He brought Greek cinema to international attention, portrayed Greece through black-and-white frames and transported Euripides, Nikos Kazantzakis and Chekhov to the silver screen.
He has directed operas and Greek tragedies, not to mention Shakespeare and works by contemporary playwrights in major theaters around the world, and has encountered leading personalities from the fields of politics, theater and the film industry.
Armed with the Greekness he carries inside, “a virtue,” as he puts it, Michael Cacoyannis, 88, was born in Cyprus before living in the major capitals of the world. Throughout his life he has met with a string of major personalities and leaders, ranging from President Kennedy and George Orwell to Aristotle Onassis and Maria Callas.
There have been plenty of stars and living legends, some he was taken with, others less so; conductor Zubin Mehta, for instance, belongs to the latter category.
Cacoyannis recalls Jack Nicholson’s penchant for shocking Jackie Kennedy-Onassis, who, in turn, was always impressed by people with big money; his admiration for Katharine Hepburn, the ideal “Hecuba;” Anthony Quinn’s indiscretions and the frenzied love story between Greek actors Elli Lambeti and Dimitris Horn.
All this and more is presented in “Michalis Kakoyiannis: Se proto plano” (Michael Cacoyannis: Close-up), a biography penned by journalist Christos Siafkos, published in Greek by Psychogios editions.
The book, launched at the Michael Cacoyannis Foundation last week, traces the lifetime experiences of a man who, since the age of 19, when he got a job at the BBC’s Greek Service, has been coming face to face with leading personalities of our time.
In the biography, the director talks about his desire to combine quality with the commercial aspect in his work: “I filmed tragedy and sold a lot of tickets, directed Shakespeare, Chekhov and operas that were always successful at the box office, collaborated with the creme de la creme of Greek and foreign actors. I never betrayed the stage or the set and I was rewarded for this.”
Truth be told, Cacoyannis is credited with constructing Greek cinema’s legends as well as being a women’s director: working with Lambeti, whom he adored, as well as Melina Mercouri and Irene Papas.
In the book, he remembers breaking some of the moral codes of his time, falling in love and being loved in return, though he admits, loving his work above all.
The director talks candidly about his early years on Cyprus, his father (a well-known criminal attorney who wished to see his son follow in his steps and not become an artist), his siblings, his childhood escapades, studying law in London during World War II, working for the BBC’s Greek Service and joining a theater group as a young actor.
He also talks about meeting George Orwell, hanging out with Greek literati, amoung them Nanos Valaoritis and Kazantzakis, but also Laurence Olivier – who was drunk the first time they met – followed by Lawrence Durrell and a string of Greek intellectuals: Angelos Sikelianos, Nikos Engonopoulos and Yannis Tsarouchis.
Cacoyannis also shares on-the-set details from a number of films, including “Windfall in Athens,” “Stella,” “A Matter of Dignity” and “Zorba the Greek.”
Reprinted from the English edition of The Kathimerini