Oscar Actors: Mercouri, Melina–Background, Career, Awards

Research in Progress (Jan 24, 2021)
Melina Mercouri Career Summary:

Occupational Inheritance:

Nationality: Greek

Social Class: Upper Middle; father politician





Teacher/Inspirational Figure:

Radio Debut:

TV Debut:

Stage Debut: 1945; 1949 (T. Williams)

Broadway Debut:

Film Debut: Stella, 1955, aged 35

Breakthrough Role:

Oscar Role: Never on Sunday, 1960; aged 40

Other Noms: 1

Other Awards: Cannes Fest

Frequent Collaborator: Jules Dassin

Screen Image: character actor

Last Film: 1981; aged 61

Career Output:

Film Career Span:

Marriage: Jules Dassin; career politician


Death: 73

Maria Amalia “Melina” Mercouri (October 18, 1920–March 6, 1994) was a Greek actress, singer, and politician, hailing from famous political family.

She received an Oscar nomination and won a Cannes Film Festival Best Actress Award for her performance in Never on Sunday (1960).

Mercouri was also nominated for three Golden Globes and two BAFTA Awards in her acting career.

As a politician, she was a member of the PASOK and the Hellenic Parliament. In October 1981, Mercouri became the first female Minister of Culture and Sports.

Mercouri was born in 1920. Her grandfather Spyridon Mercouris was a long-serving mayor of Athens. Her father Stamatis Mercouris was a former cavalry officer member of the Greek parliament and minister. Her mother, Eirini Lappa came from a wealthy family.

When she completed her secondary education, she attended the National Theatre’s Drama School, graduating in 1944. Mercouri’s first husband was a wealthy landowner, Panos Harokopos; the couple divorced in 1962.

As an actress, Mercouri made her film debut in Stella (1955) and met international success with her performances in Never on Sunday (1960, with future husband Jules Dassin), Phaedra (1962), Topkapi (1964), and Promise at Dawn (1970).

She won the award for Best Actress at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival (which she shared with Jeanne Moreau for her performance in Seven Days…Seven Nights).

She was nominated for an Academy Award, a Tony Award, three Golden Globe Awards, and two BAFTA Awards.

A political activist during the Greek military junta of 1967–1974, Mercouri became a member of the Hellenic Parliament in 1977 and became the first female Minister for Culture of Greece in 1981. In 1983, Mercouri proposed the program of the European Capital of Culture, which was established by the European Union in 1985.

Mercouri was a strong advocate for the return to Athens of the Parthenon Marbles, which were removed from the Parthenon, and are now displayed in the British Museum in London.

After her graduation, Mercouri joined the National Theatre of Greece and played the role of Electra in Eugene O’Neill’s play Mourning Becomes Electra in 1945. In 1949, she had her first major success in the theatre playing Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, written by Tennessee Williams and staged by Karolos Koun’s Art Theatre. Until 1950, she also worked in the same theatre in other plays by Aldous Huxley, Arthur Miller and André Roussin.

Mercouri then moved to Paris, where she appeared in boulevard plays by Jacques Deval and Marcel Achard, and met French playwrights and novelists such as Jean Cocteau, Jean-Paul Sartre, Colette and Françoise Sagan. In 1953, Mercouri received the Marika Kotopouli Prize.

Mercouri returned to Greece in 1955. At the Kotopouli-Rex Theatre, Mercouri starred in Macbeth by William Shakespeare and L’Alouette by Jean Anouilh.[citation needed]

Mercouri’s first film was the Greek language film Stella (1955), directed by Michael Cacoyannis, later known for Zorba the Greek (1964). The picture received special praise at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival, where she met ex-patriate American film director Jules Dassin, with whom she would share not only her career but also her life.

Their first professional pairing was He Who Must Die (1957). Other films by Dassin and featuring Mercouri followed, such as The Law (1959).

Mercouri became known to international audiences when she starred in Never on Sunday (1960), of which Dassin was the director and co-star. For this film, she earned the Best Actress Award at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress and the BAFTA Award for Best Actress.

