Mini-tribute to Greek cinema

In this highly international Greek summer, local cinema is going down memory lane, rereleasing a few of the most internationally successful Greek movies – the ones that offered a first cinematic view of the country to audiences abroad. This was in the 1960s, a period in which Greece was emerging as a novel tourist destination, when members of the jet set were discovering the beauty of the Greek Islands as guests of Aristotle Onassis and the rest of the world got a first glimpse of Greek movie production. Leading the way on this new path were Melina Mercouri and Jules Dassin, who, starting with «Never on Sunday,» and its unexpected international box office success lured a number of film stars to Greece for two more films: «Phaedra» and «Topkapi» (the latter currently playing at Athenian movie houses since last Friday). All three films make up a mini-tribute unfolding at local cinemas this Olympic month. Shot in 1960, «Never on Sunday» marked the beginning of Mercouri and Dassin’s lifelong relationship, both professionally and as a couple. The story of Ilya, the happy hooker who loved all of Piraeus and ancient drama – though she understood little of it – traveled the world. It is by far the most successful of the three films, earning box-office success, awards and a Broadway musical staging (though far less successful than the film). It was the first internationally acclaimed film with a Greek story line and Greek actors – though directed by American citizen Dassin – to be nominated for the Oscar. The film was up for five Academy Awards: Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress (Melina Mercouri), Costumes (Denny Vachlioti) and Music (Manos Hadjidakis). In the end, it earned only one single Oscar, for Hadjidakis’s uncomplicated, joyful «Ta Paidia tou Pirea.» In the Best Actress category, Mercouri – who had already won an award at the Cannes Film Festival that year – was aiming high. In the end, however, she lost the chance to establish herself both as a movie star and an Oscar winner, as her nomination clashed with Elizabeth Taylor’s Hollywood comeback. Taylor had been ostracized by the film industry following her scandalous relationship with Eddie Fisher when he was still legally married to Debbie Reynolds. Then, however, Taylor was a widow, after husband Michael Todd had been killed in a plane crash, and she herself was in poor health. So the fact that she starred in a rather indifferent film «Butterfield 8» didn’t stop her from winning the Oscar. Vachlioti also missed the Oscar, losing to celebrated Hollywood costume designer Edith Head, yet the tight skirt, striped shirt and the headscarf she had designed for Mercouri are still influential in fashion editorials. Two years later, Mercouri and Dassin attempted a new reading of the mythical story of Phaedra and Hippolytus, placing their own version in the Greek shipping lobby. The film features elements of grandeur and exaggeration similar to those of ancient drama, a cosmopolitan air (Athens, Paris, London), fate’s heavy blows (a tragedy at sea with a multitude of victims) and the insulting love between Phaedra and her stepson (played by Anthony Perkins, whose interpretation was defined by a sense of exaggeration). Perhaps the reason the movie didn’t enjoy major box-office success was because it featured two leading interpretations clashing with each other. What the film did have, however, was an extraordinary musical score by Mikis Theodorakis. It was also an opportunity for Mercouri to pose in front of the Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum for the first time; she looked stunning, her clothes once again designed for her by Vachlioti. The costumes were the only ones to receive an Oscar nomination in 1962. Following a tender romantic comedy and a drama, in 1964 Dassin and Mercouri decided to make «Topkapi,» an action comedy. Shot on location in Greece and Istanbul, the film is a particularly enjoyable version of Dassin’s most famous film, «Rififi.» The only woman amid a plethora of men, Mercouri is the mastermind (along with Maximilian Schell) of a gang whose ambition is to break into the Topkapi Museum and steal a priceless jewel. Co-starring in the film was an international cast led by Peter Ustinov, Despo Diamantidou, Robert Morley, Titos Vandis and Joe Dassin. In a cinematic U-turn, Dassin’s black and white color palette in «Rififi» was replaced by vibrant colors in «Topkapi.» The film met with considerable international success and, according to Bruce Geller, creator of «Mission Impossible,» became the inspiration behind the celebrated television series. In the awards department, Peter Ustinov won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, the film’s sole nomination. That year, however, was the year of another Greek film: Michalis Cacoyannis’s «Zorba the Greek.» The Cacoyannis film dominated the Academy Award nominations for Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay Adaptation, Best Actor (Anthony Quinn), Best Supporting Actress (Lila Kedrova), Cinematography (Walter Lassally) and Artistic Direction (Vassilis Fotopoulos), eventually winning in the last three categories.

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