Having been most responsible for bringing worldwide attention to Greek cinema in its renaissance after World War II, director-writer-producer Michael Cacoyannis broke out as the auteur behind four rough-hewn, open-air films fairly bursting with a passion not confined to the volatile characters peopling his work. After his training in England, Cacoyannis returned to Greece and helmed the hits "Windfall in Athens" (1954), "Stella" (1955), "A Girl in Black" (1956) and "A Matter of Dignity" (1958), which secured him a place on the international stage as well as a recurring slot in the prestigious festival circuit. Marrying the power of ancient Greek drama with modern production values and evergreen themes, he wowed critics with his literary adaptations, particularly his take on Euripides's trilogy of tragedies, "Electra" (1962), "The Trojan Women" (1971) and "Iphigenia" (1977). But Cacoyannis's global breakthrough and greatest legacy came from the indelible, lusty portrait of "Zorba the Greek" (1964), his most famous and popular film. The director kept a fairly low profile until emerging decades later with an adaptation of Anton Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" (1999). Despite a drop-off in output over his last years, Cacoyannis helped give Greek cinema an eloquent, modern voice, while his esteemed body of work was beloved around the world.
Born June 11, 1922 in Limassol, Cyprus, Mihalis Kakogiannis was raised by his father, Sir Panagiotis Loizou Kakogiannis, a noted statesman knighted by the British, and his mother, Angelika. Expected to join his three siblings in the family business of law, Cacoyannis instead found himself drawn to the arts while studying in England and became a producer for the BBC's Greek services. While taking directing and acting classes at the Old Vic, he briefly attempted a stage career under the name Michael Yannis, playing Herod in Oscar Wilde's "Salome" and the title character in Camus's "Caligula." But he soon realized that his passions lay with directing and writing, and moved to Athens in the early 1950s to raise funds for his first film project. While there, Cacoyannis crossed paths with the radiant actress Elli Lambetti, as well as two stage actors, Dimitri Horn and George Pappas, and shelved his plans to make a series of four films that were lively, but harsh studies of Greek family life. His first was "Windfall in Athens" (1954), a sparkling, low-budget romantic comedy that featured Lambetti as a shopgirl who loses a winning lottery ticket. The winning mixture of Lambetti's charm against the vibrant backdrop of Athens helped the film become an international hit after opening the 1954 Edinburg Film Festival.
Proving his range with the powerful "Carmen"-inspired "Stella" (1955), Cacoyannis earned raves with the tale of a doomed femme fatale (Melina Mercouri), who proves the undoing of a string of men. Sensuous, visually stunning and often overwhelming, the film became a critical hit, launching Mercouri onto the international stage and solidifying the director's reputation for having an excellent touch bringing out the best in his actresses. As with much postwar European film, Cacoyannis was strongly influenced by Italian neorealism and had the input of gifted cinematographer Walter Lassally, a key figure of the British "Free Cinema" documentary movement. The combination of Cacoyannis and Lassally helped the Lambetti-starring drama "A Girl in Black" (1956) marry a modern Greek setting with the power, scope and inevitability of ancient Greek tragedy, culminating in an unforgettably brutal climax. Revealing a more sophisticated and understated touch with the quiet social satire "A Matter of Dignity" (1958), Cacoyannis wowed critics with his growth and sure hand in guiding Lambetti through another exploration of the struggles strong women face in Greek society, building to a controversial mystical setpiece that sparked passionate debate among fans and critics alike, all whom admired Cacoyannis's fearlessness and range.
Having thus established himself, Cacoyannis was at last able to film his long-shelved project, "Our Last Spring" (1960), a sweeping, ill-starred love affair between an island Greek boy and a British girl. But despite its gorgeous production, critics felt it was a step backward from his first four films. Another critical misstep followed with his first film abroad, the Italian-shot melodrama "The Wastrel" (1960), which sent a jealous millionaire adrift on the ocean with his son to contemplate forgiveness and the mysteries of life. Cacoyannis roared back with the first installment of what would prove to be a trilogy of Euripides adaptations, "Electra" (1962), which evoked the classic tragedy rather than simply adapting it. Charged by an iconic, star-making central performance by a young Irene Papas, Cacoyannis made vivid use of violence and harsh environs in telling its anti-heroine's epic tale of woe. The film made a powerful international impression at Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Adaptation Award.
