Sunday, May 16, 2010

Actress Files: Melina Mercouri

On a Sunday, no less.
And with a fond tip of the hat to regular commenter James T!

Melina Mercouri, Never on Sunday
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1960 Best Actress Oscar to Elizabeth Taylor for BUtterfield 8)

Why I Waited: No good reason, except once I realized how many Raintrees and Nun's Storys I had before me at a certain point, I realized I wanted to save some shorter, lighter fare as relief along the way.

The Performance: I admitted yesterday in profiling one of Melina Mercouri's sister nominees to having a weak spot for emotionally complex mothers in clean, family-skewing movies. I suppose I should also admit that chipper, sweet-souled prostitutes probably start at something like a prove-it-to-me disadvantage, although I'm more dubious about their films, insofar as they're leaning yet again on this clichéd figure, than I am hostile to the efforts of the actress, who can at least hope to put a fresh or eccentric spin on a well-worn type. Coming so shortly after my screenings of Irma La Douce and Cinderella Liberty, I felt as though the history of this category must be even more overrun with streetwalking women than I had realized. As it turns out, I count fewer than 20, and among that crowd, Mercouri's Ilya, the happy hooker of Piraeus, is without a doubt the most cheerful. She's such an avatar of undiluted exuberance that we meet her, at the outset of Never on Sunday (aka Pote tin Kyriaki), sprinting merrily through a shipyard and diving into the ocean, rejoicing in the pure pleasures of water, body, sun, and open air. The local laborers see Ilya as herself a paragon of nature, more or less equivalent to those other four, and they cannot resist diving in after her, splashing about: they know Vitality when they see it. We realize inside of five minutes that we aren't just dealing with a bright, bouncing prostitute but with a Zorbaesque embodiment of the life force. The trajectory and tone of the rest of the movie become eminently clear, though the weather forecast for my own mood swiftly clouded over.

To be sure, Never on Sunday is more than aware of this hoary characterization, if you'll forgive the homonym. The plot concerns the naïve, bumbling efforts of an American scholar named Homer Thrace to visit Greece in search of some living truth. On the one hand, his buffoonish plan entails a dopey but sunny conviction that if the spark of humanity's best still burns anywhere, it must be in Greece. This hunch provokes all kinds of rhapsodic but obviously patronizing remarks: "for me she's not a woman, she's an idea," etc. More cynically, or more overtly cynically, Homer also feels that the world has booked its own passage in the proverbial handbasket, and to find out why this is so and whether the journey is reversible, he alights in Piraeus looking for signs of how, when, or why his Attic ideals of civilization came to ruin. I was less clear, I think because the film wants things both ways, whether a) Homer believes that if he can restore even one Greek individual to his own standard of refinement, then metonymic proof will be served that the rest of our fallen world must also be salvageable, or b) that by finding out precisely what killed the dream of Athenian democracy and Greek perfection, he can help steer the modern world away from a properly diagnosed error, even if it's altogether too late to do anything for Greece.

Watching Never on Sunday today carries some cross-generational charge, as that bankrupted nation is paying such public penance (some of it unfairly) for the spendthrift and pound-foolishness of the whole Western economy. Never on Sunday, which stars its own writer-director Jules Dassin as Homer, the learned idiot, waffles between making fun of the American's high-handedness, or chuckling at the cartoonishly indomitable Ilya, or condescendingly grinning at a country that Dassin still feels comfortable, in 1960, portraying as a second-world nation that's less in touch with its illustrious past than the hapless first-world tourist is, and too blithely content with its primitivity to realize just how backward it really is. Quite cheeky of a Russian-Jewish American filmmaker born in Connecticut to sail off to a distant shore and express such a fusion of smugness and affection, while unmistakably cleaving to the hope that if he plays Homer as a deluded but benign joke, the frivolity of Never on Sunday will amply compensate for its arrogance and proud hollowness. Dassin's acting brings little to the table, but at least as director, he achieves a breezy variation on street realism, New Wave-lite montage, and a steady velocity of energy, so that Never on Sunday passes muster as a modest dessert of empty but tasty calories.

