facilities, this sort of thing.
But for what the French represent and their relationship to the world – he is a fantastic man. We must take that into account.
But I was with the Left-Wing during the war, because they were the people who really fought.
Q How do you feel about what is happening in Southern Africa? I believe in this film you play the part of a journalist who goes there…
A I don’t like what’s happening. I tell you I am ashamed as a human being, to hear what goes on in South Africa. If a human being doesn’t have the same feeling, I don’t want to speak with him. This is what I was saying earlier. This is a clear issue, a point of fixation. You must be on one side or the other. You can’t say: ‘Oh well, you know I’m not involved in politics.’
That’s wrong, because when you pay your income tax, that is politics, right?…
It’s a coward’s position.
I don’t hesitate on this point – even if they shoot me. I don’t want to argue about this.
Q Do you allow your records to be sold in South Africa?
A I don’t know. This is a good point. It’s not my decision but my record company’s. I could speak to them about…I wouldn’t go there.
Take Spain. I refuse to go to Spain…The Russians are going there. They are doing business with them. I’m ashamed. Because for me Franco was held in power by Hitler’s Fascists. If the Spanish people voted for Fascism – OK.
All countries can elect the government they want, but in this case they killed people; they strangled the republic whose government had been properly elected. This is something I cannot accept. This may sound unreasonable – but I think convictions are very important in life.
Q Do you share the view of Jean Paul Sartre that selling arms to South Africa as France is doing, is an interference in the internal affairs of the country because it perpetuate slavery?
A Yes. Absolutely. I agree with Sartre. In fact we don’t have to sell these arms. But you see how complex the problems are, how many contradictions there are when the Russians make business with Spain – for a movie, can you imagine that?
OK, some people might say that after 30 years it is necessary to have normal relations. But take the Mexicans. Right up to the present they do not recognise Franco. For me, this is the right policy.
Ah, voila. When I sing Les Feuilles Mortes no Brassens, or Becaud or Aznavour will sing it after that.
Q I’d like to go back to your role as an entertainer…The French tradition in singing is very rich and strong. What we would call folk singing, where the words mean something, is widely popular in France. You are one of the big names, but where do you fit in to the tradition?
A Well, as I said I do a one man show, in which I dance and sing. But, for example George Brassens, a wonderful guy, is not an entertainer at all. He’s a wonderful poet, even comparable to Villon, so strong.
But he’s the kind of performer whose records you buy to listen at home quietly. On the stage you need a show. This is not an attack against my friend Brassens, whom I respect very much. Jacques Brel is another strong singer like this.
Q And yet even your own work…I mean you were the creator of ‘Les Fuelles Mortes’…
A Ah voila. When I sing Les Feuilles Mortes no Brassens, or Becaud or Aznavour will sing it after that. And I can’t sing a song of theirs as they do.
You must create your own material. Although I have done one record which is a selection of the best songs of the last 20 years, I put in: Les Fuelles Mort, La Vie en Rose, C’est ci Bon, Under the Skies of Paris… I also put in one song of Charles Trenet, one of Becaud, one of Aznavour and so on…It’s a salute, a tribute.
Q What about pop singing in France, people like Johnny Halliday?
A No, Johnny Halliday is something to do with publicity. We don’t consider him a singer in the same way. He and even Francoise Hardy are more like glamour idols.
Dress them in some new fashions and they look fine and you can sell them to the youth.
Also they have good faces and they move very well on the stage. But when you are French and you call yourself Johnny Halliday you’re starting off on the wrong foot.
Francoise Hardy is better. She sings the British or American arrangement – but she sings typical French songs. She doesn’t take an American song and translate the words into French…
In America there are only a handful of people who can really move a big audience, like Danny Kaye, Sammy Davis Junior, like Sinatra, maybe Judy Garland – and now Barbara Streisand, of course.
Out of 200 million people only five entertainers can move an audience in this way. We must make this distinction between various entertainers.
In England there are the Beatles. In Europe though maybe not in England, they move only the youth. In France, Spain and Italy people still don’t understand the Beatles humour, their spirit.
No, Johnny Halliday is something to do with publicity. We don’t consider him a singer in the same way. He and even Francoise Hardy are more like glamour idols.
Q Do you appreciate the Beatles?
A Oh yes, very much. They sing very good songs you know. And I also like their movies. Because thy don’t take themselves seriously. They are not dupes. They laugh at themselves too.
Q In France one notices a sort of tremendous self satisfaction about French culture and history, almost a smugness…
A Oh yes, you are right, too much so: because we had in our country Zola, Voltaire, Pasteur, people think they themselves are Moliere, Zola and Voltaire…
But in fact as in every country I suppose, when you meet a good Frenchman he is really good – brilliant like Jean Paul Sartre, Alan Renais, the director, and other people not so well known.
