With a look that could melt steel and freeze a man in his tracks, she stared down Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek, Telly Savalas in My Palikari, Gregory Peck in The Guns of Navarone, and played opposite James Cagney and loved Marlon Brando.
She electrified audiences in Greek tragedy-based films such as Antigone, Electra, and Iphigenia and could perform Shakespeare and Ibsen with graceful ease and depth.
But Irini Papas – born Irini Lelekou in 1926 in the village of Chiliomodi, outside Corinth, where her mother was a schoolteacher and her father taught classical drama – was too often overshadowed by the equally great Melina Mercouri, the two shining and inspiring as the inimitable actresses of Greece of their generation.
The late Mercouri was a passionate firebrand who married Jules Dassin, starred in Never On Sunday, Stella, and Phaedra, became Culture Minister and made a crusade out of getting back the stolen Parthenon Marbles – she named them thusly – from the British Museum.
Both had that look that could make a man gulp and put him in their grip, but Papas let her acting speak. And now she can’t remember those roles even if we still can, by seeing her again in the films that showed her peerless ability.
Now 95, she has been suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease since 2018 but is dealing with that as she did with her characters and the way she conducted her life with decency.
To clarify what’s happening with Papas’ health, her niece Melia Tataki told the site Agonas Tis Kritis that while the family is sad about her situation, that contrary to some reports showing it’s more dire, that Papas “lives with dignity, strength, and is surrounded by a lot of love.”
She added: “Yes, Irene has Alzheimer’s. Illness is not a shame and can happen to anyone unexpectedly. For the past five years we have handled it with great care and always discreetly,” unhappy with what she said were inaccuracies being reported.
Tataki told Athens Voice that Papas is not bedridden, is cared for, and had always wanted a private life, which is a relief for her fans, but somehow inadequate for such a beloved public figure in the Greek arts and film world where she was a towering personality.
When the affliction was discovered her niece wrote about how devastating it is for the victim and family, especially an actress whose every word was weighted with meaning, none perhaps more poignant than in Iphigenia when she said: “Greeks know that words are like daggers.”
Her niece wrote it’s “an illness that does not even give you the right to the memories of your life, to choose as you get older, now you fade, which one you hold in the depths of your soul. others remember them on your behalf… .. How beautiful, how Doric, how brave, how talented. Like an ancient Greek goddess…”
That deserves to be in an Irene Papas film.
Like Mercouri, she is Greek to the core and the embodiment of all that means, even if she kept herself to herself and didn’t see the whole world as a stage.
This is not to say she was stodgy or accepting, because at the Royal School of Dramatic Art in Athens, where she took classes in dance and singing, she was said to find the acting style advocated by the School old-fashioned, formal, and stylized, rebelling against it and repeating a year.
She was discovered in Greece, where she was already famous, by the famed director Elia Kazan, got international notice at the 1952 Cannes Film Festival for her work in Dead City, and was spotted in photos with the wealthy Aga Khan.
But it was her turn in Michael Cacoyannis’ Electra in 1962 with a sizzling performance as the doomed heroine that made her a star. She became fluent in Italian and made many films in that language and thought of Rome as her second city.
She played Helen in Cacoyannis’s The Trojan Women in 1971 opposite Katharine Hepburn, a clash of titans, and Clytemnestra with “smoldering eyes,” in Iphigenia, The New York Times said in 1977.
Her best was undoubtedly in Zorba where New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther called her appearance “dark and intense as the widow,” one who is eventually killed despite the efforts of Zorba to save her.
For that unparalleled performance, she was paid $10,000 and didn’t get another film offer for 18 months, she said, much like after Electra, where it was two years before another movie.
Film critic Philip Kemp captured her perfectly: “From the opening shot of Michael Cacoyannis’s Electra, as the proud, implacable face emerges from encroaching shadows, it becomes impossible to imagine anyone else as Euripides’s heroine. Erect, immutably dignified, dark eyes burning fiercely beneath heavy black brows, Irene Papas visibly embodies the sublimity of classical Greece, tragic yet serene.”
A scholar of Greek, Gerasimus Katsan, called her the most recognizable and best-known Greek film star, with “range, power, and subtlety,” stating that her work made her a kind of national hero. She acted strong women with “beauty and sensuality, but also fierce independence and spirit,” he said.
Said Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira: “This great tragedienne is the grand and beautiful image that embodies the deepest essence of the female soul. She is the image of Greece of all time … the mother of western civilization.”
Let’s not forget.