Mercouri, Dassin's lover and eventual wife, and his pivotal ally in bringing off the picture, has an enormous, toothy, barely inhibited smile that brings to mind an even more famous veteran of an onscreen hooker-Barbie tour of duty. If the movie asks anything in the way of psychological shading, and I'm not sure it does, Mercouri isn't having it, or offering it. She can't not know what an effective stooge of a character she's playing, and places all of her eggs in the basket of having such a manifestly great time inhabiting the role that the audience can't resist going along with her. And so she cackles constantly, all the way from her belly, at the absurdity of herself, the absurdity of other people, the wonder of other people, the wonder of herself, the happiness of everything. She climbs off a street trolley, encounters a street musician playing percussion for chump change, and she dances, snaps her fingers, and praises him for having the most enviable life in the world. She has huge, lewd-clown facial features and a body as slim as a wasp's wait, such that she looks a little like Monica Vitti's starved but utterly untormented sister, or Anouk Aimée as painted by Georges Braque. She cuts such an improbable figure, with such a scratchy and high-pitched speaking voice, that you can see how she can't help laughing at her own unlikeliness. Beyond this open-throated laughter, though, she does possess at least two additional expressions in her arsenal, one of them the fainter, far-off grin she uses when she sings to herself or passes the time in idle conversation. The other is a sort of blank stare with a patina of ditziness, which is her preferred visage for poking gentle fun at others (when dippy college students ask her about the profound existential griefs of whoredom, she deadpans, "I make up for them sad stories"), or for poking gentle fun at herself. One bravura example arrives when Ilya testifies to her adoration of classical Greek tragedy, though she's such a Pollyanna she admits to rewriting them mentally from her seat in the amphitheater, endowing them all with happy endings that she then shares with her dozens of "special friends." Oedipus, Medea, the saga of the House of Atreus: they all end with hugs and olive branches and the joyful capper, "And then they all go together to the seashore!" Mercouri has a very broad, vaudevillian appeal in several of these scenes, and the natty, economical sheen of the filmmaking makes for attractive packaging of her own rambunctious gusto.

More credit than that, though, I find hard to extend. Aspects of the characterization seem careless on the combined parts of actress and auteur. As precious as it already is for Ilya to insist on her rosy bowdlerizations of Sophocles, et al., it's even odder that Ilya has to arrive to the stage hours before the actual performance, aiming a wide-eyed, unblinking stare at the empty stage, as if she cannot even tell the difference as to when she is or isn't a spectator. The neurotic blockheadedness of Dassin's Homer doesn't make her Ilya any less dim. Her version of spaceyness, like her happiness, is as blunt as pancake makeup, lacking the wit of a Judy Holliday or a Jean Hagen, or even the signs of personality you get from Shirley MacLaine's or Sophia Loren's callgirls and charmed voluptuaries. Where Mercouri's limitations really become evident is in her inability to accumulate a character, beyond the blissful or mopey or irritated or bubble-headed faces she pulls in a given scene. There's simply no consistency in her liking or disliking of Homer; she has a kind of Memento syndrome in which she doesn't seem to remember anything that happened five minutes ago, much less two or three scenes ago. So while she's peerlessly game and sometimes even an ingratiating presence, she's more of a prop for Dassin's exercise in schtick than she is a credible actress. The scenes and story-logic of Never on Sunday are as tenuously linked as episodes of Tom & Jerry: overall personas persist for Homer and Ilya but nothing that's happened between them previously has much bearing on what is happening now.

Not unlike what happened with Marie-Christine Barrault, then, I leave Mercouri's performance feeling a low-level fondness toward the actress but no real enthusiasm for the nomination, despite my initial excitement that Hollywood was willing to look past its familiar stable of stars. I actually prefer Mercouri in a subsequent, splashy outing for Dassin in that comic-heist confection Topkapi, where her lip-licking smile and the mischievous glint in her eye felt like welcome, vitalizing ways to make the character "pop" a bit more on the screen, without necessarily inhering in the script. She has a knack for looking not just like the cat who eat the canary but like the puppy who ate that cat. In Never on Sunday, these reliable but limited personality strokes are precisely what is asked, and they're basically all that's asked, especially since the desultory storytelling neuters any force or depth in Ilya's loud, climactic uprising against Homer, following their pale third-act pantomime as Higgins and Eliza. Granted, so many Oscar nominations and statuettes have been festooned upon noble hand-wringers and histrionic misery-mongers that it's hard to begrudge even a rough-around-the-edges comedienne who charms her way briefly into the AMPAS clubhouse. And, too, there's no question that Mercouri had a blast making this film, and I had a fine, undemanding time watching it. Still, the Oscar nomination for Mercouri, and the two for Dassin, were excessively kind favors for Oscar to bring to their party. Surely a bottle of wine would have sufficed? She's obviously happy with anything.

The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 23 to Go

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Blogger James T said...

Mercouri is a legend here, as an actress, a politician, a woman and a person. She is regarded as a great actress and before I assume this has more to do with her persona, I should watch more performances by her since this is the only one I recall to have seen. I have the feeling she is supposed to be better in dramas.