But I think, like in every country, in my opinion in France you get 70% of the people who want to be against everything: religion, policies…but in fact they are very ordinary.
Also Frenchmen don’t open their hearts easily. You have to be patient. But when they give you their friendship then you know you have got it for good.
Q What do you think of what Andre Malreaux the Minister is doing in the French cultural world?
A Oh tremendous. He has opened a house of culture in every big city, even in the suburbs of France.Though of course, people are what they are, and perhaps not enough people use them.
Q You are a friend of Picasso?
A Yes, like many other people.
Q Do you know why he suddenly decided to accept the Lenin Peace Prize recently after refusing it for years?
A No, I don’t know…But don’t forget he is Spanish. Don’t forget that for Spanish people who fought in Spain they don’t care about what happened in Budapest or any other place.
They suffer from Fascism in their country. For him, even though his heart may be breaking, he sticks to one line, as with Vietnam.
Q Part of this film you are now making is set in Vietnam?
A Yes, we are going to do some shooting there. But it is something we try to be perfectly neutral about…
Maybe we won’t go. I don’t know yet.
It’s for the director to decide.
When I say ‘neutral’ I mean we forget the American position or the Vietcong position.
In making this picture we worry about what happens to the people in this situation. The human being is important whether one side or the other is right, in the meantime there is killing every day!
Q Have you been in any of the French Nouvelle Vague films? You seem to have been caught up in the Hollywood world in the last few years…?
A Oh no, the last picture I made was directed by Alain Renais who is only 29 years old – a masterpiece called ‘Un Homme et Une Femme.’
I simply do pictures which interest me because I think it is impossible to live in a glass house and say ” I’m just an artist living for my art. Don’t bother me with the rest of the world.”
If you say that you are just an idiot. I don’t want to carry the flag and shout slogans n art or in politics. It looks ridiculous…People might say, oh, it’s easy for him to take a stand.
In fact it’s not easy at all. I don’t mean in the present time, but in France in 1945 up to 1958, people wanted to kill you – just like that!
‘at that time to have answered: ‘No Sir I am not a Communist,’ was already a concession to the witch-hunters.’
Q Can you explain that?
A Well, don’t you remember OAS, for instance? That’s just one thing. During the days of big tension between East and West, in the McCarthy days, it wasn’t easy to speak out.
But in that time I felt one must take a definite position – not for the sake of any political party or anything like that, but for myself!
One day they asked us, my wife and myself, if we were Communists. I didn’t answer at that time and if you had asked me that question ten years ago m’sieu, I wouldn’t have answered you.
Because at that time to have answered: ‘No Sir I am not a Communist,’ was already a concession to the witch-hunters.
In fact we were never, never in the Communist party but the people who asked us were the wrong people – so we refused to say ‘No, we are not.’ You see what I mean?
Q Of course it is a very good point…Is the position about censorship in France better than it was six years ago? I mean the film ‘Le Petit Soldat’ was banned for a long time.
A Oh, but it is released now. The position is better, yes. But sometimes, it depends on the director.
When you make a film which is very strong meat you must take your courage in your hands and not go running to authorities for approval and you must make it good. Otherwise they kill you, the critics and so on.
We made what I think is a wonderful picture with Alain Resnais called ‘The War is Over’. It’s been released in Paris, New York and London…
Q How come your wife, Simone Signoret has been working in England so much lately?
A Well, she learned English as a teenager from a very comfortable family. She went to school until she was 18 years old. She is a very intelligent woman.
And one day they asked her to make a picture Room at the Top, and she has been working there a lot since…She prefers to work in France, but at that time, 10 years ago, it wasn’t easy to work. ..
Q You got to know Marilyn Monroe well when you starred opposite her in ‘Let’s Make Love.’ Did you see signs at the time that she was an unhappy person?
A Well, I don’t want to answer that question.
When we worked together it didn’t look like she wanted to end her life.
In my opinion it was an accident. She took too many pills, and as you know, if by accident you take one or two too many, you can die. ..I think it was a terrible loss.
She was a wonderful personality. I don’t know if she was a great artist, but we don’t care about that – like with Bardot – she was an extraordinary person, larger than life.
She just hit you…Pow…right on the nose. This is something you cannot explain….Thank God.
she [Marilyn Monroe] was an extraordinary person, larger than life. She just hit you…Pow…right on the nose. This is something you cannot explain….Thank God
Q Many commentators say that as a person she was the victim of image-makers and money-makers; that there were too many pressures on her,…
A No, I don’t agree with that. At one time I might probably have said yes – by political education. But I think it is wrong.
