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One of the most politically minded and passionate filmmakers of the late 20th century, Greek director Costa-Gavras assailed the forces of corruption, exploitation and power gone wrong in such celebrated films as "Z" (1969), "Missing" (1982) and "Music Box" (1989). Gavras' childhood, which saw his father - a hero for the Greek Resistance in World War II - stand accused of Communism by a totalitarian military junta, fueled the intensity of his best work, which took aim at global forces whom he considered conspiring to crush freedom of thought and liberty for the common man. He received Oscars for "Z" and "Missing," but found himself something of an outcast after 1983's "Hanna K." (1983), which was perceived as pro-Palestinian. Though his work was seen mostly in Europe after 1997, his best films preserved his status as a major figure in international cinema, and a staunch supporter of human rights.Born Constantinos Gavras in Loutra Iraias, Greece on Feb. 12, 1933, Costa-Gavras' father was a member of the National Liberation Front, which spearheaded the Greek Resistance against the Axis during World War II. However, the organization was branded as Communists following the Greek Civil War in 1946, and...
One of the most politically minded and passionate filmmakers of the late 20th century, Greek director Costa-Gavras assailed the forces of corruption, exploitation and power gone wrong in such celebrated films as "Z" (1969), "Missing" (1982) and "Music Box" (1989). Gavras' childhood, which saw his father - a hero for the Greek Resistance in World War II - stand accused of Communism by a totalitarian military junta, fueled the intensity of his best work, which took aim at global forces whom he considered conspiring to crush freedom of thought and liberty for the common man. He received Oscars for "Z" and "Missing," but found himself something of an outcast after 1983's "Hanna K." (1983), which was perceived as pro-Palestinian. Though his work was seen mostly in Europe after 1997, his best films preserved his status as a major figure in international cinema, and a staunch supporter of human rights.
Born Constantinos Gavras in Loutra Iraias, Greece on Feb. 12, 1933, Costa-Gavras' father was a member of the National Liberation Front, which spearheaded the Greek Resistance against the Axis during World War II. However, the organization was branded as Communists following the Greek Civil War in 1946, and Gavras was denied entry into the United States, where he had hoped to study film. Instead, he went to Paris, where he studied law before transferring to the Institute for Advanced Cinematographic Studies, one of the top film schools in the country. After graduating, he served as apprentice to some of the most renowned French directors of the period, including Yves Allegret and Rene Clair. After working as an associate director on several films, including Jacques Demy's "Bay of Angels" (1963), he made his directorial debut with "The Sleeping Car Murders" (1965) starring his soon-to-be frequent collaborator, Yves Montand, as an inspector investigating a rash of killings on a train from Marseilles to Paris. A modest thriller, it would be the last non-political effort of his career.
His second film, "Shock Troops" (1967), was an action-drama about the French Maquis, guerilla fighters who battled the Nazis during World War II. The film was significantly altered for its Stateside release by United Artists, which gave the picture an upbeat ending. His next effort put him on the cinematic map: "Z," based on the novel by Vassilis Vassilikos, concerned a judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) investigating the murder of a left-wing politician (Montand) and discovering the government and military's roles in the killing. Released at the height of the Greek military junta that toppled the government, "Z" addressed concerns that resonated throughout Gavras's work - the effects of corruption and tyranny, especially by major powers like the United States, on the foundation of societies - and struck a chord with young audiences around the world. The film netted the Best Foreign Language Film and Best Editing Oscars, as well as the Jury at Cannes, and established Gavras as a political filmmaker of the first order.
The 1970s proved to be an exceptionally fertile period for Gavras, who continued to mine real-life political turmoil for his films. His third feature "The Confession" (1970) starred Montand as a Czech foreign affairs minister abducted and brainwashed by a totalitarian organization into confessing imaginary crimes. It too reaped considerable acclaim, including Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations for Best Foreign Language film. "State of Siege" (1973) leveled his harshest criticism of the U.S. in its story of an American official (Montand) kidnapped and executed by a group of guerillas who were also waging war against an oppressive, American-supported government. And "Special Section" (1975) followed the creation of the title tribunals by the Vichy government in France to appease the Nazi occupying forces. The picture detailed the appointment of weak, ineffectual judges to sentence four young Frenchmen for the killing of a German naval officer. Though criticized by portions of the French viewing audiences for its lack of melodrama, it earned Gavras a shared Best Director award from the Cannes Film Festival.
