Ben's Top Pick for December
NEVER ON SUNDAY (1960) is a Hollywood rarity: a comedy about a happy hooker. Ilya is a woman who loves her life--and loves her job. So, naturally, it's not actually a Hollywood movie. It's a Greek film, starring Greece's most popular actress, Melina Mercouri, and produced, written and directed by the man who would later become her husband, Hollywood expatriate Jules Dassin.
Dassin is also Mercouri's co-star, playing an American named Homer (of course) visiting the Greek port of Piraeus. He's an amateur philosopher, traveling to Greece, he tells Ilya, because he's looking for something.
"What?" she asks.
"You won't laugh?" he replies.
"Why," she asks, "you look for something funny?"
What he's looking for, Homer says, is truth. "Our world is unhappy," he tells her. "Where did it go wrong? Might the traces be here?" Homer wonders if Ilya--insightful, beautiful, vibrant, sexual and hypnotic-- is a symbol for the decay of civilization. He's incapable of understanding how a woman with all those qualities could choose to be a prostitute.
So, through a series of amusing romantic comedy circumstances, Homer sets out to teach Ilya about music, about art, about the classics. He'll reform her and conform her to his ideal of a rich life, even though he's living a miserable one. Conversely, she's contentedly making her own choices, surrounded by the people she loves.
Dassin--a talented and imaginative filmmaker whose forced exile from Hollywood in the middle of the Red Scare was an outrage--is clearly taking a shot at the willingness--the eagerness even--of Americans to impose our value system on other cultures.
While the film is hardly explicit, it does nibble at the corners of the particulars of Ilya's line of work. In one scene, she's in bed with a virginal American sailor, in another she tells a suitor she can't meet him at 9:00 because she's seeing the baker... then it's the fruit man at 10:00...and the butcher at 11:00.
Not surprisingly, the film faced obstacles when released in the States--it was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency. When a local censor in Atlanta tried to ban the movie, Lopert Pictures Corp. fought the ban in court and won-- one of the first successful challenges of the city's censorship law.
And what did all that publicity accomplish? Made for less than $130,000, the movie grossed nearly $4 million in the U.S. alone. The lesson? If you hate a delightful movie like Never on Sunday, maybe keep it to yourself.
by Ben Mankiewicz