Mercouri, Melina (1923–1994)

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Mercouri, Melina (1923–1994)

Greek actress and politician who achieved international stardom in the movies Stella and Never on Sunday, spent seven years in exile while Greece was ruled by a right-wing military junta, then returned home to serve in Parliament and as minister of culture and science. Name variations: Merkouri. Born Maria Amalia Mercouris in Athens, Greece, on October 18, 1923; died on March 6, 1994, in New York City; daughter of Irene and Stamatis Mercouris (a member of the Greek Chamber of Deputies and minister of the interior); married Panayiotis Harokopos, in 1940; married Jules Dassin (a director), in 1966; no children.

Enrolled in the Academy of the National Theater as a teenager where she studied classical Greek tragedy for three years; after bit parts, starred in Mourning Becomes Electra, A Streetcar Named Desire, and The Seven Year Itch before moving on to such movies as Stella, He Who Must Die, Never on Sunday, and Topkapi; quickly became a star; fought vehemently against the anti-democratic colonels who staged a coup in Greece, forcing her into exile after they took power (1967); returned to Greece after the overthrow of the military regime and won a seat in Parliament, a rare accomplishment for a woman in Greece (1974); appointed minister of culture and science, a position she held for eight years (1980).


(title role) Stella (directed by Cacoyannis, 1955); (asMary Magdalene ) Celui qui doit mourir (He Who Must Die, Dassin, 1975); The Gypsy and the Gentleman (Losey, 1958); La Loi (Le Legge, also known as Where the Hot Wind Blows, Dassin, 1959); (as Ilya) Pote tin kyriaki (Never on Sunday, Dassin, 1960); Vive Henri IV—Vive l'amour (Autant-Lara, 1962); Il guidizio universale (The Last Judgment, Di Sica, 1962); (as Magda) The Victors (Foreman, 1963); (as Elizabeth Lipp) Topkapi (Dassin, 1964); (as Jenny) Les Pianos méchaniques (The Uninhibited, Bardem, 1965); (as Aurora-Celeste) A Man Could Get Killed (Neame and Owen, 1966); (as Maria) 10:30 P.M. Summer (Dassin, 1966); (as Queen Lil) Gaily, Gaily (Jewison, 1969); (as Nina Kacew) La Promesse de l'aube (Promise at Dawn, Dassin, 1970); Once Is Not Enough (Green, 1975); Nasty Habits (Lindsay-Hogg, 1976); (as Maya/Medea) A Dream of Passion (Dassin, 1978); (commentator) Diving for Roman Plunder: The Cousteau Odyssey (documentary, 1980); Keine zufällige Geschichte (Not by Coincidence, Kerr, 1984).

Maria Amalia Mercouris was born on October 18, 1923, into a political family, a fact which marked her entire life. The Mercouris home was a gathering place for politicians, philosophers, and artists, and the little girl's first memories were of ardent discussions held there. Her maternal grandfather Spiros Mercouris was mayor of Athens for more than 30 years and her father Stamatis Mercouris served in the Greek Chamber of Deputies and as minister of the interior. Although politics was strictly a male sphere in Greece at the time, she visualized herself as an elected official even in early childhood.

Much of her life centered around her maternal grandfather, who called her "Melina" from meli, the Greek word for honey. He doted on the little girl, and frequently took her to the theatrical productions they both loved. Melina was a poor student, but became fluent in French, German and English as well as Greek. A fiercely independent child, she would slip out of her house at the young age of eight to go to the cinema or to cafes to listen to music. She and a friend would often dress up to perform in cafés, until her mother discovered she was sneaking out, and she was punished. When she finally graduated from high school, her grandfather had the city band play while he proudly affixed her diploma to the wall.

Upper-class girls did not become actresses in Greece, a fact which did not deter Melina's ambitions. At age 17, she eloped with a wealthy aristocrat, Panayiotis Harokopos, a man many years her senior. This marriage gave the young woman exactly what she wanted. Describing her first husband, she wrote:

Politically he was conservative, not to say reactionary, but he had extremely liberal ideas on the role of women. He didn't try to turn me into a submissive wife. He didn't even make me take his name, as was normal at the time. I stayed Melina Mercouri for him and for everyone he introduced me to. That's how I broke free from my family and how I was able to study and prepare for the audition that would get me into the Drama School of the National Theater of Greece.

Mercouri's entry into the National Theater coincided with the Nazi occupation of Greece in World War II, and her involvement with her studies was so intense that she paid little attention to the political situation. Mercouri was determined, she said, to "live each day to the fullest and to hell with anything else, including ideals and hopes for liberation…. I was a para sitical, useless human being, and when I risked my life, I risked it for something as futile as a game of cards or an amusing evening." This description may have been unduly harsh because her younger brother served in the resistance while she did not. An anecdote she told of the time does not paint a picture of a selfish narcissist during wartime occupation:

One day I was in a tavern with three friends when three SS men entered. They were dead drunk. They asked us to sit at their table. When we didn't move, one of them drew a revolver. My three friends got up then and went over to join them. I don't know what got into me because my head was empty, but I didn't move. The SS man was furious, he kept on at me. He pointed the pistol and started counting, "Eins, zwei, drei…." I still didn't move. I wasn't scared. He fired, and the glass in front of me shattered. Now I was furious, and I got up and started shouting insults at him. I never considered that he might keep on firing. I wasn't thinking of anything. Then the military police arrived and dragged him out of the tavern.

