Melina Mercouri exhibition at Capital of Culture Elefsina
Memories of a much-loved actress, activist and politician
The exhibition will stand in the Old Oil Mill Factory until April 23, and showcases a strong and passionate woman equally at home as a skilled actress on stage and in film, a resolute champion of democracy and a tireless politician. Visitors see vintage posters and photographs of scenes from some of her famous films, her appearances at award ceremonies, and with Greek and world figures such as Pope John Paul II, Queen Elizabeth II, Salvador Dali, Indira Gandhi, Arthur Miller, Rudolf Nureyev, Omar Sharif, Ava Gardner and Catherine Deneuve.
Other memorabilia include the Greek flag from her coffin, her passport, death certificate, covers from newspapers and periodicals, decorations she was awarded, original costumes used in theatre productions and correspondence with prominent figures. A highlight is her dressing table complete with personal effects (Chanel No 5 was a favoured perfume).
On display is the life’s work of the longest-serving and first female Greek Minister of Culture to date, from 1981-89 and 1993 until her death in 1994, in all Pan Hellenic Socialist Party (PASOK) governments. Also the institutional support she secured for the Greek Film Centre, for the establishment of theatres and libraries, her efforts to revive classical Greek culture by increasing government subsidies for the arts, pressing for the preservation of historic monuments and her plan for an archaeological park that revived the dream of connecting Athens’ ancient sites.
Mercouri often made headlines about her obsessive campaign for the repatriation to Greece of the Parthenon Sculptures of the Acropolis. These were bought from the Turkish ruler of Greece in the early 1800s by a British ambassador, Lord Elgin, and later placed in the British Museum. As Minister of Culture, she launched an international competition for the design of the Acropolis Museum that is now a reality and, hopefully, awaits the return of the Sculptures, or the Elgin Marbles as they are also known. But it is a pressure that is slow to achieve and remains today.
Maria Amalia Mercouri was born in Athens on October 18, 1920, the daughter of a longtime Minister of the Interior and the granddaughter of a much-admired, longtime Mayor of Athens, who nicknamed her Melina, meaning honey, the usual colour of her hair in later years.
Her family’s home was open to people from all classes, from scholars to beggars, and meals were shared by up to 100 guests. The wide-ranging contacts and conviviality made her an egalitarian and gave her a liberal education while she resolved to be an actress.
Her parents opposed her acting, so, at 17 she eloped with Panayiotis Characopos, an elderly, wealthy Athenian sympathetic to her study of classical Greek tragedy at the National Theater Academy. After three years of preparation, she went on the Athens stage, won increasingly big parts and was acclaimed in the leading roles in “Mourning Becomes Electra” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.” She also starred on the Paris stage and made her film debut as a doomed cabaret entertainer in “Stella,” a 1955 melodrama directed by Michael Cacoyannis.
A major turning point occurred at the 1956 Cannes International Film Festival, where she met American film director Jules Dassin. He, the son of a New York barber, had fled to Europe after being blacklisted in Hollywood in the 1950s. Though married to others, they forged a deep personal and professional partnership, marrying a decade later, in 1966.
Mercouri was widely praised for her Madonna-prostitute role in the 1957 film “He Who Must Die”, directed by Dassin, and three years later for her hedonistic prostitute in “Never on Sunday,” another with Dassin and for which she won an award as best actress at Cannes and an Academy Award nomination.
Her other films included “The Gypsy and the Gentleman” (1958), “Where the Hot Wind Blows” (1959), “The Victors” (1963), “A Man Could Get Killed” (1966), “Gaily Gaily” (1969) and “Nasty Habits” (1976). Reviewers repeatedly hailed her performances as exuberant, but sometimes extravagant and overwrought.
Coming from a politically prominent family, the actress was an early woman activist and anti-fascist who lost her citizenship and property in 1967 for her aggressive opposition to the Greek colonels’ junta that held power in Athens from 1967-74.
With the return of democracy, she speedily returned home and entered politics, winning election to Parliament in 1977 as a Socialist. Mercouri was appointed Culture Minister in 1981 after the Socialists won a landslide victory. She served in the post until 1989, when her party lost power, and then returned when the PASOK was re-elected.
She represented the working-class district of Piraeus, the port of Athens, which had been the setting for “Never on Sunday.” She kept an office there, meeting with constituents twice a week and discussing problems dealing with government services and women’s issues. “I like myself better now,” she said in 1978. “It feels better to care about other people’s interests, to be involved.”
Of her return from exile, she remarked in 1988: “It became impossible not to interfere in politics. When you are born Greek, you are always in a state of alert about social things.” She was also a pacifist, declaring in her 1971 autobiography, “I Was Born Greek,” that the “quickest way to get disarmament is if John and Jean and Ivan refuse to pay one penny’s tax” for weapons.
The outspoken woman with a flashing smile and feline movements was a favourite of interviewers, who called her a charming, forceful and quotable lady very much in love with life. She spoke French, German and English, as well as Greek.
Asked about feminism, she replied: “I have never been discriminated against. I have made my life as a woman, and that’s not bad.” On love: “All any woman wants is to sleep with a man. It is simple. Life is simple.”
She and Dassin remained married until her death from lung cancer in New York City on March 6, 1994, aged 73 years. A heavy smoker, Mercouri continued the habit after being diagnosed with cancer in 1989. She had a tumour removed from her lung but died at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan.
In 1985, as Minister of Culture, she and her French counterpart Jack Lang had come up with the idea of designating an annual City of Culture to bring Europeans closer together by highlighting their richness and diversity and raising awareness of their common history and values. The concept is still going strong today, with Veszprem-Balaton in Hungary and Timisoara in Romania holding the honour alongside Elefsina in 2023.