The Greek Culture Ministry has dedicated 2020 to Melina Mercouri in order to commemorate 100 years since her birth and 26 years since her death.
Melina Mercouri came from a politically prominent family. The most important person in her early life was her grandfather Spyros Mercouris, who was mayor of Athens for many decades. Her father was a Member of Parliament, while her uncle, George Mercouris, was the founder of the Greek National Socialist Party.
2. On stage
She graduated from the Drama School of the National Theatre of Greece. Her first major role, at the age of 20, was Lavinia, in Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra, but her first big success in the theatre was the role of Blanche Dubois in Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire, at Karolos Koun’s Art Theatre in 1949. She performed in Athens and Paris, where she met Jean Cocteau, Jean-Paul Sartre, Colette, and Francoise Sagan. In 1953 she received the Marika Kotopouli Award honouring Greek actors.
3. On celluloid
Her first cinema role was as the leading actress in Michael Cacoyannis’ Stella (1955). The film received special praise at the Cannes Film Festival in 1956, where Melina Merkouri met American filmmaker Jules Dassin with whom she would share her life and career. However it was the role of Illya in the Academy Award-nominated Never on Sunday (1960), as well as the stage rendition of the movie in New York, that gave Melina Mercouri an international reputation. For her part in the movie, she received the best actress prize in Cannes.
When the coup d’état of 21 April, 1967 took place, Mercouri was abroad, in Broadway, performing in Illya Darling. When informed of developments in Greece, she pleaded through American media, “Please don’t go to my country.” A permanent headache to the regime, she denounced them in interviews, held concerts, hunger strikes and other activities to draw attention to the Greek dictatorship. As a result, she was deprived of her Greek citizenship, passport and had her property confiscated.
5. Proud Greek
With her temperament, Melina Mercouri embodied the Greek ideal of freedom. She made the historic statement, “I was born Greek and I will die Greek. Patakos was born a fascist and will die a fascist”.
6. The politician
After the fall of the dictatorship and the restoration of democracy in July 1974, Melina Mercouri settled in Greece where she continued her political activity with the Pan Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) to which she was a founding member, whilst actively involved in the women’s movement, without of course abandoning her career as an actress. Mercouri was elected as an MP in 1977 and again in 1981, when PASOK swept into power in 1981, she was appointed Minister of Council, a post she held until 1989 and again from 1993 until her death in 1994.
7. Cultural Diplomacy
Melina Mercouri was the first woman to head the Greek Ministry of Culture and one of her tasks was to spearhead the drive for the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece. Her commitment to this goal was lined out in her declaration: “I hope to see the Marbles back to Athens before I die. But if they come later, I will be reborn”. At the same time, she also focused on the restoration of the Acropolis monuments and held an international competition for the design of the New Acropolis Museum. She also established the institution of the Cultural Capitals of Europe, with Athens as the first Capital in 1985.
8. Her death
Melina Mercouri died of complications following lung cancer on 6 March, 1994, at New York’s Memorial Hospital. She received a state funeral on 10 March 1994.
9. Athens Metro
The Athens metro station features a giant poster of Melina Mercouri, honoured for her active role in pursuing the Parthenon Marbles.
The Greek Culture Ministry will mark 100 years since the birth of Melina Mercouri on 18 October 1920 by dedicating 2020 to the internationally-acclaimed and much-loved Greek actress, activist, and former culture minister.
- Adapted from the Greek News Agenda.