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About Maria Amalia (Melina) Mercouri
Melina Mercouri (Greek: Μελίνα Μερκούρη), born Maria Amalia Mercouri (Greek: Μαρία Αμαλία Μερκούρη) (October 18, 1920 – March 6, 1994), was a Greek actress, singer and politician. She is considered one of the greatest female figures of modern era in Greece, being an actress of international fame and a politician who left her mark on Greek culture.
As an actress she made her film debut in Stella (1955) and met international success with her performances in films such as Never on Sunday, Phaedra, Topkapi and Promise at Dawn. She won the award for Best Actress at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, and apart from her Academy Awards nomination, she was also nominated for three Golden Globe Awards and two BAFTA Awards.
A political activist during the Greek military junta of 1967–1974, she became a member of the Hellenic Parliament in 1977 and the first female Minister for Culture of Greece in 1981. Mercouri was the person who, in 1983, conceived and proposed the programme of the European Capital of Culture, which has been established by the European Union since 1985. She was also a strong advocate for the return of the Elgin Marbles, that originally belonged to the Parthenon and are now displayed in the British Museum, to Athens.
Maria Amalia Mercouri was born in Athens, Greece, the daughter of Stamatis Mercouris, who was a deputy of the Democratic Socialist Party of Greece and former Minister for Public Order and Public Works of Greece. Spyridon Mercouris, her grandfather, was one of the most successful Mayors of Athens and played a major role in her early life. When she completed her secondary education, she was admitted to the National Theatre's Drama School after reciting a poem by Kostas Karyotakis. Dimitris Rontiris was her teacher and she graduated in 1944. At the age of twenty-one, she married her first husband, Panos Harokopos, a wealthy landowner. They divorced in 1962.
Early years on stage
After her graduation, Mercouri joined the National Theatre of Greece and played the role of Electra in Eugene O'Neill's play Mourning Becomes Electra in 1945. Four years later, she had her first major success in the theatre playing Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, written by Tennessee Williams and staged by Karolos Koun's Art Theatre. Until 1950, she also worked in the same theatre in other plays by Aldous Huxley, Arthur Miller, Philip Jordan and André Roussin. She then moved to Paris, where she appeared in boulevard plays by Jacques Deval and Marcel Achard, and met famous French playwrights and novelists such as Jean Cocteau, Jean-Paul Sartre, Colette and Françoise Sagan. In 1953, she received the Marika Kotopouli Prize and returned to Greece two years later. At the Kotopouli-Rex Theatre, Mercouri starred in plays like Macbeth by William Shakespeare and L'Alouette by Jean Anouilh.
Her first movie was the Greek language film Stella (1955), directed by Michael Cacoyannis, the director of Zorba the Greek. The film received special praise at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival, where she met for first time the American film director Jules Dassin, with whom she would share her life ( They got married in 1966) and career. As a start, the next year she starred in the latter's He Who Must Die and other Dassin's film followed featuring Melina Mercouri, such as The Law (1959). She became well-known to international audiences when she starred in Never on Sunday (1960), in which Dassin was the director and co-star. For this film, Mercouri received the Best Actress Award at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress and the BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
After her first major international success, she went on to star in Phaedra (1962), for which she was nominated again for the BAFTA Award and the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in Motion Picture Drama. The recognition of her acting talent did not stop though, as her role in Topkapi (1964) granted her one more nomination, this time for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in Motion Picture Musical or Comedy. Mercouri worked with other famous directors as well, such as Joseph Losey, Vittorio De Sica, Ronald Neame, Carl Foreman, Norman Jewison, and starred in films like Spanish language The Uninhibited by Juan Antonio Bardem. Alongside, she continued her stage career and a brilliant performance came in the Greek production of Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth (1960), under the direction of Karolos Koun. In 1967, she played the leading role in Illya Darling at Broadway, for which she was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical, while her performance in Promise at Dawn (1970) gave her another Golden Globe Award nomination.
Melina Mercouri concentrated on her stage career for the following years, playing in the Greek productions of The Threepenny Opera and, for a second time, Sweet Bird of Youth, in addition to the ancient Greek tragedies Medea and Oresteia. She retired from film acting in 1978, when she played in her last film, A Dream of Passion, directed by her husband Jules Dassin. Her last performance on stage was in the opera Pylades at the Athens Concert Hall in 1992, portraying Clytemnestra.
Year Film Role Notes
1955 Stella Stella
1957 He Who Must Die Katerina
1958 The Gypsy and the Gentleman Belle
1959 The Law Donna Lucrezia
1960 Never on Sunday Ilya Cannes Film Festival Best Actress Award
Nominated — Academy Award for Best Actress
Nominated — BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Actress
1961 Long Live Henry IV... Long Live Love Marie de Médicis
The Last Judgement Foreign lady
1962 Phaedra Phaedra Nominated — BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Actress
Nominated — Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama
1963 The Victors Magda
1964 Topkapi Elizabeth Lipp Nominated — Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy
1965 The Uninhibited Jenny
1966 A Man Could Get Killed Aurora
10:30 P.M. Summer Maria
1969 Gaily, Gaily Lil
1970 Promise at Dawn Nina Kacew Nominated — Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama
1974 The Rehearsal Belle
1975 Once Is Not Enough Karla
1977 Nasty Habits Sister Gertrude
1978 A Dream of Passion Maya
1981 Gynaikes stin exoria Narrator
One of her first songs was by Manos Hadjidakis and Nikos Gatsos. It was titled Hartino to Fengaraki and was a part of the Greek production of A Streetcar Named Desire in 1949, in which she starred as Blanche DuBois. The first official recording of this, now-legendary song was made by Nana Mouskouri in 1960, although the company Sirius, created by Manos Hadjidakis, issued in 2004 a recording that Melina made for French TV during the 1960s. Her recordings 'Athene ma Ville' and 'Melinaki' were popular in France. Her recording of 'Feggari mou, Agapi mou (Phaedra)' was quite popular and was later covered by Haris Alexiou.