I don't really remember the movie but I did think she was having a little too much fun with the role and having just seen a couple of clips at youtube, she does seem just OK although I'll never stop considering the scene where she sings "Ta paidia tou Peiraia" to be legendary.

I, like you, didn't think the movie was anything special but just seeing all these names involved genereates, in me, a feeling of awe.

Are you familiar with any other Greek actresses? I highly doubt it since I think Mercouri, Paxinou and Irene Papas are the only ones who were in international productions. Vougiouklaki was our "national star" but Lambeti was considered the best actress.

Thank you so much for the piece, the mention of our deppressing current situation and the honor of including my name :)

10:21 AM, May 16, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@James: I'm very interested to see more Mercouri, especially her legendary perf in Stella for Cacoyannis (or Kakogiannis). I would love to see her Phaedra, too, and I have A Dream of Passion with her and Ellen Burstyn on VHS somewhere, though people are rarely kind about that one.

As for other Greek actresses: I have the same lapse as a lot of other cinephiles in that Theo Angelopoulos is my only modern reference point for Greek cinema, after the era of Costa-Gavras and Cacoyannis and Mercouri and Papas. I will never forget Aliki Georgouli in The Travelling Players/O Thiassos (reviewed here, and I was impressed by Alexandra Aidini in Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow (reviewed here).

I saw a conference paper recently about a Greek female director who has made some huge hit comedies in recent years, but I'm afraid I can't find my notes where I wrote down her name. I'm sure you know who I'm talking about. Is her work worth pursuing? What else do you wish people were seeing from Greece? (Dogtooth just played two nights in a mini-festival in Chicago while I was out of town, but I can't wait to see it when it eventually returns.)

12:16 PM, May 16, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

And I meant to add: so glad you liked the entry (I was wishing I could have been more laudatory of this particular film and performance, though they're certainly fun). And YES, Mercouri is a major figure in leftist politics and Greek cultural preservation, whose reputation in those arenas has certainly traveled over here, if anyone's looking to know. I'm always fascinated by the Mercouris and Redgraves and Glenda Jacksons whose careers become so strongly centered around politics, and not just photo-op, stump-speech politics but real, dangerous, committed stands about urgent issues.

12:19 PM, May 16, 2010  
Blogger James T said...

On one hand I'm moved by the fact that you already knew all that about Mercouri (I had no idea Stella was known outside our borders) but on the other hand I am totally embarrassed because I haven't seen any of Angelopoulos' films. I intend to correct that, starting with Thiassos, which I have been told is his best. I also have to devote some time to Gavras. I think I'll start with Missing.

I'm afraid my cluelessness expands to today's Greek films. I have no idea who that female director is (I don't think you mean Vardalos :p) and it probably isn't Christine Crokos since I think so far she's made only one Greek movie.

I have to admit that I don't really care about Greek comedies these days because they're usually just bad. One recent film people say is really good is Strella which is about the relationship of an ex-prisoner with a transsexual prostitute. No idea about an international release though.

Re: Dogtooth. I saw it recently and I liked it. I posted some thoughts on my blog. Tim R and Guy Lodge liked it even more but you are very unpredictable so I have no idea how you'll react. It's definitely worth a look.

And I did suspect you would be a little afraid I would be disappoined by your reaction to Mercouri's performance so I tried to make clear I was not. I admire Mercouri immensely but I wasn't that fond of that performance and I have managed not to be bothered even by your dismissal of movies or performances I loved. The combination of your kindness and writing skill makes it impossible for me to get annoyed by our disagreements.

I'm glad you gave me the chance to get a little patriotic since I am almost a little ashamed for putting US films and British actresses on the top of "my favorites things" list. :p

1:11 PM, May 16, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@James: You were absolutely clear, and I appreciate that I had permission to be neutral-to-cool on Never on Sunday. I look at a lot of other blogs where commenters seem much less willing for the writer to have her or his own personal reaction, and I so appreciate that the regulars around here are never like that, even when we disagree.

The director I was trying to remember earlier was Olga Malea. Ring a bell?

2:30 PM, May 16, 2010  
Blogger James T said...

Stupid me! I should have known you meant her. She is known for making insightful comedies. I wish I could say great things about her but from the (three, I think) movies of hers that I've seen, let's say that, for me, she has admirable intentions but doesn't really deliver. I thought "interesting" is the most generous word I could use for her films. That's just me, of course, and it's been years since I last saw a film by her.

5:23 PM, May 16, 2010  

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