Three-time Academy Award nominee Michael Cacoyannis (Zorba the Greek) has died at age 89. Two of his foreign language pics were nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards: Iphigenia and Elektra. Below is an obituary from The Guardian.
The Guardian – Ronald Bergen
Although the first Greek films appeared in 1912, long periods of war and instability crippled any attempts at forming a national film industry. This meant that few features were produced until the 1950s, when the director Michael Cacoyannis, who has died aged 90, became the embodiment of Greek cinema, giving it an international reputation which reached a peak of popularity with his Zorba the Greek (1964).
Based on Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel, the film burst on to the screen with extraordinary energy and visual splendour. It brilliantly combined the rhythmic music of Mikis Theodorakis and the Oscar-winning black-and-white cinematography of Walter Lassally with indelible performances by Anthony Quinn, Alan Bates, Irene Papas and Lila Kedrova (who won the Oscar for best supporting actress).
The film celebrated joie de vivre, yet there was an underlying pessimism and an echo of Greek tragedy in its tale of a salt-of-the-earth peasant (Quinn) trying to teach the life force to an uptight Englishman (Bates), partly through dance and drink. Two years earlier, Cacoyannis had brought a full-blown classic Greek play to the screen with Electra, the first of his Euripides trilogy starring Papas, which included The Trojan Women (1971) and Iphigenia (1977). The trilogy proved that the ancient myths could still grip modern audiences.
Michael Cacoyannis obituary Michael Cacoyannis. Photograph: Katerina Mavrona/ANA MPA
Despite having made 15 feature films, Cacoyannis – who not only directed, but also wrote, designed costumes, produced and translated – was primarily a man of the theatre, with dozens of plays and opera productions to his name.
Born Mikhalis Kakogiannis in Limassol, Cyprus, into an educated middle-class family, he went to an exclusive Greek school. He then followed his father’s profession by studying law at Gray’s Inn in London. He was called to the bar but, being more interested in theatre, studied acting at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London and directing at the Old Vic School.
During the second world war, he worked for the BBC in the Greek service, first as a news announcer and then as a producer of cultural programmes. Cacoyannis, who spoke impeccable English, began to act on stage in London in the mid-1940s. He played Herod in Oscar Wilde’s Salome and then appeared in several other plays, including Captain Brassbound’s Conversion by George Bernard Shaw. Most notably, he played the lead in Caligula by Albert Camus.
In 1952, he settled in Athens, where he concentrated on directing for the stage and screen. His debut film, Windfall in Athens (1953), was influenced by René Clair’s 1931 musical romance Le Million, about a lost lottery ticket. Although a pleasantly good-natured entertainment, it hardly pointed to the sort of director Cacoyannis would become.
Stella (1955), about a singer whose involvement with a writer and a football hero leads to tragedy, brought out his talent for capturing a sense of preordained doom. It was characterised by effective low-key photography and punctuated by some lively set pieces. Melina Mercouri, in her first film, revealed uninhibited earthiness and an ouzo-soaked singing voice in the role of a free spirit, like Zorba, who will not be caged by convention.
A Girl in Black (1956) starred the beautiful Ellie Lambetti, who had appeared in his first film, this time cast as a young woman persecuted by her neighbours for her widowed mother’s indiscretions. It was the first collaboration between Cacoyannis and Lassally, the German-born British cinematographer, who gave the film, set on the fishing island of Hydra, its keen-edged black-and-white photography.
In A Matter of Dignity (1958), Lambetti played the daughter of a once-wealthy family on the brink of ruin. She tries to save their situation by agreeing to marry a millionaire whose dullness she can barely tolerate. Photographed with graphic clarity by Lassally, it ruthlessly exposed the hollow values of the idle rich, contrasting their life with the tragic plight of the family’s servant.
These three films were attempts to interpret contemporary Greek reality by capturing the rigidity of social relations. City streets or isolated islands provide a stark background to the fates of Cacoyannis’s characters on their quests for happiness.
In the meantime, Cacoyannis was directing plays, including The Trojan Women, which was staged at the Spoleto festival in Italy and in Paris and New York. The Devils, with Anne Bancroft and Jason Robards in 1965, and Lysistrata, starring Mercouri in 1972, were produced on Broadway. He directed Papas on stage in productions of Anthony and Cleopatra, Electra, Iphigenia in Aulis and The Bacchae. Inevitably, he directed the 1983 Broadway revival of the musical version of Zorba, starring Quinn, which ran for almost a year.
Cacoyannis directed operas in many of the world’s great opera houses – except Covent Garden, he once told me rather bitterly. He also felt that he was rather unfairly typecast as a director with Greek connections, hence his productions of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s two Iphigenie operas at the Frankfurt State Opera (1987) and Luigi Cherubini’s Médée in Athens (1995), and even Mourning Becomes Electra, based on the Eugene O’Neill play, composed by Marvin David Levy, at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (1967).
After one of his few cinematic flops – the clumsy anti-nuclear satire The Day the Fish Came Out (1967), shot in Greece – Cacoyannis went into voluntary exile from his homeland for six years during the military junta and the period of oppression, during which he led a rather peripatetic existence. “I was cut off simply by choice, and that changed altogether the rhythm of my creative work,” he said. “I could not live in an oppressive regime. If I had stayed in Greece, I would have ended up in prison because I speak up.”
His next film, after shooting The Trojan Women in Spain in English (in his own translation) with Papas, Katharine Hepburn and Vanessa Redgrave, was his only documentary, Attila 74. Every bit as personal and poetic as his fiction films, it documented a real-life Greek tragedy. In July 1974, the Turkish army invaded Cyprus, displacing thousands of Greeks and causing the deaths of thousands more. Cacoyannis, supported only by a cameraman and a sound engineer, travelled across the stricken island, interviewing political leaders as well as countless victims and refugees.
“If I could handle arms or a gun, I would have. But I am not capable,” he said. “The only weapon I could use is the camera, so I had to go and record the horrors and tragedy that Cyprus was going through.”
His last film was The Cherry Orchard (1998), a rather lugubrious but well-acted version of Chekhov’s play, reuniting him with Bates. In 2004, Cacoyannis established a charitable foundation in his own name, with the aim of supporting, preserving and promoting the arts of theatre and cinema. Cacoyannis was laden with honours, including Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres (France) and the Greek Academy’s highest award for national services.
He is survived by his sisters, Stella and Yannoulla.
Michael Cacoyannis (Mikhalis Kakogiannis), stage and film director; born 11 June 1921; died July 25, 2011