After her first major international success, Mercouri starred in Phaedra (1962), for which she was nominated again for the BAFTA Award and the Golden Globe.

The recognition of her acting talent did not stop though, as her role in Topkapi (1964) granted her a nomination for the Golden Globe.

Mercouri worked with directors as Joseph Losey, Vittorio De Sica, Ronald Neame, Carl Foreman, Norman Jewison, and starred in Spanish language The Uninhibited (1965) by Juan Antonio Bardem.

Mercouri continued her stage career in the Greek production of Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth (1960), under the direction of Karolos Koun. In 1967, she played the leading role in Illya Darling (from 11 April 1967 to 13 January 1968) on Broadway,[3] for which she was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical. Mercouri’s performance in Promise at Dawn (1970) earned her another Golden Globe Award nomination.

Mercouri concentrated on her stage career in the following years, playing in the Greek productions of The Threepenny Opera and, for a second time, Sweet Bird of Youth, in addition to the ancient Greek tragedies Medea and Oresteia. She retired from film acting after her role in her last film, A Dream of Passion (1978), directed by her husband, Jules Dassin. Mercouri’s last performance on stage was in the opera Pylades at the Athens Concert Hall in 1992, portraying Clytemnestra.

One of her first songs was by Manos Hadjidakis and Nikos Gatsos. It was titled “Hartino to Fengaraki” (“Papermoon”) and was a part of the Greek production of A Streetcar Named Desire in 1949, in which she starred as Blanche DuBois. The first official recording of this song was made by Nana Mouskouri in 1960, although the company Sirius, created by Manos Hadjidakis, issued, in 2004, a recording Mercouri made for French television during the 1960s. Her recordings of “Athenes, ma Ville”, a collaboration with Vangelis, and “Melinaki”, were popular in France. Her recording of “Feggari mou, Agapi mou” (Phaedra) was later covered by Marinella in 1965.

At the time of the coup d’état in Greece by a group of colonels of the Greek military on 21 April 1967, she was in the United States, playing in Illya Darling. She immediately joined the struggle against the Greek Military Junta and started an international campaign, travelling all over the world to inform the public and contribute to the isolation and fall of the colonels. As a result, the dictatorial regime revoked her Greek citizenship and confiscated her property.[4]

When her citizenship was taken away, she said: “I was born a Greek and I will die a Greek. Those bastards were born fascists and they will die fascists”.

While in London she worked with Amalia Fleming and Helen Vlachos of Kathimerini against the junta of the colonels.[10]

After the fall of the Junta and during the metapolitefsi in 1974, Mercouri settled in Greece and was one of the founding members of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), a centre-left political party. She was a member of the party’s Central Committee and a rapporteur for the Culture Section, while being involved in the women’s movement as well.

In the Greek legislative elections of 1974, she was a PASOK candidate in the Piraeus B constituency, but the 7,500 votes were not enough to secure a seat for her in the Hellenic Parliament (she needed 33 more votes), but she was successful in the elections of 1977, obtaining the highest number of votes in the whole of Greece.

When PASOK won the elections of 1981, Mercouri was appointed Minister for Culture of Greece, being the first woman in the post. She would serve in that position for two terms until 1989, when PASOK lost the elections and New Democracy formed a cabinet. As Minister for Culture, Mercouri took advantage of her earlier career to promote Greece to other European leaders. She strongly advocated the return to Athens of the Parthenon Marbles, that were removed from Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis of Athens by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, and are now part of the British Museum collection in London. In 1983, she had a famous live television spat with then British Museum director David M. Wilson, which was interpreted as a public relations disaster for the British Museum.[11] In anticipation of the return of the marbles, she held an international competition for the construction of the New Acropolis Museum, designated to display them and finally established in 2008.

