MELINA MERCOURI, actress and patriot, was the child of one of Greece's most prominent political families: her father had been a cabinet minister; and though it was in defiance of her father's wishes that she became an actress, she was, in the latter half of her life, to demonstrate just how enduring had been the influence upon her of those formative years.
Indeed, her subsequent political prominence - most memorably, of course, her tireless campaign to have the Elgin Marbles returned to Greece - made her such a visible figure on the international stage that her earlier achievements on the theatrical stage were, at least outside her native land, virtually forgotten. Similarly with her work in film. Relatively few of her films are currently available, including what was once the most celebrated, Never on Sunday (1960), for which she shared a Cannes Festival award (with Jeanne Moreau) and was nominated for an Oscar. Yet, throughout the Sixties, with Moreau, Simone Signoret, Monica Vitti and Sophia Loren, she personified the quintessence of a specifically European sex appeal, one which somehow contrived to be both world-weary and in a state of permanent ebullience.
That, ultimately, was Mercouri's undoing as an actress: her almost parodically overdertermined sexuality. Whatever the nature of the role in which she was cast, her sole and all-absorbing concern appeared to be her allure. With her bold, jutting jaw, her hair aflame, her flashing, kohl-rimmed eyes, husky, innuendo-prone voice and very consciously 'Mediterranean' mannerisms, she more closely resembled a demented diva of the old school than a star of the contemporary cinema - and a bel canto diva at that, unable or unwilling to submit to the discipline of ensemble playing. Even the lines on her face (she was, after all, nearly 40 when she appeared in Never on Sunday) seemed to be invested with the fateful significance that is sometimes ascribed to the lines of a hand. She was, in short, and before such a phrase ever entered the language, over the top: the poor man's Anna Magnani, the rich man's Lila Kedrova.
These drawbacks were aggravated by the fact that her career was intimately linked to that of her husband, the director Jules Dassin, who arrived in Europe in the late Forties after being forced into exile as a result of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings during which he had been identified as a former Communist. In Hollywood Dassin had directed a series of tough, realistic thrillers that are still watchable today. In Europe he immediately 'sold out' to (so-called) high art values and traditions just as other artists have sold out to commercialism.
In their first collaboration, Celui qui doit mourir (He Who Must Die, 1957), an intolerably pretentious version of Kazantzakis's Christ Recrucified, Mercouri had a secondary role, as also in La Loi (whose English title was the lurid Where the Hot Wind Blows, 1958), a gamy melodrama, adapted from a best- seller by Roger Vailland, in which the irresistible force of Italian machismo meets the immovable object of Italian virginity. But she soon graduated to top billing as an exuberant waterfront prostitute who converts a stolid American tourist (played by Dassin himself) to whatever is the Greek equivalent of dolce far niente in Never on Sunday, a comedy whose black-and-white cinematography was compensated for by lashings of local colour. It was a less memorable film than its reputation would suggest, certainly far less memorable than Manos Hadjidakis's theme tune, an insinuatingly catchy melody that went around the world; and, if seen today, it tends to prompt a query familiar to all film buffs: How could I ever have liked that? But it did make Mercouri an icon.
Following the film's huge international success, she and Dassin returned to the art-house circuit with a vengeance: she played the title role of Phaedra (1962) as though Racine's tragedy were a barnstormer in the Sardou manner. They then enjoyed a further success in a lighter vein with Topkapi (1964), a mildly diverting, Pink Pantherish heist thriller (parodying, even unto its title, the director's earlier Rififi) in which she was partnered with Peter Ustinov and Robert Morley.
Her last three films with Dassin were 10.30pm Summer (1966), a travesty of Marguerite Duras' novel; La Promesse de l'aube ('Promise at Dawn', 1970), a lush traveloguish melodrama adapted from Romain Gary's memoir of his turbulent childhood; and A Dream of Passion (1978), an original screenplay for once, concerning the relationship of a woman who has killed her own children with an actress playing Medea on stage.
In each of their films together Dassin's unquestioning adulation of his leading lady is evident (his production company was even named Melinafilm); but it is surely not by chance that she never worked for any other director of real stature.
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