With Melina Mercouri
The summer of 1974 was a time of joyous celebration in Greece as the seven-year reign of the right-wing military junta ended and political exiles streamed back to their homeland. Popular composer Mikis Theodorakis (Zorba The Greek) was greeted at the airport by the sounds of his own music, which had been banned under the junta. But the warmest welcome— a near riot—went to film star Melina Mercouri who was carried shoulder-high through the streets, showered with kisses and carnations and nearly crushed by well-wishers. To Greeks she had become a symbol of political freedom. During her exile, Mercouri—internationally acclaimed for her role as a prostitute with a heart of gold in Never On Sunday—was stripped of her citizenship and property because of her relentless criticism of the junta.
Daughter of a onetime Member of Parliament, granddaughter of a longtime mayor of Athens, it was fitting that she, too, should enter politics. She lost one election shortly after her return but she ran again last November, as a member of the Panhellenic Socialist Party (PASOK)this time with resounding success, PASOK became the official opposition and Mercouri is a member of its "counter ministry" for external affairs. She represents the port city of Piraeus—the workingclass setting for Never On Sunday— but lives with her husband, director Jules Dassin, in the posh Kolonaki district of Athens. She was interviewed for Maclean’s by Greek actor and journalist Michael Theodoridis.
Maclean’s: In the last election, you received more votes than any other representative of your party.
Mercouri: Yes, on the average I finished second in the whole country.
Maclean’s': Did women vote for you in greater proportion than men?
Mercouri: No. In the previous election, 60% of my votes came from women, but in this election the percentage changed, and it was almost 50/50. On the night of the election I said that the women had elected me. After that, I got dozens of phone calls from male voters telling me, “What are you talking about, Melina? We voted for you, too!” Maclean’s: As an actress and intellectual, what is your relationship with the people who elected you, the people of Piraeus, the poorest area of Greece?
Mercouri: Pm not an intellectual. That doesn’t mean that in the theatre I didn’t study, didn’t work hard. But for me, the
My grandfather taught us that money was gained in dirty ways, stolen from the people
term “intellectual” has something elitist about it, something I don’t find in myself. Everything I learned in my life, the deepest things, I got from people, from dialogue. Maclean’s: Why did the working class elect you?
Mercouri: I don’t feel I was ever far from those people. I come from a political background, there was something of a “people’s” atmosphere in my house. My grandfather was a man who derived his power from the people.
Maclean’s: He was mayor of Athens.
Mercouri: Yes, for 30 years. My house was always a political house. My grandfather had a personal party. He had a great deal of political power for that time, some 50 years ago.
Maclean’s: Wasn’t he a political boss of Athens?
Mercouri: For sure. He had so much power that whichever side he supported in an election, liberal or conservative, would win. I’m not saying he was always so progressive, but our house was always open— the worker sat beside the doctor. But we didn’t have money. My grandfather was possibly the only mayor of Athens who didn’t have money. He was a man who used to say, “There are a lot of people who hate money, but no one who hates glory.” He taught us that money was gained in dirty ways, was stolen from the people. From the time I was five years old, there has never been any distance between me
and the people. This morning, I had a call from a mother whose daughter was drowned in the flood (in December). She said, “Melina, please come next Sunday to the commemoration mass. The relatives would appreciate it.” I gave you that example to show that I’m not just Melina Mercouri the actress, the representative. I’m not a goddess, separate from the people. I want to be their friend. I’m not like Mikis Theodorakis who has something unapproachable about him. He’s the great composer, the symbol.
Maclean’s: Theodorakis is considered a symbol by many people on the Greek left. Yet in the previous election he was rejected by the same district that elected you. Now he says he is in self-exile.
Mercouri: I don’t know what statements he makes today or what he will say tomorrow. According to me, he’s not in exile and it’s unfair to say that at a time when everyone is bowing at his feet, while the government is offering him everything, and while he is being honored as no other Greek artist has ever been. Let’s be honest: Mikis never accepted his defeat in the previous election. He talked a lot after his defeat and I think he has many conflicts. He looks at everything in a fog. And besides, he has a lot more ambition than I have. I think I know my limits. But Mikis is obsessed. When he is conducting five bouzoukis, he thinks he’s conducting the New York Philharmonic. Maclean’s: Do you think your American equivalent, a politically radical actress such as Jane Fonda or Shirley Maclaine, could be elected in a very poor American district? Mercouri: I’m going to say something that will shock Julie (Dassin). I think that a poor area in the United States could send Elizabeth Taylor to the House, but for an entirely different reason: en nom de la Star. But listen, if the movement of the Sixties could have survived and could have created a party, then probably poor areas of the United States would send Jane Fonda to the House.
Dassin: No, no, no. You were talking about stars. You should remember that Ronald Reagan was almost President of the United States.
Maclean’s: But would Jane Fonda be elected?
