From greats like Theo Angelopoulos, Costa Gavras, Michael Cacoyannis, Irena Papas and Melina Mercouri, to Hollywood stars with Greek origins, such as Nick Cassavetes, Jennifer Aniston, Melina Kanakaredes, and Billy Zane, the list of talented Greek artists is almost endless.
Greece has produced some great movie directors, actors and actresses over the years, many of whom have gone on to direct popular comedies, dramas and horror movies, becoming Hollywood legends. Here we present just a short list of those who made the history of Greek cinema and those who forged global careers.
Greek cinema has a long and rich history. Its first days can be traced back to the 1900s, but the first movies showing the style and air of the country were produced in the 1920s. The Greek film industry dominates the domestic market and has experienced some notable international successes, such as those of Missing (1982) and Eternity and a Day (1998), which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, while five Greek films have received nominations for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
One of Europe’s most important and influential film festivals, the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, was first held in 1960 and has since evolved into the primary showcase for emerging filmmakers from Greece and the Balkan region
The 1950s and ‘60s are considered as the golden years for Greek cinema. Among the most memorable productions of the time is Michael Cacoyannis’s Stella (1955), which was screened at Cannes. The 1960 film Never on Sunday was nominated for five Academy Awards and it’s lead actress, Melina Mercouri, won the Best Actress Award at Cannes. Cacoyannis’s Zorba the Greek (1964), starring Anthony Quinn, was a major commercial success that was nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film.
The movie was based on the novel of the same name by author Nikos Kazantzakis. Other important films during this period include Antigone (1961) and Electra (1962), both of which starred Irene Papas, The Red Lanterns (1963) by director Vasilis Georgiadis, and Battlefield Constantinople (1970), which starred Aliki Vougiouklaki, the so-called “Greek Brigitte Bardot”.
Notable films also include The Counterfeit Coin (1955), directed by George Tzavellas, Bitter Bread (1951), directed by Grigoris Grigoriou, and The Ogre of Athens (1956), directed by Nikos Koundouros. The 1969 Costa-Gavras film Z was nominated for the Academy Awards for both Best Foreign Language Film and Best Picture.
Among the figures who not only dominated the art scene but were also recognised as important intellectual figures, were Alekos Sakellarios, Nikos Tsiforos, Iakovos Kambanelis, Katina Paxinou and Ellie Lambeti, amongst others.
Greece has produced some great movie directors, actors and actresses over the years, many of whom have gone on to direct popular comedies, dramas and horror movies, becoming Hollywood legends
Following the reinstatement of democracy in the mid-1970s, the Greek film industry again flourished, led by director Theo Angelopoulos, whose films frequently won international awards. Among his best works are The Travelling Players (1975), The Hunters (1977) and Voyage to Cythera (1984). Angelopoulos won numerous awards, including the Palme d’Or at the 51st edition of the Cannes Film Festival in 1998 for Eternity and a Day (Mia aioniotita kai mia mera). His films have been screened at the most important film festivals worldwide and Angelopoulos’s work has been described by Martin Scorsese as that of “a masterful filmmaker”.
Michael Cacoyannis’s 1977 film Iphigenia was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
When the left-leaning Panhellenic Socialist Movement came to power in Greece in 1981, actress Melina Mercouri became minister of culture and the government channelled more money into the Greek film industry, setting up networks to promote Greek cinema abroad. It was during this time that Costa-Gavras’s film Missing won the Palme d’Or at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival and director Costas Ferris’s 1983 film Rembetiko won a Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival.
In 1998, with his work Money, A Mythology of Darkness, Vassilis Mazomenos created the first European 3D animation feature film, representing a visual essay on the impact of money on humanity. The film was acclaimed both domestically and overseas, where it was nominated for the 1999 European Fantasy Award (George Méliès Award) and won the Fantasporto special jury award that same year.
The 2003 film A Touch of Spice, a big-budget production by director Tasos Boulmetis, was the most successful film of the year at the Greek box office, making over 12 million euros, while 2004 was also a good year for Greek film, with Pantelis Voulgaris’s Brides being watched by more than a million filmgoers and earning over seven million euros at the box office. The most successful Greek film in 2007 was El Greco, directed by Yannis Smaragdis.
Perhaps the best know contemporary actress with Greek roots is Jennifer Aniston, who spent a year of her childhood living in Greece, after which she reallocated to New York City
Dogtooth (2009), directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, won the Prix Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival and was also nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 83rd Academy Awards in 2011. The 2010 film Attenberg, directed by Athina Rachel Tsangari, won the Coppa Volpi Award for Best Actress (Ariane Labed) at the Venice Film Festival and in 2011 the film Alps won the Osella Award for Best Screenplay (Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimiοs Filippou) at the 68th Venice Film Festival. Miss Violence, directed by Alexandros Arvanas, won a Silver Lion for Best Director at the 70th Venice International Film Festival in 2013.
One of Europe’s most important and influential film festivals, the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, was first held in 1960 and has since evolved into the primary showcase for emerging filmmakers from Greece and the Balkan region. The festival awards, among other prizes, the “Golden Alexander” for the best feature film.
Greeks in Hollywood
Noteworthy screenwriters, film actors and movie directors of Greek origin include Melina Eleni Kanakaredes – best known for her role as Sally Bowles in the Broadway play Cabaret, and the movie 15 Minutes (2001), in which she co-starred opposite the legendary Robert De Niro. Another prominent figure is Nick Cassavetes, son of actress Gena Rowlands and Greek-American actor and film director John Cassavetes, who appeared in two of his father’s films: Husbands (1970) and A Woman Under the Influence (1974), before gaining recognition for his roles in the films Face/Off, The Wraith, Life and Class of 1999 II: The Substitute, amongst others. He has also directed several films, including John Q, Alpha Dog, She’s So Lovely, Unhook the Stars, The Notebook, and My Sister’s Keeper.
Greek Canadian actress and writer Nia Vardalos is best known for the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002).
Olympia Dukakis became a household name and in-demand film actress at the age 56, after turning in a glorious, Oscar-winning performance as Cher’s sardonic mother in the romantic comedy Moonstruck (1987), following a rich career in the theatre. Her adaptability to various ethnicities (Greek, Italian, Jewish, Eastern European etc.), as well her chameleon-like versatility in everything from cutting edge comedy to stark tragedy, has kept her in high demand for the past 30 years as one of Hollywood’s top-notch character actresses.
Actress and producer Rita Wilson, known for Sleepless in Seattle (1993), Jingle All the Way (1996) and Runaway Bride (1999), was married to Tom Hanks and is half Greek. Her mother, Dorothy, was born and raised in a Greek village on the Albanian border.
Perhaps the best known contemporary actress with Greek roots is Jennifer Aniston, who spent a year of her childhood living in Greece, after which she reallocated to New York City. With the success of the television sitcom Friends (1994), Jennifer became famous and highly marketable, turning her hand to roles in movies during a hiatus from the hit TV show. Interestingly, her godfather was the late Telly Savalas.