One of her greatest achievements was the establishment of the institution of the European Capital of Culture within the framework of cultural policy of the European Union, that she had conceived and proposed in 1983, with Athens inaugurating this institution being the first title-holder in 1985, while she was a devoted supporter of the Athens bid to host the Centennial Olympic Games. In 1983, during the first Greek presidency of the Council of the European Union, Mercouri invited the Ministers for Culture of the other nine member states of the European Union at Zappeion, in order to increase the people’s cultural awareness, since there was not any reference to cultural questions in the Treaty of Rome, which led to the establishment of formal sessions between the Ministers of Culture of the European Union. During the second presidency of Greece in 1988, she supported the cooperation between Eastern Europe and the European Union, which was finally implemented one year later with the celebration of the Month of Culture in Eastern countries.

Mercouri commissioned a study for the integration of all the archaeological sites of Athens to create a traffic-free archaeological park to promote the Greek culture. She introduced free access to museums and archaeological sites for Greek citizens, organized a series of exhibitions of Greek cultural heritage and modern Greek art worldwide, supported the restoration of buildings of special architectural interest and the completion of the Athens Concert Hall, backed the project of the Museum of Byzantine culture in Thessaloniki and established annual literary prizes.

In June 1986, Melina Mercouri spoke at the Oxford Union, the debating society, on the matter of the Parthenon Marbles and whether they should remain in London or be returned to Greece. She argued passionately for the Marble’s reunification. She said the Marbles are more to Greece than just works of art: they are an essential element of Greek heritage, which ties directly into cultural identity. She said: “You must understand what the Parthenon Marbles mean to us. They are our pride. They are our sacrifices. They are our noblest symbol of excellence. They are a tribute to the democratic philosophy. They are our aspirations and our name. They are the essence of Greekness.”

In the legislative elections of November 1989, PASOK lost and Mercouri was elected a member of the Hellenic Parliament and remained a member of the party’s Executive Bureau. In 1990, she was a candidate for Mayor of Athens but she was defeated by Antonis Tritsis.

After PASOK’s win in the election of 1993, she was reappointed to Ministry for Culture. Her major goals were to create a cultural park in the Aegean Sea in order to protect and enhance the environment and civilization of the Aegean Islands, and to link culture with education at all levels, introducing post-training of teachers.

Mercouri died on 6 March 1994 at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York City, from lung cancer.

She was survived by her husband, Jules Dassin. She had no children. She received a state funeral with Prime Minister’s honors at the First Cemetery of Athens four days later. The Melina Mercouri Foundation was founded by her widower.

After her death, UNESCO established the Melina Mercouri International Prize for the Safeguarding and Management of Cultural Landscapes (UNESCO-Greece) which rewards outstanding examples of action to safeguard and enhance the world’s major cultural landscapes.

The song “Melina” by Camilo Sesto (from the 1975 album “Amor libre”) is dedicated to Melína Merkoúri.

On 18 October 2015, Google Doodle commemorated her 95th birthday.


1955 Stella Stella Nominated – Cannes Film Festival Best Actress Award

1957 He Who Must Die Katerina

1958 The Gypsy and the Gentleman Belle

1959 The Law Donna Lucrezia

1960 Never on Sunday Ilya Won – Cannes Film Festival Best Actress; Nominated for Best Actress Oscar, nominated BAFTA Best Foreign Actress
1961 Long Live Henry IV… Long Live Love Marie de Médicis
The Last Judgment Foreign lady
1962 Phaedra Phaedra Nominated – BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Actress
Nominated – Golden Globe Award for Drama

1963 The Victors Magda
Canzoni nel mondo Himself
1964 Topkapi Elizabeth Lipp Nominated, Golden Globe, Best Actress Comedy
1965 The Uninhibited Jenny
1966 A Man Could Get Killed Aurora
10:30 P.M. Summer Maria
1969 Gaily, Gaily Lil
1970 Promise at Dawn Nina Kacew Nominated – Golden Globe. Drama
1974 The Rehearsal Belle
1975 Once Is Not Enough Karla
Kipros Herself

1977 Nasty Habits Sister Gertrude

1978 A Dream of Passion Maya

1981 Gynaikes stin exoria Narrator Voice, Short, (final film role)