I’ll tell you something. I signed a Hollywood contract and I never made a film in Hollywood that was a big success. So I could perhaps be anti-Hollywood. But it isn’t like that.
In show business they are fantastic. They give to you the most that they can – I’m not talking only about money – to give you the best advantages.
If it doesn’t work -goodbye. And I think that’s right. It didn’t happen to me.
I was asked several times to make another picture, but I said no, show me the script…You see the last picture I made there was Sanctuary, from the book by William Faulkner, with Tony Richardson directing.
Now you cannot put Sanctuary on the screen just as it is written. So they changed it. But not only did they change it, they changed the love scenes. It doesn’t come over at all in the book, so why call the picture Sanctuary?
In the book the character is a small man. In the film he is a big tough guy with a lot of women working for him. Then in the film the girl comes from the bourgeoisie and they both find purity and salvation in their love affair. It’s nothing! Call the picture what you want, but don’t call it Sanctuary.
Q So you are finished with that kind of film now?
A Oh yes.
Q Was this the fault of Tony Richardson? You did say he was a good director.
A He is, yes – when he is working in his own country. I think it is like this with everybody.
Why are the Russian plays so fantastic when they go outside? It is because they are typically Russian.
Tony Richardson cannot work in America. He needs to be in England where he can work with people who understand what he wants without any trouble.
Look at Mademoiselle, which he made in French with Jeanne Moreau. It was a big flop.
Q Is there a film you would still like to make?
A Well, a film like Wages of Fear. It was a wonderful story. I think the stars were those trucks. And the relationships between those kinds of men was so interesting.
Also it was like a Greek Tragedy, where everybody dies…
But I also enjoyed Let’s Make Love. It wasn’t a complete success. But a good comedy with music and song is also very satisfying.
Yet it is more difficult to do well than a tragic picture.
Q The film, ‘Is Paris Burning?’ in which you and your wife make brief guest appearances, has been criticised for playing down Communist and Left-Wing resistance figures while emphasising the part played by Gaulists and by people who are now in government…
A No, I think the spirit of the film is very good. But obviously they couldn’t put everybody in.
Of course at that time, even the Communists were under the banner of De Gaulle. In the picture one of the first people to pick up a gun is a Communist guy – and he is very sympathetic.
But the leader was always accepted as De Gaulle. We can’t deny that.
At that moment when he came down the Champs Elysees, everybody was behind him.
The picture may not be so well done, but the truth is respected.
Tony Hall was born in Pretoria in 1936. He went to Witwatersrand university and then went on to work as a reporter at the Star. He joined the Congress of Democrats after Sharpeville along with his wife Eve Hall and interviewed Nelson Mandela in Hiding. His wife, Eve, was jailed by the Apartheid regime. Tony Hall was the first journalist to be banned from a major newspaper in South Africa when, after interviewing Potlako Reballo on a forthcoming insurrection, he was questioned and refused to give information to police.
Tony and Eve went into exile in Kenya where both of them worked on the Daily Nation. Tony wrote the column ‘On the Carpet and Eve was the woman’s editor. However, at the request of Ruth First, an intermediary for Odinga Odinga, Tony drafted the platform of KANU. He was appointed Communications Officer for the East African Community, but when his involvement with KANU was discovered he and his family were forced to leave the country.
In the United Kingdom Tony worked for Oxfam and then moved with his family to Tanzania to work as Training Editor for The Standard with Frene Ginwallah as editor. From there Tony was appointed Oxfam information officer for East Africa and was the first to reveal to the world, the 1973 famine in Ethiopia. After Ethiopia Tony and Eve shared the job of Oxfam Information officers in India.
After India Tony Hall worked as an editor of international Newsmagazines focused on the Middle East for eight years. Then he left to join his wife in Somalia where he worked for UNDP starting IMR, a trade magazine. He trained a team of Somali journalists to run the magazine.
In the late 80s Tony and Eve were in Harare. Tony was Editing the Magazine Africa South and East under the aegis of editor-in-chief Govan Mbeki. It was at this time that Mandela was released and Tony and Eve were unbanned. Africa South and East moved its headquarters to Yeoville. When Allister Sparks resigned as head of Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, which he founded, Tony Hall was offered a senior management job at the institute, however, once again, he left to join Eve who was working in Addis Ababa. There Tony become the Communications Director of the Economic Commission for Africa, a branch of the UN.
Tony carefully selected and oriented his replacement and Eve and Tony retired to a nature reserve in Mpumalanga where they lived together for ten years until Eve’s death in October 2007 and Tony’s two months later in January 2008.