After closing the decade with "Clair de femme" ("Womanlight") (1979), a melancholy drama with Montand and Romy Schneider as strangers whose chance meeting provide them with much needed emotional connection, Gavras scored his biggest and most controversial hit with his first American picture, "Missing" (1982). Based on the disappearance of American journalist Charles Hoffman in Chile during the 1973 coup by Augusto Pinochet, the film followed the efforts of Horman's father (Jack Lemmon) and wife (Sissy Spacek) to discover his whereabouts, which in turn uncovered the connection between the American government and Pinochet's deadly regime. Roundly decried by the Reagan administration, the film won the 1982 Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, as well as the Palme d'Or and Best Actor from the Cannes Film Festival. However, the film was soon pulled from release due to a libel lawsuit by former ambassador Nathaniel Davis, who was depicted in the picture as an ineffectual puppet of Pinochet, and remained out of print until 2006, when the suit was dismissed.
But the controversy generated by "Missing" paled in comparison to the firestorm of criticism that greeted his next effort, "Hanna K." (1983). Jill Clayburgh starred as a Holocaust survivor and defense lawyer who develops romantic feelings for her Palestinian client. The film was roundly panned by critics and drew the ire of the pro-Israel community for its alleged support of the Palestinian cause. Gavras himself was forced to pay to advertise the film in print after the film's distributor, Universal, reportedly refused to do so. The fallout from "Hanna K." seemed to have lingering ill effects on Gavras' career. His subsequent efforts, 1988's "Betrayed" and "Music Box" (1989), were both largely dismissed by the American movie going public and critics. Both penned by Joe Ezterhas, the former starred Debra Winger as a Southern woman who discovered that her employer-turned-lover (Tom Berenger) was a member of a Klan-like racist organization, while the latter was a trial drama based on the real-life case of accused Nazi John Demjanjuk, with Armin Mueller-Stahl as a Hungarian immigrant on trial for war crimes, and Jessica Lange as the daughter who defended him. "Music Box" took the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, and Lange received an Oscar nomination for her performance, but both films were perceived as overly simplistic thrillers that stated their case in broad terms.
Gavras focused on directing the Cinematheque Francaise for much of the early 1990s, save for 1993's "The Minor Apocalypse," a surreal drama about a writer who received an offer to be published on the condition that he commit suicide on television. Four years later, he returned to Hollywood for "Mad City" (1997), a hostage drama with John Travolta as a security guard who takes his boss and children hostage while on a field trip, and Dustin Hoffman as the opportunistic journalist who attempts to sway the crisis for news ratings. The downbeat thriller was met with a tepid response during its brief theatrical run. American audiences saw nothing of Gavras' 21st century film output: 2003's "Amen," which drew fire from Catholic audiences for its suggestion that Pope Pius XII turned away from the plight of Jews during World War II, and "Le Couperet" (2005), about a company man who responds to his dismissal by murdering those more qualified in his job than him, were international productions seen only in Europe. In 2009, his film "Eden in West," about the plight of Middle European immigrants at the hands of the French, made the rounds at film festivals to mainly positive reviews.
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In 1995 Costa-Gavras received the Irene Diamond Lifetime Achievement Award for commitment to human rights. "It's a huge honor because I believe the organizations taking care of human rights are the people I completely trust more than any other ethical movement. The way they work, the reasons for which they do it; not for money or career, just for human rights." --Costa-Gavras to Daily News, June 16, 1995.
"For a little Greek immigrant who came from nothing, I feel I've been extrememly lucky. I've been a director for 30 years, doing exactly what I want to do. I still can't believe it. I think one day someone will say it's all been a mistake." --Costa-Gavras in New York Post, October 29, 1997.
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