Italian postcard. Photo: Dear Film. Publicity still for 10:30 P.M. Summer (Jules Dassin, 1966).
A free-spirited prostitute
Melina Mercouri (Greek: Μελίνα Μερκούρη) was born as Maria Amalia Mercouri in 1920. Her father was former cavalry officer and member of parliament, Stamatis Mercouris, and her mother Eirini Lappa. Her Grandfather had been Mayor of Athens.
When Melina completed her secondary education, she attended the National Theatre's Drama School, much against the desires of her parents. After her graduation in 1944, Mercouri joined the National Theatre of Greece and played the role of Electra in Eugene O'Neill's play Mourning Becomes Electra in 1945.
In 1949, she had her first major stage success playing Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, written by Tennessee Williams and staged by Karolos Koun's Art Theatre. Until 1950, she also worked in the same theatre in plays by Aldous Huxley, Arthur Miller and André Roussin.
She then moved to Paris, where she appeared in boulevard plays by Jacques Deval and Marcel Achard, and met famous French playwrights and novelists such as Jean Cocteau, Jean-Paul Sartre, Colette and Françoise Sagan. In 1953, she received the Marika Kotopouli Prize and returned to Greece two years later. At the Kotopouli-Rex Theatre, Mercouri starred in plays like Macbeth by William Shakespeare and L'Alouette by Jean Anouilh. Her first husband was a wealthy landowner Panos Harokopos. They had married in 1941 and divorced in 1962.
She made her film debut as a young, wild woman who doesn't want to compromise and settle down in Stella (Michael Cacoyannis, 1955). The film sparked great controversy, and although it was initially rejected by Greek critics, it is now considered one of the five greatest Greek films. Stella received special praise at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival, where Mercouri met American film director Jules Dassin, who would become her husband in 1966, her mentor, and director.
Their first professional pairing was Celui qui doit mourir/He Who Must Die (Jules Dassin, 1957), based on the novel Christ Recrucified by Nikos Kazantzakis, and starring Jean Servais and Carl Möhner. The film is set in a Turkish-occupied Greek village shortly after World War I. The villagers put on a Passion Play, with ordinary people taking the roles of Jesus, Peter, Judas, etc. Staging the play leads to them rebelling against their Turkish rulers in a way that mirrors Jesus's story. Other films by Dassin and featuring Mercouri followed, such as La Legge/The Law (Jules Dassin, 1959) with Gina Lollobrigida.
Mercouri became well-known to international audiences when she starred in the romantic comedy Pote Tin Kyriaki/Ποτέ Την Κυριακή/Never on Sunday (Jules Dassin, 1960), in which Dassin was the director and co-star. The film tells the story of Ilya, a self-employed, free-spirited prostitute who lives in the port of Piraeus in Greece, and Homer, an American tourist from Middletown, Connecticut — a classical scholar enamoured with all things Greek. Homer feels Ilya's life style typifies the degradation of Greek classical culture and attempts to steer her onto the path of morality, while at the same time Ilya loosens the uptight Homer up. As Ilya, Mercouri earned the Best Actress Award at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress and the BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
Spanish postcard by Productos Compactos, S.A., no. B 3768, 1991.
Minister for Culture
Melina Mercouri went on to star opposite Anthony Perkins in Phaedra (Jules Dassin, 1962), a modern adaption of Euripides' classic tragedy Hippolytus. For her part she was nominated again for the BAFTA Award and the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in Motion Picture Drama.
The recognition of her acting talent did not stop and her role in the heist film Topkapi (Jules Dassin, 1964) granted her one more nomination, this time for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in Motion Picture Musical or Comedy.
She worked with other noted directors such as Vittorio De Sica at the Commedia all'italiana Il giudizio universale/The Last Judgement (1961), Carl Foreman at the Anglo-American war film The Victors (1963), and Juan Antonio Bardem at Los pianos mecánicos/The Uninhibited (1965) with James Mason and Hardy Krüger.
She continued her stage career in the Greek production of Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth (1960), under the direction of Karolos Koun. In 1967, she played on Broadway the leading role in Illya Darling, a musical version of her film Pote tin Kyriaki/Never on Sunday (1960). For this part she was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical, while her performance in the film La Promesse de l'aube/Promise at Dawn (Jules Dassin, 1970) earned her another Golden Globe Award nomination.
Mercouri concentrated on her stage career for the following years, playing in the Greek productions of The Threepenny Opera and, for a second time, Sweet Bird of Youth, in addition to the ancient Greek tragedies Medea and Oresteia.
She retired from film acting in 1978, when she played in her last film, Kravgi gynaikon/Κραυγή Γυναικών/A Dream of Passion (Jules Dassin, 1978). The story follows Mercouri as Maya, an actress playing Medea, who seeks out Brenda Collins, (Ellen Burstyn), a woman who is in jail for murdering her own children to punish her husband for his infidelity.
Mercouri’s last performance on stage was in the opera Pylades at the Athens Concert Hall in 1992, portraying Clytemnestra.
When Greece was overtaken by a military junta in 1966, Mercouri ardently protested this affront to the world's oldest democracy. As a result, her citizenship was revoked, and from 1967 through 1974 she was denied re-entry into her native country. During these seven years of her exile in France, Mercouri recorded some highly popular records, Melina Mercouri, L oeillet rouge, si Melina m etait contee, Je suis Grecque, including famous Greek and French songs.
In 1977, she became a member of the Hellenic Parliament and in 1981 the first female Minister for Culture of Greece. Mercouri was the person who, in 1983, conceived and proposed the program of the European Capital of Culture, which has been established by the European Union since 1985. She was a strong advocate for the return to Athens of the Elgin marbles, the marbles which were removed from the Parthenon, and are now displayed in the British Museum. She served as Greece's Minister of Culture from 1981 until 1989. In 1990, she ran for mayor of Athens, but was defeated.
In 1993 Melina Mercouri returned as the Minister for Culture. A year later, in 1994, she died from lung cancer at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, at the age of 73. She was the step-mother of three children by Jules Dassin, including the French singer Joe Dassin. Jules Dassin later founded The Melina Mercouri Foundation.
Trailer for Pote Tin Kyriaki/Ποτέ Την Κυριακή/Never on Sunday (1960). Source: Withlotsabutta (YouTube).
Trailer for Phaedra (1962). Source: Fejedelem1986 (YouTube).
Sources: Hal Erickson (AllMovie), Wikipedia, and IMDb.