MICHAEL CACOYANNIS DIED
Michael Cacoyannis, the Greek filmmaker whose art-house films and adaptations of Euripides for stage and screen were critically acclaimed, but who was best known as the director of the 1964 Hollywood hit “Zorba the Greek,” died on Monday, July 25, in Athens. He was 89.
His death was confirmed by the Michael Cacoyannis Foundation, an institution for the performing arts he founded in 2003.
Mr. Cacoyannis’s early work brought a new level of respect to Greek filmmaking in the 1950s, when postwar European cinema was dominated by the Italians and French. It also gave exposure to some of Greece’s finest performers. His 1955 film, “Stella,” which won the Golden Globe as best foreign film, featured Melina Mercouri in her first movie role. Irene Papas would appear in many of his productions.
But “Zorba”, his eighth film, with the brilliant music by Mikis Theodorakis, created a cultural phenomenon that transcended filmmaking.
Anthony Quinn’s barefooted, dancing, woman-loving Zorba became a symbol of Greek vitality that boosted Greek tourism for decades. For better and worse, it also stamped the Greeks as people with a knack for living for the moment, a characterization that has haunted them during the country’s national debt crisis.
The film won three Academy Awards. But although nominated for best director and best film, Mr. Cacoyannis and “Zorba” lost out to George Cukor’s adaptation of “My Fair Lady.”
Mr. Cacoyannis discovered theater while he was a student in London, where his well-off family sent him to study law before the start of World War II. He received a law degree, but never practiced. Instead, he enrolled in acting classes and appeared in stage roles before going to Greece in 1953 to make films.
His first four films were well received on the international art-house circuit: “Windfall in Athens” (1954), “Stella” (1955), “A Girl in Black” (1956) and “A Matter of Dignity” (1958).
“Electra” (1962), which made Ms. Papas a star, was called one of the 10 best films of the year by Bosley Crowther, the film critic of The New York Times.
A devotion to classical Greek drama prompted Mr. Cacoyannis to film and stage a number of plays by Euripides and Aristophanes, beginning in 1963 with a stage production in New York of “The Trojan Women,” Euripides’ antiwar play. During tryouts Mr. Cacoyannis was said to have despaired at some of the candidates as he tried to convey to them the depth of the tragedy.
“Imagine that your president has just been assassinated, and his son is being dragged off to be killed,” he suggested. The cast in place, rehearsals began on Nov. 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was shot. The production ran for 600 performances before closing in May 1965.
Mihalis Kakogiannis was born on June 11, 1922, in Limassol, Cyprus. (He later adopted a phonetically simpler spelling of his last name.) He was one four children. His father, Panayotis, a lawyer and member of the island’s legislative and executive councils, was knighted by the British government in 1936.
After his first stay in London, from 1939 to 1953, he returned there from 1967 to 1974, when Greece was under a military-backed dictatorship.
The popular success of “Zorba” was never repeated. One should nevertheless not forget the 1971/2 film version of “The Trojan Women,” with Katharine Hepburn, Vanessa Redgrave and Irene Papas, and the 1977 film version of "Iphigenia", third part of Cacoyannis' "Greek trilogy", all three movies featuring a score by Theodorakis.
Cacoyannis remained active as a director of plays and opera in New York and in Europe. Among his many operatic productions were Puccini’s “Bohème” in New York (1972), Mozart’s “Clemenza di Tito” at Aix-en-Provence, France (1988), and Cherubini’s “Medea” in Athens (1995).
Mr. Cacoyannis is survived by a sister, Giannoula.
He told interviewers late in his life that bringing classical Greek drama to the English-speaking stage and screen was among his most satisfying work, and always a source of inspiration.
“I believe all the Greek plays are very up to date,” he said. “They go straight to the roots.”
Theodorakis on Cacoyannis