Filmmaker Michael Cacoyannis, best known for the 1964 Oscar-nominated drama Zorba the Greek, died of complications from a heart attack and chronic respiratory problems early Monday at an Athens hospital. He was either 89 or 90, depending on the source.
Born in Limassol, Cyprus, on June 11, 1921 or 1922, the young Cacoyannis (Mihalis Kakogiannis in Greek) was sent to London to study Law, but later turned to the theater, studying Drama at the Old Vic and playing various roles on the British stage, including the lead in Albert Camus’ Caligula. Unable to find work in the British film industry, he eventually moved to Athens.
Cacoyannis’ directorial debut took place in the early ’50s, with the breezy comedy Windfall in Athens (1955), whose production lasted two years. International acclaim followed the release of Stella (1955), which was screened in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. This drama about a free-spirited young woman (Melina Mercouri) torn by her attraction to a couple of different men went on to share a Golden Globe with four other foreign releases in the United States.
But Cacoyannis one major international hit was Zorba the Greek, an adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel that starred Anthony Quinn, Alan Bates, and Irene Papas, the lead in Cacoyannis’ Electra (1962). Papas delivered the film’s most concise performance, but it was Quinn’s earthy, larger-than-life Crete resident Alexis Zorba who was singled out for teaching uptight Englishman Bates to loosen up. Audiences the world over loved the film’s life-is-to-be-lived message – to the tune of Mikis Theodorakis’ music – much like they had loved Jules Dassin’s similarly themed Never on Sunday four years earlier. (The music in that one, however, was by Manos Hatzidakis.)
A major box office hit, Zorba the Greek was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor (Quinn). My Fair Lady and its talent – director George Cukor and star Rex Harrison – topped the aforementioned categories, but Lila Kedrova came out victorious as Best Supporting Actress. Additionally, Zorba the Greek won Oscars in the black-and-white categories for art direction (Vassilis Photopoulos) and cinematography (Walter Lassally, with whom the director had worked on the 1956 drama The Girl in Black).
Cacoyannis’ international success didn’t last long; his follow-up film, The Day the Fish Came Out (1967), was a major flop. As a result, the poorly received satirical comedy of errors featuring Tom Courtenay and Candice Bergen all but ended the director’s viability as a box office draw.
Cacoyannis then returned to classical Greek tragedy, working with Papas, Katharine Hepburn, Vanessa Redgrave, and Geneviève Bujold in a 1971 film version of Euripides’ The Trojan Women, which he had directed for the stage the previous decade.
The film was shot in Spain because the director had left Greece following the government takeover by a right-wing military junta. “I was cut off simply by choice, and that changed altogether the rhythm of my creative work,” he was quoted as saying in The Guardian. “I could not live in an oppressive regime. If I had stayed in Greece, I would have ended up in prison because I speak up.”
After that, Cacoyannis directed only five more features, most notably the political documentary Attila 74: The Rape of Cyprus (1974), about the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, and the classical drama Iphigenia (1977), also from a play by Euripides. Starring Irene Papas as Clytemnestra and Tatiana Papamoschou in the title role, Iphigenia fared better than The Trojan Women, earning an Academy Award nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category and a place among the contenders for the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or.
Two later English-language efforts failed to further Cacoyannis’ international reputation: the Chilean-set 1987 political drama Sweet Country, starring Jane Alexander and John Cullum, and the director’s final movie, a 1999 adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard starring Charlotte Rampling and Zorba the Greek‘s Alan Bates.
Among Cacoyannis’ best-known directorial efforts for the stage were The Devils (1965), with Anne Bancroft and Jason Robards, and Lysistrata (1972), with Melina Mercouri. Both were produced on Broadway, and so was the musical Zorba, a major success that allowed Anthony Quinn to reprise his most famous role. Among the various operas Cacoyannis directed was a version of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra, composed by Marvin David Levy and staged at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1967.