Melina Mercouri Celebrated at Lumiere Film Festival Tribute

The Lumiere Film Festival paid homage to Greek actress, singer and politician Melina Mercouri this week with a mini-retrospective on what would have been the centenary of her birth.

The centerpiece event was a screening Thursday of “Never on Sunday,” the 1960 musical drama directed by and co-starring her regular collaborator, husband Jules Dassin, who was put on the Hollywood Blacklist for being a member of the Communist Party, and moved to Europe.

Mercouri and Dassin met at the Cannes Film Festival in 1955 when Dassin was starring in “Rififi,” and Mercouri in “Stella,” a retelling of “Carmen.” They would work together many times, most famously on “Pheadra” (1962), “Topkapi” (1964), and “10:30 P.M. Summer” (1966).

Their 1960 collaboration, “Never on Sunday,” remains their most famous partnership. They would reprise their roles of Ilya and Homer in a Broadway production, “Ilya Darling,” that opened in April 1967.

Set in the Greek port city of Piraeus, the musical-drama is both a battle of the sexes comedy and a subtle rebuke to American imperialism.  American classic scholar, Homer (Dassin), is using his holiday to investigate the departed glory of Greece and tries to convince the free-spirited Ilya (Mercouri) that she cannot be happy, primarily because she works as a prostitute.

Homer embarks on an attempt to “educate” her, which she dismisses from the get-go. With an emphasis on comedy, the film mixes bar-brawls and scenes of men gawking at Mercouri in a bikini with Homer and Ilya discussing classic Greek theater amidst the ruins of the Pantheon. Mercouri won the best actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and was nominated for an Academy Award for her turn as the confident and sure-footed Ilya, which embodied the political spirit of the women’s liberation movement.

During the time Mercouri reprised the role of Ilya on Broadway, she became a powerful voice informing the world of the ills of the Greek military junta, which grabbed control of the Mediterranean country following the April 1967 coup. Her success, saw the Greek dictatorship revoke her citizenship and confiscate her property.

After the fall of the junta, Mercouri took an active role in Greek political life and quit acting, first on-screen and then stage. Representing the center-left Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), she was elected to Parliament in 1977. In 1981 she became the first female Greek minister of culture and sports, a post she held until 1989 and again in 1993 until her death from cancer in 1994.

One of her significant political achievements was conceiving and proposing the European Capital of Culture.

Both her acting and political life was celebrated in Lyon during an event hosted by Cannes head honcho Thierry Fremaux. Unfortunately, due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced the Festival Lumiere to cancel some screenings and change screening times because of the curfew that will start this weekend in France, guest of honor Nana Mouskouri had to send a video tribute, rather than perform classic Greek songs as previewed.

The Greek singer recounted a story about the late-night creation of the title song for “Never on Sunday,” which saw Mercouri have to come to the studio in the middle of the night. Jack Lang, who was French minister of culture in the 1980s and early 1990s, gave insights into his friendship with Mercouri and her ability to sing in multiple languages.


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