By the time Greece was liberated from the Nazis on October 12, 1944, Mercouri was ready to make her debut on the Athens stage. Changing her last name from Mercouris to Mercouri, she played a member of the resistance in Alexis Solomon's The Path of Freedom, a performance which was poorly received, partly because the public resented seeing a member of the Greek ruling class portray a resistance fighter. Her first success

was in the role of Lavinia Mannon in Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra, and she became a star after she played Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. Mercouri attributed her success to the play's director, Karolos Koun. Triumphs continued not only in Greece but also in Paris where she appeared in Les Compagnons de la Marjolaine, Il était une gare, and Le Moulin de la Galette.

In the mid-1950s, as Greek films became more sophisticated and began to receive international acclaim, Mercouri's career also began to soar. In 1956, she starred in Michael Cacoyannis' film Stella, which won her the Best Actress award at the Cannes film festival. Written by Iacovos Campanellis, the part was originally created for Mercouri as a stage role, but Cacoyannis saw it as a movie. Describing the character of Stella, a modern and emancipated Greek woman, Cacoyannis said, "She's vibrant. She's proud of her body. She's proud of her liberty. She has lovers and she has friends. She refuses to think of marriage as a form of security, and she doesn't want society's blessing. She's suspicious of everything society approves of."

I was born Greek.

—Melina Mercouri

Mercouri loved the role of Stella, which remained a lifelong favorite. Her next movie, Celui qui doit mourir (He Who Must Die), was based on Nikos Kazantzakis' novel The Greek Passion, and was directed by Jules Dassin, the American-born expatriate from McCarthyism and the Hollywood blacklist. The movie marked the beginning of a partnership which would become lifelong when Mercouri married the director, after living with him for several years, in 1966.

On screen, Mercouri was in her element. Stella and He Who Must Die attracted European attention. Although Greek cinema was considered to be on the fringes of the medium at the time, Mercouri's third film with Dassin, Never on Sunday, took the world by storm. The story of a prostitute in the port of Piraeus who refuses to work on Sunday so that she can devote herself to cultural activities fit Mercouri perfectly. She seemed to understand what was important in life even when her circumstances were less than ideal. Filmed for less than $200,000, the movie made millions and launched Mercouri as an international star. Tawny haired, green eyed, with a husky voice, she epitomized the liberated woman of the '60s.

Mercouri continued to play a variety of roles, including the tragic heroine in Phaedra and a thief with a sense of humor in Topkapi. In 1967, Dassin wrote and directed a musical version of Never on Sunday, called Ilya Darling, for Broadway, in which Mercouri starred. The show was a hit, and Mercouri's career was in full swing in April 1967 when her world was suddenly changed with the toppling of the elected Greek government by a group of army colonels.

Although Mercouri's father organized the first committee against the dictatorship, she remained silent at first, uncertain about what she should do. Describing her fears at the time, Mercouri recounted, "if I spoke out, I might never be able to go back…. For forty days, I didn't sleep. I was very afraid to take a position. But the dictators in Greece promoted my name in tourism and advertisements, and I came to feel that if I didn't come out strongly against them, I would be a collaborator."

Faced with news of thousands of arrests in her country, Mercouri began to speak out from New York against the unlawful new government. The colonels wasted little time in punishing the actress, stripping her of her citizenship and confiscating her property. When a British journalist informed Mercouri that Stylianos Patakos, the Greek vice premier, had declared her a non-Greek, she replied, "I was born Greek, I shall die Greek. Mr. Patakos was born a Fascist. He will die a Fascist."

International support for the star was quickly forthcoming. In New York City, "Melina is a Greek" buttons popped up everywhere. People stopped her on the street to give small donations for the Greek resistance. When the U.S. government recognized the colonels, Mercouri was infuriated; she also denounced the Soviet Union for condemning the junta while doing business with it. Her outspokenness quickly affected her everyday life. Jules Dassin recalled that a bomb would sometimes be found under a podium where she was to speak, or the "FBI would inform [them] that there was an assassination plot," and Melina would go onstage in Ilya Darling "not knowing whether her murderers were in the audience or when a gunshot might ring out." Mercouri continued, nevertheless, to be outspoken in her opposition. Describing her actions, she said:

The coup d'état affected me like a rape. You can't react calmly to being raped. You shout, you protest, you scratch. I was abroad when the colonels seized power. Well, I shouted as loud as I could. I shouted, I sang, I danced for liberty. I wasn't a spoiled child anymore. I was someone to be reckoned with.

