Monday, August 1, 2011

Michael Cacoyannis and Zorba the Greek: Shall We Dance?

Michael Cacoyannis? Not a name most people know. Zorba the Greek? Mention this title, and I feel like dancing. I suspect I’m not alone.

When I learned last week that Cacoyannis had died at the age of ninety, my thoughts immediately turned to the 1964 film that gave Anthony Quinn his last Oscar nomination. Quinn, the Irish-Mexican actor who grew up in the barrios of East L.A., played characters of many ethnicities, but found his signature role in Alexis Zorba, the part-time handyman/full-time life force who teaches repressed Englishman Alan Bates to celebrate the joy of being alive. On the beaches of Crete, Zorba sounds his barbaric yawp (to use an appropriately Whitmanesque phrase), staving off death, grief, and failure by lifting his arms skyward and dancing out his pagan emotions.

The film, based on the novel by perennial Nobel Prize runner-up Nikos Kazantzakis, was brilliantly filmed by Cacoyannis, who tightened the story, choreographed its dramatic moments for maximum impact, and brought to the screen the austere beauty of Crete’s landscape and its people. A huge international hit, it was nominated for seven Oscars (including best picture) and won three. The big winner that year was My Fair Lady, and the contrast between the glossy Technicolor musical and the small black-and-white art film could not have been more striking. Every young person I knew would have given the nod to Zorba the Greek, which we adopted as a statement of the kind of adult life we all wanted to live. Listen to Zorba summing up the young Englishman’s character: “You’ve got everything except one thing: madness! A man needs a little madness, or else . . . he never dares cut the rope and be free.”

We of the Baby Boom generation, who were quickly approaching adulthood in 1964, yearned to be free. We wanted political freedom, intellectual freedom, sexual freedom. In 1964, some of us were traveling to the Deep South as Freedom Riders, trying to extend the freedom of the voting booth to those who’d been denied it for generations. Many of us would soon be marching in the streets in defiance of the military that was sending young American men to fight and die in Vietnam. The advent of birth control pill was changing the way we viewed our bodies. Not all of us were activists, but at least we could dance. And dance we did. Zorba the Greek launched a national movement that saw folk dance clubs spring up across America. There, to the lilt of bouzouki music—the kind we knew and loved from Mikis Theodorakis’s Zorba the Greek score—we could leap and sway and sweat, dancing out our youthful hopes for the future.

Michael Cacoyannis made films other than Zorba the Greek, fifteen in all. Two years before Zorba, I’d been galvanized by his Greek-language adaptation of Euripides’ classic tragedy, Electra, starring the soulful Irene Papas. It is visually arresting, using silence as powerfully as any movie I know. Cacoyannis was also gutsy enough to bring Greek tragedy to the American screen, by starring Katharine Hepburn, Vanessa Redgrave, Genevieve Bujold, and Papas in The Trojan Women. I remember this as an unsparing rendition of the ancient tragedy, in which the defeated women of Troy lament the loss of their husbands, lovers, and sons. An impeccable film, but not fun to watch: I badly missed the exuberance of Zorba. Today I salute him and Cacoyannis: Opa!


  1. Opa indeed! A great movie - and I can totally see why it would catch your heart and spirit in those tumultuous times. Let us see the glint in your eyes, Ms. Gray - let us see the madness still in you!

  2. Tune up the bouzouki -- I'm taking the floor!