Nationality: Greek. Born: Maria Amalia Mercouris in Athens, 18 October 1925. Education: Studied acting at the Academy of the National Theatre, Athens, 1943–46. Family: Married 1) Panayiotis Harakopos, 1942; 2) the director Jules Dassin, 1966. Career: 1946—stage debut in modern play by Alexis Solomos followed by a series of modern plays on the Greek stage; 1955—film debut in Stella; 1960—international attention in role in Never on Sunday; then appeared in several international productions; 1967—debut on Broadway, in Ilya, Darling; 1977—earlier political activity against the regime of the "colonels" led to being elected to Parliament; 1981—named Minister of Culture and Sciences; 1985—became Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports; 1989—lost post when her party was voted out of office; regained post in 1993 when her party was returned to power. Awards: Best Actress, Cannes Festival, for Never on Sunday, 1960. Died: Of lung cancer, in New York City, 6 March 1994.
Films as Actress:
Stella (Cacoyannis) (title role)
Celui qui doit mourir (He Who Must Die) (Dassin) (as Mary Magdalene)
The Gypsy and the Gentleman (Losey) (as Belle)
La Loi (Where the Hot Wind Blows; Le legge; The Law) (Dassin) (as Donna Lucrezia)
Pote tin kryiaki (Never on Sunday) (Dassin) (as Ilya)
Vive Henri IV, Vive l'amour (Autant-Lara); Il giudizio universale (The Last Judgment) (de Sica)
Phaedra (Dassin) (title role)
The Victors (Foreman) (as Magda)
Topkapi (Dassin) (as Elizabeth Lipp)
Les Pianos mécaniques (The Uninhibited) (Bardem) (as Jenny)
A Man Could Get Killed (Neame and Owen) (as Aurora-Celeste da Costa); 10:30 P.M. Summer (Dassin) (as Maria)
Gaily, Gaily (Chicago, Chicago) (Jewison) (as Queen Lil)
La Promesse de l'aube (Promise at Dawn) (Dassin) (as Nina Kacew)
Once Is Not Enough (Guy Green) (as Karla)
Nasty Habits (The Abbess) (Lindsay-Hogg) (as Sister Gertrude)
A Dream of Passion (Dassin) (as Maya/Medea)
Diving for Roman Plunder: The Cousteau Odyssey (doc) (as commentator)
Keine zufällige Geschichte (Not by Coincidence) (Kerr)
By MERCOURI: book—
I Was Born Greek, London, 1971.
By MERCOURI: article—
"The Time Has Come for American Travelers to Return to Europe," in USA Today Magazine (Arlington, Virginia), May 1987.
On MERCOURI: book—
Arnold, Frank, and Michael Esser, editors, Hommage für Melina Mercouri und Jules Dassin, Berlin, 1984.
On MERCOURI: articles—
Reed, Rex, in Do You Sleep in the Nude?, New York, 1968.
Eyles, A., "Melina Mercouri," in Focus on Film (London), March-April 1970.
Ciné Revue (Paris), 28 January 1982.
Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1982.
Current Biography 1988, New York, 1988.
Orth, Maureen, "'La Pasionaria' of the Acropolis," in Vanity Fair (New York), February 1991.
Stars (Mariembourg, Belgium), March 1992.
Obituary in New York Times, 7 March 1994.
Obituary in Variety (New York), 14 March 1994.
* * *
"To be born Greek," Melina Mercouri once wrote, "is to be magnificently cursed." The statement is wholly in character; like her acting, it is unashamedly larger than life, and its bearing on literal truth is beside the point. As an actress, Mercouri was a phenomenon, and objecting that she overacted is like pointing out that the Parthenon would make an uncomfortable living room.
With Never on Sunday Mercouri burst upon an undefended world. It was her third film with the expatriate American director Jules Dassin, though their first Greek film together. They had previously teamed for Where the Hot Wind Blows, a neorealist love triangle drama set in Italy co-starring Yves Montand and Gina Lollobrigida, and the Christ story parable He Who Must Die, based on the novel by her fellow countryman Nikos Kazantzakis. Suggestions that she lured Dassin into pretension may be unjustified, since He Who Must Die was well into preparation before she was cast as the Magdalene figure. There was nothing pretentious about Never on Sunday, though—it was glorious hokum, frank and unabashed, and Mercouri as the tart with a heart was loud, brash, and irresistible. Dassin himself took the part of the sailor who falls for her. Made for $150,000 (and looking it), it raked in $15 million worldwide.
Tawny-haired, green-eyed, with a husky voice extending well down the baritone range, Mercouri could handle melodrama or broad comedy, but hardly high tragedy, as Phaedra, another of her films with Dassin, proved conclusively. Topkapi worked better for both of them. In it, Dassin recycled elements from his earlier classic about a not-so-perfect crime, Rififi, into a comedy about an even more intricate heist of a diamond in an Istanbul museum. The film was a crowd pleaser and critical hit. Mercouri acted up a storm, though Peter Ustinov stole the film and won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as the bumbling member of the gang.
Mercouri and Dassin's final collaborations were 10:30 P.M. Summer; Promise at Dawn, from writer Romain Gary's memoir about his mother; and A Dream of Passion, a modern-day version of the classic Greek tragedy Medea. None fared well with either audiences or critics. Mercouri remained in demand as an international star, however, appearing in a string of high-profile American and European films that did little to satisfy her artistic appetite. She played a roaring twenties Chicago prostitute in Jewison's Gaily, Gaily—and was mercifully lost among the slumming ensemble cast of Once Is Not Enough, a jet-set soap opera from the pen of Jacqueline Susann.
Politics were in Mercouri's blood. Her grandfather had been mayor of Athens, her father minister of the interior, and Dassin, whom she married, was a victim of the Hollywood blacklist—as was director Joseph Losey, with whom she also made a film, The Gypsy and the Gentleman. When the Colonels seized power she quit Greece and, despite threats to her life, campaigned tirelessly against them all over the world. The regime revoked her citizenship, incurring her resplendent scorn: "I was born Greek and I shall die Greek. They were born fascists and they will die fascists."
After returning to Greece she made only three more films; increasingly, politics took over. Appointed minister of culture in the Socialist government, she temporarily renounced acting, turning her energies to revitalizing the rickety Greek film industry. Mercouri once numbered among her ambitions "to win an Oscar, and become President of Greece." She died in 1994, both goals having eluded her.
—Philip Kemp, updated by John McCarty