Tuesday, May 26

Irene Papas

To tell you the truth, I don't know all that much about her.  In terms of movie-making I don't know much about Greece either but perhaps that's for another posting.  Irene Papas first came into my consciousness in 1956 in a western called Tribute to a Bad Man.  It was supposed to topline Spencer Tracy but ended up starring James Cagney and Papas was his wife.  It was not very good.

I was used to seeing Cagney in films with American blondes like Doris Day and Virginia Mayo so I found this dark-haired, rather sober-looking actress to be an unusual choice for his leading lady.  But she bewitched me and has never let go.  She was so serious... so stoic... so able to bore into me with those dark eyes.  Humor and a smile didn't appear to come easily to her.  It was obvious she didn't suffer fools gladly.  Always all-business, no one could manage the task at hand better than steady, purposeful Papas.  I never disputed she was likely the same off screen as well.

In my youth I saw her characters as authority figures.  Maybe she scared me a little.  I remember thinking of her as Greece's answer to Italy's Anna Magnani, although not that rough.  And Magnani definitely scared me.  Papas was a bit warmer.  Although not a great beauty, at least by Hollywood standards, she was what one might call a handsome woman.  She had a formidable integrity that called out to audiences.  I was determined to keep an eye out for her films.  I did catch all of her American films, but in the scheme of things, they were small in number.  She has always remained a European actress so I've not been able to easily stay up with all her work.  Pity.

Prior to my just reviewing her work, I knew she had made three or four films with Anthony Quinn but I had no clue the number had risen to seven.  If you don't know who she is and you've seen a number of Quinn films, then it's likely you caught her.  One thing, though, is you could never catch her acting.  She's way too good for that.

Papas was born in 1926 Chiliomodion, outside of Corynth, Greece.  Her real name was Eirini Lelékou, the daughter of a schoolteacher-mother and a father who taught classical drama.  She enrolled in dramatic school at age 12.  She spent her first professional years as a singer-dancer in stage productions and later sang on the radio.  By the time she started in movies, she had been trained in Athens in the classics of Greece's golden age.

Before she arrived in California to film Tribute to a Bad Man, she had appeared in nine films, mainly in Greece, but all European.  She was discovered in her homeland by American director Elia Kazan.  How interesting that she never worked for him.  There was an opulence to making American films that she hadn't encountered before and she felt there was much to recommend.  She was none too pleased that she was asked to pose for some cheesecake photos and she formed an early opinion about the commercialism of American films.  One can only imagine how she feels about the American franchises of today.  She may not have made the salary at home that she did here but she found the prestigious Greek tragedies that she became known for to have a lot more value.  One always assumed Papas did it for the artistry.

As Maria in "The Guns of Navarone"

It would be six years before she would appear in another American-produced film but it was one that provided her with world-wide recognition... The Guns of Navarone (1961).  She was impressive indeed as the tough guerilla fighter, Maria.  She joins her brother (played by American James Darren) as part of a group whose mission it is to destroy mighty German guns in a mountain fortress overlooking the sea.  When a traitor is discovered within the group, it is Maria who pulls the trigger.  She and Anthony Quinn were the only characters to enjoy a romance.

In 1961 and 1962 she appeared to great acclaim in the classical title roles of Antigone and Electra.  I don't often mention movies in these profiles that I haven't seen but these films are two of the ones for which Papas is best-remembered.  They were both extremely important to her career.

Disney lured her but allowed her to stay in Greece for the filming of the Hayley Mills suspense-drama, 1962s The Moon-Spinners.  She was a good woman, a friend to the heroine, who ran a small hotel and café with her evil brother, Eli Wallach. Two years later she was on Crete making Zorba the Greek with Quinn in his signature role.  As the widow who comes across the energetic Greek and his uptight British pal, she is a total delight, as is the entire cast.  It was her second film to increase her international standing.

She returned to Hollywood in 1968 for The Brotherhood, a Mafia story in which she played the wife of Kirk Douglas.  I found it enjoyably routine but it didn't fare so well at the box office. 

She had a productive and satisfying year in 1969 with three damned good films.  In the political thriller, Z, she played the widow of a slain, democratic politician.  Though top-billed, she and Yves Montand have small roles in a film that received many honors.  She was back with Quinn in A Dream of Kings, a sweet little overlooked film about a Greek-American who wants to take his young dying son to Greece.  Papas portrayed his loving but critical wife who does not like that Quinn is having an affair with Inger Stevens.  That was so in real life as well.  Stevens killed herself the following year.

One of those commercial movies came along in the name of Anne of the Thousand Days and it was a goodie.  As Henry VIII, I found  Richard Burton superbly well-cast, perhaps his best work.  Geneviève Bujold more than equaled him as Anne Boleyn, his second, brief wife.  The first, Catherine of Aragon, was also a magnificent role for Papas.


In 1971, Papas and Bujold were joined by Vanessa Redgrave and Katharine Hepburn for The Trojan Women.  I would like to give it another once-over but I could hardly sit through it at the time.  I know it didn't enjoy any true measure of popularity in the States.  Papas and Hepburn became solid friends and the Great Kate found the great Greek to be one of the best actresses she had ever encountered.

After a handful more European films I have never heard of, in 1978 she appeared in The Message, the 6th century story about the birth of Islam.  In 1979 she made Bloodline, which I recall liking but it was a certifiable flop despite bringing Audrey Hepburn back to the screen after an absence.  A murder mystery always gets my attention and so does a cast that included Ben Gazzara, Romy Schneider, James Mason, Omar Sharif and Beatrice Straight.

Lion of the Desert (1981) was perhaps Papas' last great international film.  It was the story of Italian General Rodolfo Graziani who was commanded by Mussolini to fight in the colonial war in Libya.  Papas' role wasn't as large as the male members of the cast including Oliver Reed, Rod Steiger, Raf Vallone, John Gielgud and of course Quinn.

The last time I saw her in a film was in 1987, High Season.  A romantic-comedy concerning a plight to increase tourism on the Isle of Rhodes, it starred Jacqueline Bisset, James Fox, Kenneth Branagh and Robert Stephens.  Papas, as one of the locals, enjoyed a nice comedy turn.  It was neither a hit nor a miss but I loved this cast.

In 2002 she was named Europe's Woman, an honor given to women who have offered much to European civilization.  Italian director Federico Fellini was said to have greatly admired her work.  Over the years, when not busy acting, she enjoyed time as a singer, particularly with Greek Orthodox songs.

She was married to a Greek actor briefly in the forties.  She has no children.  Today Irene Papas is retired and enjoys homes in Greece, Italy and Spain.

Next posting:
Movie review


1 comment:

  1. Try her last picture, "A Talking Picture," made by the Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira, who was around 95 when he made the film. In that film, she sings a beautiful Greek folk tune a cappella and has table talk with Stefania Sandrelli, Catherine Deneuve, and John Malkovich, each talking their native tongues.