Mercouri: No, I don’t think so. Because there is no radical party to represent her. Maclean’s: How are you going to represent the interests of women in parliament? In many respects, Greek society is backward... Mercouri: It’s not our fault. We have an especially backward male population that has put women in that position. The Greek man is a macho man and he wants a woman who will accept everything, who will even be proud if her husband is unfaithful to her because it proves his manhood. Women are in such a low position. I’m not even talking about legislation that has never been passed. I’m not talking about the inequality of divorce, which is usually initiated by the man against the woman; and when it is by a woman, the
man rarely pays alimony. And here in Greece, if both parties don’t agree, they have to wait five years for a divorce. But women in every society have their own problems. Take the religious influence, which is connected to abortion. It’s not such a sin for a Greek woman to have an abortion. She goes to a good doctor; it doesn’t matter if it’s legal or illegal. The Greek woman doesn’t have that psycho-
I believe that the greatest revolution of all will come from the United States
logical trauma about having an abortion that an Italian or even an American woman would have.
Maclean’s: Are you going to introduce a bill that would legalize abortion?
Mercouri: Yes, absolutely yes. But there are so many other bills that I believe must pass—equality in work, for instance. It is unthinkable for a man to be paid more than a woman for the same work. Maclean’s: You know the way Greek patriarchal society works. Are you going to fight it?
Mercouri: Yes, but it’s terrible having so many responsibilities—responsibilities disproportionate to my abilities. They are imposing obligations I never asked for. I never said I could change the whole Greek societyjust because I am Melina Mercouri. Fine, I’ll fight, but don’t forget that (Constantine) Karamanlis still has 42% of the deputies (Members of Parliament). We are
going to fight hard, but I really don’t know about the results. It’s only the beginning. Maclean’s: It seems strange now that some years ago, you played the lead role in Cacoyannis’film Stella which critics have called a milestone in the formation of the modern Greek macho image. If y ou were offered that film today, would you do it?
Mercouri: Let me tell you a little story. I was acting in radio at that time. I had very short hair and everybody called me a tomboy. I was doing Anouilh’s Medea. How many Medeas have I played in my life? Anyway, the writer, Jakov Kambanellis was working at the radio station, and he said to me, “Melina, I’m going to write a screenplay about you.” and he wrote Stella. You know, I had a kind of freedom in my movements, in my speech, something that wasn’t so common for a Greek woman 25 years ago. I got the role because of the kind of woman I was. Itwas a film scandal. Even the church denounced me. It was the first Greek film that said “no” to marriage. One of Stella’s lines was: “I prefer to die than to have you lock me up under your terms. No career, no personality, no nothing—you want to castrate me!” She was saying no to female castration, the kind that can happen to a woman when she is married, or involved with a Don Juan. From the time I was a child, I was a kind of rebel. I remember my grandfather telling me, “If only you were a boy,” and I wrote a little song: “Ah, if you were a boy, I would make you the most beautiful prince in the world.” I could see how my mother and her friends were suffering. My mother used to say to me, “Oh Melina, you are going to get revenge for us; you are going to punish them.” I have felt antagonistic toward men since I was very young.
Maclean’s: Did that make you a feminist in the North American sense?
Mercouri: It’s not a matter of feminism. There are men and there are women, but even that distinction became distorted for me. I was a young girl, and the weapon at the time was to be pretty, and I was pretty, and also I was considered tall at that time. I was a naughty girl, antagonistic. I had two attitudes. One was toward other women; they taught us that too, that other women were dangerous. I had a kind of contempt for other women. And if you want to know, this is the one thing we have to struggle against more than anything else in Greece—the hatred women have for each other, the fear that a woman is going to grab our man, steal our husband and leave us pregnant, with two children. You know, it’s always an economic matter, a matter of financial dependence on men. And we come back to the structure of society. So there were two things: a contempt for my sex, and an animosity toward men—“So, bastard, you’ll see what I can do to you.” Maclean’s: It is well known that your husband suffered a great deal under the McCarthy blacklist. Has he influenced you politically?
Mercouri: First of all, when I met him I was
no longer a girl; I was a 30-year-old woman. I was a successful actress in Athens. I had performed in two well received films by Cacoyannis as well as acting on the Paris stage. Dassin at the time was poor, unemployed, with a wife and two children. When he won the grand prize for best director at the Cannes film festival in 1955 (for Rififi), the American actors were afraid to be photographed with him. I was ready, mature enough to meet a man like him. With Dassin, my old life ended; the life of the nightclubs, my belle époque, was over. He educated me. And he didn’t see me only as the beautiful woman I was at the time, but treated me like a comrade. You know, we lived together. He was married, I was married. We decided that if we loved each other we had to see the situation clearly, radically. I have to tell you that Dassin was the first man to disagree deeply with me. He told me, “You are not right. You are not a free woman. You have to live without fear.”
Maclean’s: Was Dassin the one who made you a declared Marxist?
Mercouri: Yes, there’s no doubt. He was the first man who talked to me about Marxism. We spent nights and nights together while he explained the relationship of work to production; what a worker is.
Maclean’s: On the night of the coup d’etat in 1967, when the vice-president of the junta publicly denounced you, you made your famous statement, “I was born a Greek and I’ll die a Greek. He was born a fascist and he’ll die a fascist. ”
Mercouri: I didn’t know English very well at the time and I wasn’t sure how to say it. Maclean’s: Right after that, the junta-appointed chairman of the Greek Actor’s Union, Pandelis Zervos, appeared on TV. Mercouri: (laughing) Yes, they took my license away. (In Greece an actor can’t perform without a license.) They crossed me off as an anarchist, a prostitute, with the signature of that man.
Maclean’s: Today, he is a leading actor in the National Theatre, playing major roles, even though he never played such roles before the junta came to power.
Mercouri: Yes, he got a dispensation. Actually, I ran into him the summer before last at a festival. He came up to me, took my hand and started kissing it in a slavish, apologetic way, saying, “Melina, forgive me ...” I yelled: “Go to hell.”
Maclean’s: There are people who say your party, PASOK, is just another establishment party whose Marxist coloring is merely a facade.
Mercouri: PASOK is an authentic Greek socialist movement. In voting for it, the Greek people voted for socialism, for drastic change.
Maclean’s: How do you, an anti-establishment person, a feminist, feel operating inside an entrenched party?
Mercouri: First of all, the struggle doesn’t stop because you’re an MP. For this reason I asked to be a member of the party’s central
committee. And why are we speaking of an establishment party? Why don’t we speak about the opposition party? So, we shouldn’t have opposition parties? We should let the establishment pass antiworker bills in parliament without any opposition, without any voice against them? So, everyone who sits in parliament should be part of the establishment? I’m a protester, and I’ll remain a protester until the end
Asachild.lfelttwo things: a contempt for my own sex and an animosity toward men
of my life. I have been elected to a democratic parliament to protest through democratic procedures.
Maclean’s: Do you believe in the current parliamentary system, or do you want to change that system?
Mercouri: I am an MP and a member of the central committee of a party which has as its goal the attainment of socialism by peaceful means.
Maclean’s: Do you take your job seriously, or do you think you are playing another role in the theatre?
Mercouri: Actually, the theatre is a very serious thing. And because as an actress I’m a professional, and because I have declared that I will try my best to be a good MP, I think I will be that. Theatre and politics, you know, are both collective jobs. Maclean’s: Do you think you are better known in North America as an actress or as a fighter for the freedom of your country? Mercouri: I think people in North America
connect me with Greece. I am happy that through my films, especially Never On Sunday, my name has been linked with my country. I owe that honor to Jules Dassin, a very persecuted American (he directed the film). The American people recognize me and love me as part of Greece. Maclean’s: But you have spoken out against Kissinger, Nixon, Ford—the whole American political establishment.
Mercouri: There was never a non-establishment in power in the United States. Maclean’s: Do you include the Carter administration?
Mercouri: Yes, with a slightly different shading. Anyway, I don’t think Carter is able to offer a solution for such matters as the Aegean. And,the pro-Turkish attitude of the American government is obvious. No, the progressive currents in the United States have never had any power. And when I speak of such currents, I refer to those people we sat in with in the 1960s, those people full of wrath and hope. It was a movement with a fantastic popular base and it was systematically destroyed by Nixon, by Kissinger... I don’t even want to talk of that assassin Kissinger, because he’s already a cliché. But I love the American people, like I love all the peoples of the world. If I learned anything from my years of exile, it was to be less chauvinistic. There was a time when I felt very pro Mother Greece. What I want for the American people is that they get together and organize themselves in a socialist movement because the American people deserve something better than two monolithic parties afflicted with elephantiasis. I believe that the greatest revolution will come from the United States. And something else; the American people should learn how to lose. The world is not a baseball game.
Dassin: I think they did learn how to lose— in Vietnam.
Mercouri: No, Julie, Americans never lived under domination. They don’t know what it’s like to live under Turkish, German, Bulgarian occupation. They don’t know how to appreciate freedom, and how expensive it is.
Dassin: That is your interpretation, but it is a misconception. Do you have any idea of the losses during the American Civil War? Mercouri: That is very far away ... Maclean’s: We’ve talked about your riew life as a politician but neglected your still successful acting career, both on the stage and in film. What play are you rehearsing now? Mercouri: It’s called Café Brecht and it is a potpourri of Brecht’s songs, poems and scenes from his plays.
Maclean’s: What about your new film? Mercouri: I’m acting with Ellen Burstyn in another Medea film that Dassin has written (working title Laura And Brenda). It’s about women, about the rights of women. He has used three dimensions: the actress, the female, and the bourgeois woman. I love the film and I’m happy it was made by a friend. It says “no” to injustice and I believe it relates to all women. <fi