It should be noted that Irene Papas, who died at the age of 96, was at her peak when she played the heroines in film versions of classic Greek tragedies. Despite his numerous roles in a wide range of Hollywood, international and Greek films, including The Guns of Navarone (1961), Zorba the Greek (1964) and Z (1969), Papas always gave the impression that there was a Electra, Antigone or Clytemnestra bubbling below the surface.
She swings expertly between the theatrical tradition and the cinematic close-up, her strong, expressive face being particularly eloquent in moments of silent suffering.
All the films of the Euripides trilogy – Electra (1962), The Trojan Women (1971) and Iphigenia (1976) – directed by Michael Cacoyannis, were dominated by the dramatic beauty of Papas in close-up on realistic Greek landscapes, and proved that the ancient myths could grip modern audiences. It was Cacoyannis, with whom Papas made six films, including Zorba the Greek, who revealed all his talent.
The daughter of teachers, she was born Eirini Lelekou in a village near Corinth and attended the Royal Theater School in Athens. She began her career as a teenager as a singer and dancer on variety shows before launching her film career in 1948, by which time she had married director Alkis Papas.
After two small films in Greece, she signed a contract in Italy, where she was underused. Among them were two sword and sandal epics, Theodora, Slave Empress (1954) and Attila (1954), in which she played second violin – in the first to Gianna Maria Canale, and in the second to Sophia Loren with Anthony Quinn in the title. role. Papas would co-star with Quinn in several films, in which they were a combustible duo.
She made an impressive Hollywood debut as the lover of a ruthless cattle baron (James Cagney) in Robert Wise’s western Tribute to a Bad Man (1956). It was the female lead and cemented her star status as a valiant resistance leader in the war adventure The Guns of Navarone.
The same year 1961, Papas interpreted her first role as a Greek tragic actress in Antigone. Directed by George Tzavellas in such a way as to bring out the poetic parable of Sophocles with lucidity, it allowed Papas as an intractable heroine to demonstrate his elegiac power.
Papas as Electra, in his first film with Cacoyannis, prompted critic Dilys Powell to exclaim: “I never thought I would see the great Apollo’s face live and move from the pediment of Olympus. Now I have seen it. Roger Ebert, reflecting on the Oscar-nominated film 10 years later, said: “The mournful figures of the Greek choir – poor peasant women scattered on a hill – still mourn behind Electra, and I can never forget her lament for her mother. deceased. . I thought then, and I still think, that Irene Papas is the most classically beautiful woman to ever appear in movies.
Les Troyennes lost the power, poetry and beauty of the ancient Greek language by being in English, but the multinational cast of Katharine Hepburn (Hecuba), Vanessa Redgrave (Andromaque), Genevieve Bujold (Cassandra) and Papas as seductive Helen of Troy, compensated somewhat. Oscar-nominated Iphigenia (based on Cacoyannis’ stage production of Iphigenia at Aulis), the last in his Euripides trilogy, had Papas, now in his 50s, giving an energetic performance as Clytemnestra.
Between the first and the second Euripidean films, Papas embodies the solitary widow of Zorba the Greek who, after having made love with an English writer (Alan Bates), is stoned by the Cretan villagers. The character has little dialogue, but Papas’ face and body language speak volumes enough.
Papas went on to play other widows, notably in two political thrillers, Elio Petri’s We Still Kill the Old Way (1967) and Costa-Gavras’ Z. The latter clearly pointed the finger at the totalitarian regime of the colonels in Greece, which Papas – who lived in exile in Italy from 1967 to 1974 – called “the Fourth Reich”.
In 1968, among the first works Papas undertook in Italy were the mafia drama The Brotherhood, opposite Kirk Douglas, and the television miniseries The Odyssey, in which she played Penelope. She had now become an itinerant player, playing Spaniards like Catherine of Aragon in Anne of a Thousand Days (1969) or Italians like the vigorous governess in Francesco Rosi’s Christ Arrested at Eboli (1979). In the 70s and 80s, Papas made an average of two films a year, many of which were unworthy of his talents.
Fortunately, she had the chance to shine on Broadway in two plays by Euripides, in the title role of Medea (1973) and as Agave in Les Bacchantes (1980), the latter directed by Cacoyannis. Of her Medea, the New York Times reviewer wrote, “Irene Papas, who has often played aggrieved and grieving women, brings a restrained intensity, innate intelligence, and relentlessly stubborn anger to the role.
In the cinema, she began to land supporting roles, bringing ardor and authenticity as mothers and grandmothers as in Chronicle of an announced death of Rosi (1987) and Mandoline of captain Corelli (2001) before making a superb exit. cinema in the multilingual A Talking by Manoel de Oliveira. Picture (2003).
At one point in the film, aboard a cruise ship in the Mediterranean, Papas holds the passengers in suspense by singing a Greek folk song. Her beautiful contralto voice can also be heard on CDs of songs by Vangelis and Mikis Theodorakis.
After leaving the cinema, Papas played in Hecuba by Euripides on stage in Rome in 2003, and directed Antigone at the Greek theater in Syracuse in 2005. She also devoted herself to the creation of theater schools in Rome and Athens. .
Papas’ first marriage ended in divorce in 1951, and his second marriage, to José Kohn, in 1957 was annulled.
Irene Papas, actress, born September 3, 1926; passed away on September 14, 2022