Recalling those seven years of exile, Mercouri noted: "To live in exile is something that is very, very strange. You become somebody else. Because at the same time you become somebody more international…. I became less nationalistic, and at the same time I [cried] more for Greece."

In August 1974, the junta of the colonels was finally ended, and Mercouri was elated to be able to go home. Not long after her return, she began a new phase of her life; she entered politics:

When we went back to Greece, after the fall of the colonels, I hesitated for a bit. Should I stay in politics full time? Then Andreas Papandreou rang up to ask me to be a candidate in the legislative elections, for the Piraeus, the second district. It was a difficult constituency for a woman. The voters were sailors, miners, macho types. I pointed out that I would feel more comfortable in Athens where … my grandfather had been mayor and my father had been a deputy. Papandreou won me over by his reply. He said, "Melina, you celebrated Piraeus in Never on Sunday and made it known around the world. In Piraeus you'll be able to smash the right and the left as well." I put forward my candidacy.

Tackling her new role, she was an atypical figure in Greece—a female politician.

I campaigned in the same way that I rehearse parts in the theater. Furiously, but with pleasure. I used to go into cafés and play backgammon with the old men. That improved my standing, because I used to win. I campaigned door to door, and people would gather groups together in their homes, anything from ten to thirty people. I immersed myself in their everyday problems, which were huge. There had been terrible rains that year, and there were serious drainage problems, all the more urgent because the buildings didn't have very solid foundations and the state of the roads were deplorable. Gradually these people's problems became my own. One day I even took to the streets with them against the police.

There were five candidates for the seat in Piraeus, but Mercouri won in the first round of voting. Happy to be back in the Greek political mainstream, she continued to act, mainly in the theater, and loved her busy, active life.

In 1980, Andreas Papandreou presented Mercouri with a new challenge, when he asked her to join his cabinet as minister of culture. For eight years she fulfilled this role, describing herself as a barefoot minister who "never sat at a desk." As the actress explained, "Desks create a distance between people. So I had a table brought in and when people came to see me, I would get up and we'd go over and sit down there side by side. It was strange how much easier conversations became." Her goal was to highlight Greek culture to make her people aware of their rich heritage. She explained her reasons to an American readership:

Your films are shown in every theater in Greece. How many Greek films have had wide distribution in the United States? Two. Your average film has a $10 million budget. If one of our films costs $200,000 it is considered a superproduction. Your best authors are translated into Greek. How many of ours can you find in English? We cannot compete with you, but neither can we lose our Greek identity. It is my job to preserve our identity, to ask for a better balance between our culture and yours. I don't want to fight against anyone else's culture, but I will fight for my own.

One of her greatest battles as minister of culture was to restore the "Elgin" marbles to Greece. The 247 feet of marble frieze and 15 metopes were part of the Parthenon, the most famous structure of classical Athens, and had been removed to England in 1801–03 by Lord Elgin, then British Ambassador of the Sublime Porte, to "save them from destruction" at a time when Greece was under the rule of the Ottoman Turks, who cared little about what happened to the carvings off the building. According to Mercouri, "Lord Elgin was guilty of vandalism. He took possession of archaeological treasures purely to decorate his country home in Scotland." In fact, they have been housed and protected for a long time in the British Museum, which did not deter Mercouri from making her point about original ownership. "When you know you're fighting for something just, something which is right," she said, "it gives you wings." Her stance found considerable sympathy among people of the Third World who had come to feel that Europeans could no longer justify a long history of abrogating foreign properties of value.

In a 1978 interview, Mercouri summed up the difficulties of a modern independent woman, and a star:

It's not independence that makes for solitude—real independence. It's because society says that a woman who is alone—without being a couple—is lonely. It could be very normal for a woman to be alone the way a man can be alone. But it's not, with the way society is set up, the financial breaks, the conditions. It's especially hard for a woman who is not very young. In the film [Medea], the woman I play is forty-five or fifty years old. She's a woman who's been raised to be very dependent on men. She's an actress, and actresses are especially dependent on men because men control the cinema. An actress must be beautiful, photogenic. She has to make many sacrifices to becomes an actress—or rather to become a star, because the woman in the film is a star. And being a star means being exploited by men. A star is a divine object—beautiful, with no wrinkles, ageless. A star is also a woman who ages the fastest and who, ultimately, is the most alone.

Mercouri herself, however, had found an important role beyond stardom. In 1990, at age 65, she ran for the office of mayor of Athens and lost. She was a chain smoker, rarely without a cigarette in her hand, and she was overtaken eventually by cancer. On March 6, 1994, she died in New York, and her body was flown back to Athens, where it lay in state before a huge funeral, held on March 10. Greeks mourned her passing, and in the country where democracy began, they declared her their "uncrowned queen."


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Karin Loewen Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia