Simone Signoret: Glorious Time
Notes and Conversations
She was terrifically bold, and her honesty was scalding. My first encounter with her was tense; I didn't like her. She would stare at you with those eyes that were beautiful and wise and judgmental. I didn't like her. Then she walked over to me and asked if she could speak. Not if we could speak, but if she could speak. I told her she was welcome to, and for the next two hours, she held forth on politics, literature, the theatre, the state of film, sex, marriage, and my own personal future.
I fell in love with her.
I only worked with one other actress who possessed Signoret's remarkable self-assurance and caustic gift of observation: Zoe Caldwell. Both women are more than happy to give you every ounce of their being and every shard of their glittering gifts, but they are just as willing to give you the back of their hands and walk away--and right over you.
I trust them both implicitly.
Signoret was someone with whom I always wanted to work, and she would have made an ideal Flora Goforth, and I think that play might have succeeded and might have mattered if she had agreed to appear in it. I cannot tell you to this day why she was not in it; I don't always know how these things happen or fail to happen.
She could analyze things so perfectly and bluntly: She had no problem telling me that Blanche was a stupid woman, to which she added the comment that she loved stupid women, women made stupid by love and myth and the pursuit of both.
What I like about your plays, she told me once, is that no one wins. I was stunned by this statement, but it is true, and she allowed me to see this. No one in life wins, either, because life is not a contest, a competition, a battle. It is, instead, a long, occasionally glorious, almost always brutal journey, and along the way there are what she called notable events. Love, perhaps; erotic pleasures here and there; a little money and a cottage in the green countryside; children; something you've made that you can hold up and share or pass around.
And then, she said, cutting the air with her hands, nothing at all, over, but you made a mark, left a scent, kept a place warm for the next person.
Grim? Perhaps, but she always smiled and laughed and let you know that the journey, the ride, was on right now, and you were with her on it.
If she was ever afraid of anything, I was never aware of it. She found sex deliriously funny, and the capers through which men and women placed themselves in its pursuit were pure farce to her: Feydeau and Schnitzler and pies in the face. She was unafraid to age or to smoke or to eat and drink whatever she wished. I never saw her--away from a film set or a stage--with makeup or her hair properly done, and she dressed like a Midwestern physical-culture teacher. And yet she was endlessly seductive, luring people--men and women alike--toward her with that gaze and that question: May I speak? And she would speak and people would listen and there would be one more acolyte for Simone Signoret.
She adored New York as much as I did, and she saw it through similar eyes, even though our backgrounds were so dissimilar. She could not get over the energy and the lights and the forthright nature of people on the street who yelled out, argued, complimented, questioned. I love these people, she would tell me, as she walked through the theatre district, nodding at people and asking about the shows they'd seen. Her curiosity was addictive.
She could forgive many things, but she despised dishonesty and stupidity, particularly if the stupidity was willed--if it did not derive from some organic source. She felt that most people in the arts were willfully retarded, and made so by the pursuit of shiny, fleshy things. I can't find a decent brain in this town, she would say, almost always, about Hollywood, but it was a complaint in New York sometimes, and I would be so flattered that I was one of the people she would call up to feed her hungry mind and humor.
She was like a judo priestess in the kitchen, chopping and cutting and swatting and banging pots. Food wasn't good unless a lot of noise and commotion were made in its presentation. She shared this philosophy with [Anna] Magnani, and both prepared meals you never forgot--both in the gustatory sense and intellectually.
She never wanted to talk about her past work, only what was ahead. We talked for hours about Regina in The Little Foxes, because she wanted to know about the South, and about women like this character. She did not feel comfortable with Lillian Hellman, and came to regard her as dishonest. I had to defend Lillian, as she was one of the handful of people to have defended me during penurious times. Signoret never quite thought of me in the same regard after that. Perhaps she came to see me as dishonest as well. I don't know. It never came up.
I wanted to talk about the films of hers I had loved, but she resisted. Did you like it? she would ask. Yes, I would reply. Then that is that. There is nothing to say about it; it's all on the screen. That work was done, in the past, over. A mark had been made, a scent left behind. Move on.
Many years passed and I saw her and she did not look well: She had thickened and grown hoarse and weary, and what little patience she had once possessed had burned away, but her work clarified and dazzled. She would save whatever she had left for the work, and I still loved to watch her.
She was relieved, she told me, to no longer be the beautiful Simone Signoret, the woman the boys of film, as she called them, had fallen in love with. That woman and those boys had been a burden to her, people who wanted to talk about the past and unimportant things.
As an old, fat woman, she said, I have only what I need and love: a soul mate, a few friends, and time, glorious time.