Activism against the Greek Junta
Mercouri was always very actively involved in many aspects of social and political life, in addition to her impressive career as a film and stage actress. At the time of the coup d'état in Greece by a group of colonels of the Greek military in April 21, 1967, she was in the United States, playing in Illya Darling. She immediately joined the struggle against the Greek Military Junta and started an international campaign, travelling all over the world to inform the public and contribute to the isolation and fall of the colonels. As a result, the dictatorial regime revoked her Greek citizenship and confiscated her property. When her citizenship was taken away, she said: "I was born a Greek and I will die a Greek. Mr. Pattakos was born a fascist and he will die a fascist", a phrase which represented her love of Greece and democracy. Moreover, there were terrorist attacks against her and an assassination attempt took place in Genoa, Italy. However, she did not stop her fight against the dictatorship with speeches, interviews, concerts and marches. During those years she recorded four records in France, one with Greek lyrics and the other three with French lyrics, all created by Greek musicians. They were highly popular, and since being remastered and reissued, are still critically acclaimed. Her husky and unusual voice made her the iconic performer of some great Greek songs which are known as classics and are performed by hundreds of singers.
Involvement in politics
After the fall of the Junta and during the metapolitefsi in 1974, Mercouri settled in Greece and was one of the founding members of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), a centre-left political party. She was a member of the party's Central Committee and a rapporteur for the Culture Section, while being involved in the women's movement as well. In the Greek legislative elections of 1974, she was a PASOK candidate in the Piraeus B constituency, but the 7,500 votes were not enough to secure a seat for her in the Hellenic Parliament (she needed 33 more votes), something that came true in the elections of 1977, when she obtained the highest number of votes in the whole of Greece.
Minister for Culture: 1981–1989
Bust of Melina Mercouri in Athens
When PASOK won the elections of 1981, Melina Mercouri was appointed Minister for Culture of Greece, being the first female in that post. She would serve in that position for two terms until 1989, when PASOK lost the elections and New Democracy formed a cabinet. As Minister for Culture, Mercouri took advantage of her fame abroad and got in contact with great European leaders in order to promote Greece. She strongly advocated the return to Athens of the Parthenon Marbles, that were removed from Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis of Athens by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, and are now part of the British Museum collection in London. In anticipation of the return of the marbles, she held an international competition for the construction of the New Acropolis Museum, designated to display them and finally established in 2008.
One of her greatest achievements was the establishment of the institution of the European Capital of Culture within the framework of cultural policy of the European Union, that she had conceived and proposed in 1983, with Athens inaugurating this institution being the first title-holder in 1985, while she was a devoted supporter of the Athens bid to host the Centennial Olympic Games. In 1983, during the first Greek presidency of the Council of the European Union, Mercouri invited the Ministers for Culture of the other nine member states of the European Union at Zappeion, in order to increase the people's cultural awareness, since there was not any reference to cultural questions in the Treaty of Rome, which led to the establishment of formal sessions between the Ministers of Culture of the European Union. During the second presidency of Greece in 1988, she supported the cooperation between Eastern Europe and the European Union, which was finally implemented one year later with the celebration of the Month of Culture in Eastern countries.
Mercouri also commissioned a study for the integration of all the archaelogical sites of Athens so as to create an archaelogical park free from traffic, where residents and visitors could enjoy the history of the city. In order to promote the Greek culture, she introduced free access to museums and archaelogical sites for Greek citizens, organized a series of exhibitions of Greek cultural heritage and modern Greek art worldwide, supported the restoration of buildings of special architectural interest and the completion of the Athens Concert Hall, backed the project of the Museum of Byzantine culture in Thessaloniki, established annual literary pizes, promoted Greek cinema and finally established the municipal theatres and conservatories.
Minister for Culture: 1993–1994
In the legislative elections of November 1989, PASOK lost and Mercouri was elected a member of the Hellenic Parliament and remained a member of the party's Executive Bureau. In 1990, she was a candidate for Mayor of Athens but despite her popularity, she was defeated by Antonis Tritsis in a municipality which traditionally provided New Democracy with strong support. After PASOK's win in the election of 1993, she was back at the Ministry for Culture. Her major goals in this second term in office were: to create a cultural park in the Aegean Sea in order to protect and enhance the environment and civilization of the Aegean Islands, and to link culture with education at all education levels, introducing a system of post-training of teachers.
The grave of Melina Mercouri in the First Cemetery of Athens.
Melina Mercouri died in March 6, 1994, at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York, at the age of 73 from lung cancer. She received a state funeral with Prime Minister's honors at the First Cemetery of Athens in March 10. Thousands of Greeks attended the funeral, a proof of the true love that the nation had for her.
Maria Amalia (Melina) Mercouri's Timeline
October 18, 1920
Athens, Attica, Greece
March 6, 1994
New York, NY, USA
March 10, 1994
Athens, Attica, Greece