Climbing up the stairs of the Acropolis metro station in Athens, you will find yourself underneath the most symbolic element of the Greek capital: the Parthenon on the holy rock of Acropolis. On the platform wall you see an immense picture: in the background is the Parthenon and in the foreground a blonde woman with a wide smile waving at you. It’s a portrait of Melina Mercouri, nationally depicted as the ‘last Greek goddess’.
Yet, Melina wasn’t mythical. She was an actress and politician. She is world famous for her leading role as a flamboyant prostitute in the 1960 film Never on Sunday, her performances on Broadway, but most favorably for her combative spirit against the military junta of 1967-1974 and her desire for Greece to thrive through its cultural heritage. “If we lose our culture, we are nothing. We are our culture,” she used to say.
Melina Mercouri had a long happy marriage with Hollywood blacklisted director Jules Dassin, whom she first met at the Cannes Film Festival at the early stage of her career – both her acting and her soul took off when they got together. Never on Sunday was their biggest success story with five Oscar nominations and the winner of the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival. Melina and Jules couldn’t have children, but she would joke about it saying that every time she was on stage, she was giving birth to another person.
In 1956, Melina was beginning to tame Hollywood with Michael Cacoyannis‘ Stella winning the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Foreign Language. Her name started appearing next to Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot and Lina Lollobrigida. Melina also had the opportunity to meet with all the prominent men of her time: Bobby Kennedy, Marlon Brando, Salvador Dalí, and Charlie Chaplin. But her encounter with Tennessee Williams in New York in 1960 was the most whimsical. “When I told him that I had played both his heroines in Sweet Bird of Youth and A Streetcar Named Desire, he asked me to see my hands. I showed him my hands, and he commented: ‘you are too young to play Del Lago.'”
In 1967, the Greek Minister of Interior declared Melina an enemy of the state, confiscated her property and deprived her of her Greek citizenship. But exile couldn’t break her ideology, and statements such as “I loathe playing Illya because it is a lie. There is no happiness in Greece today. It is a country in chains” and “If you want your dollars to support a fascist government then go to Greece” brought her under the protection of the FBI in fear of being assassinated. It was with this temperament that she “embodied the Greek ideal of freedom” and raised awareness abroad about the hardship of her country.
To Melina, art and politics went together – it’s the spiritual people of the arts who make revolutions and change the course of things. “I would either have been only a small symbol of the resistance against the junta, or would really dedicate myself to the common good” she said. Melina never allowed her gender to affect her decisiveness, and she also pointed her political actions towards the advancement of women’s rights: “I have never been discriminated against. I have made my life as a woman, and that’s not bad.”
When the junta collapsed in 1974, Melina returned to Greece, and in 1981 she was appointed the Minister of Culture — transforming for eight years a prior marginal ministry into a place of discussion, action and enthusiasm. During her service, Melina launched the institution of Cultural Capitals of Europe, and in 1985, Athens was named the first Cultural Capital. But Melina’s apotheosis was her campaign for the return of the Parthenon Marbles (or the Elgin Marbles as they are known in the UK) from the British Museum – 56 blocks of the frieze and 19 statues or “our soul that we want to have back” as Melina referred to. “I hope to see the Marbles return to Athens before I die. But if that happens later, I will be reborn,” she said.
About her autobiography I Was Born Greek, the American writer Rex Reed wrote: “Years from now, when we’re all dead and gone, they’ll still be talking about Melina Mercouri. They’ll talk because, in an age full of plastic people, she was the real thing.”
Maria Amalia Mercouri – the woman who was known even to the New York taxi drivers as our Melina – died on March 6, 1994 from lung cancer, and 300,000 people regardless of political allegiance escorted her flag-draped coffin to her grave applauding and calling: “Melina Melina our Melina.”
“I think that only if you are a genius you can stand loneliness. I am in need of people and the biggest compliment I receive is when I hear people call me Melina, when they make me feel I belong to everyone,” she once said.
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