Cacoyannis was perfectly positioned for his worldwide breakthrough, the considerably more upbeat "Zorba the Greek" (1964), without a doubt his most famous and popular film. Striking an intriguing balance between the suffering endured by women (Lila Kedrova and Irene Papas) and an earthy portrait of male bonding, "Zorba" zestfully used Anthony Quinn in a role so iconic that it would define him for the rest of his career. Igniting an international craze for all things Greek, "Zorba" achieved cinematic immortality for its most famous scene, where the larger-than-life, indomitable Zorba dances on the beach. Though a minority of critics still preferred his earlier work, Cacoyannis had fully arrived as a gifted auteur and received Oscar nominations for Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Picture as well as a Golden Globe nomination for Best Director. Sadly, Cacoyannis was unable to capitalize on his breakthrough, and his follow-up, the uneven H-bomb dramedy "The Day the Fish Came Out" (1967), was written off as an oddity.
Cacoyannis himself became a fish out of water after the 1967 military junta in Greece. Having staged plays in the United States and throughout Europe during the 1960s, he went into exile and kept busy in this capacity for some years until conditions became more favorable. His only films during this time were the least successful installment in his Euripides trilogy, "The Trojan Women" (1971), starring Katharine Hepburn, Vanessa Redgrave, Geneviève Bujold and Irene Papas, and a documentary study of the 1944 Turkish invasion of Cyprus, "Attila '74" (1975). He also made a one-shot venture into the U.S. TV-movie market with the expertly acted biblical saga "The Story of Jacob and Joseph" (1974), which reunited him with "Zorba" co-star Alan Bates. Upon his return to Greece, many critics read a more personal investment in Cacoyannis's final chapter of his trilogy, "Iphigenia" (1977), seeing a potent indictment of the abuse of political power that resonated with his real life. "Iphigenia," like "Electra" before it, earned the director an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film.
Never a prolific filmmaker, Cacoyannis was away from the camera for nearly a decade. His theater career continued to flourish, however, as he directed Shakespeare internationally and also penned Greek translations of the Bard's work. Meanwhile, Cacoyannis staged a 1983 Broadway revival of "Zorba." Critics were respectful and audiences enjoyed seeing Quinn and Lila Kedrova reprise their lusty goings-on. A return to cinema with the American-made tale of a Chilean family after the fall of the Allende government, "Sweet Country" (1987), flopped and slipped into obscurity. Cacoyannis kept returning to film in the 1990s, first for a typically flamboyant comedy of a widow (Irene Papas) and her gay son, "Up, Down and Sideways" (1993), before turning back to literary adaptation in tackling Anton Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" (1999). From there, he largely remained out of the business of filmmaking. Over a decade later, Cacoyannis died on July 25, 2011 of complications from a heart attack at the Evangelismos hospital in Athens. The enormity of his legacy and of his contributions to achieving worldwide recognition to the modern Greek artistic voice, however, lived on.
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Worked producing for the Greek service of the BBC
Made his stage acting debut at the Old Vic in "Salome"
Made feature directing debut with "Windfall in Athens"; first collaboration with actress Elli Lambetti
First collaboration with cinematographer Walter Lassally, "A Girl in Black"
First film in his trilogy of Euripides adaptations, "Electra"; first collaboration with actress Irene Papas
First non-Greek film, the Italian production of "Il relitto/The Wastrel"
Staged a production of Euripides' play, "The Trojan Women" at the Spoleto Festival
Restaged "The Trojan Women" in New York at the Circle in the Square
First international co-production, "Zorba the Greek" (co-production with the U.S. and Greece)
Directed a production of Terrence McNally's "And Things That Go Bump in the Night"
Staged a production of Marvin David Levy's opera adaptation, "Mourning Becomes Electra" at the Metropolitan Opera
Last collaboration with Walter Lassally, "The Day the Fish Came Out"
Staged a production of "Romeo and Juliet" in Paris
Directed the U.S. TV-movie, "The Story of Jacob and Joseph"
Made the feature-length documentary, "Attila 74," which examined the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1944
Last film for nearly a decade and last film in his Euripides trilogy, "Iphigenia"
Directed the Broadway musical adaptation of "Zorba," based on his hit film, "Zorba the Greek" with Anthony Quinn and Lila Kedrova reprising their roles from the film
Returned to features with his first full U.S. directing credit, "Sweet Country"
Returned to filmmaking again with "Pano Kato Ke Plagios/Up, Down and Sideways"
Completed his long-dreamed version of Anton Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard"; released theatrically in USA in 2002