Birthplace: Chiliomodi, Corinth, Greece
Irene Papas or Irene Pappas (Greek: Ειρήνη Παππά; born 3 September 1926) is a retired Greek actress and occasional singer, who has starred in over 70 films in a career spanning more than 50 years. She became famous in Greece, and then an international star of feature films such as The Guns of Navarone and Zorba the Greek. She was a powerful presence as a Greek heroine in films including The Trojan Women, Iphigenia, and played the eponymous parts in Antigone (1961) and Electra (1962).
Papas won Best Actress awards in 1961 at the Berlin International Film Festival for Antigone and in 1971 from the National Board of Review for The Trojan Women. She received career awards in 1993, the Golden Arrow Award at Hamptons International Film Festival, and in 2009, the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Biennale.
Papas was born as Irini Lelekou (Ειρήνη Λελέκου) in Chiliomodi, outside Corinth, Greece. Her mother was a schoolteacher, and her father taught classical drama. She was educated at the Royal School of Dramatic Art in Athens, taking classes in dance and singing. She serves on the board of directors of the Anna-Marie Foundation. She stated in an interview that her father was of Arvanite Greek descent.
Papas began her film career in Greece, being discovered by Elia Kazan, and achieved widespread fame there. She then starred in internationally renowned films such as The Guns of Navarone (1961) and Zorba the Greek (1964), and critically acclaimed films such as Z (1969). She was a leading figure in cinematic transcriptions of ancient tragedy, portraying Helen in The Trojan Women (1971) opposite Katharine Hepburn, Clytemnestra in Iphigenia (1977), and the eponymous parts in Antigone (1961) and Electra (1962). She appeared as Catherine of Aragon in Anne of the Thousand Days, opposite Richard Burton and Geneviève Bujold in 1969. In 1976, she starred in Mohammad, Messenger of God (also known as The Message) about the origin of Islam, and the message of Mohammad. In 1982, she appeared in Lion of the Desert, together with Anthony Quinn, Oliver Reed, Rod Steiger, and John Gielgud. One of her last film appearances was in Captain Corelli's Mandolin in 2001.
The Treccani Enciclopedia Italiana describes Papas as a typical Mediterranean beauty, with a lovely voice both in singing and acting, greatly talented and with an adventurous spirit.
In the view of film critic Philip Kemp, Papas was an awe-inspiring presence, which paradoxically limited her career. He admired her roles in the films of Michael Cacoyannis, including the defiant Helen of Troy in The Trojan Women; the vengeful, grief-stricken Clytemnestra in Iphigenia; and "memorably" as the cool but sensual widow in Zorba the Greek.
The film critic Roger Ebert observed that there were many "pretty girls" in cinema "but not many women", and called Papas a great actress. Ebert noted her uphill struggle, her height limiting the leading men she could play alongside, her accent limiting the roles she could take, and "her unusual beauty is not the sort that superstar actresses like to compete with." Ordinary actors, he suggested, had trouble sharing the screen with Papas. All the same, her presence in many well-known movies, wrote Ebert, inspired "something of a cult".
Papas began her acting career in variety and traditional theatre, in plays by Ibsen, Shakespeare, and classical Greek tragedy, before moving into film in 1951. Later in her career, she took the eponymous role of Medea in a 1973 production of Euripides's play. Reviewing the production in The New York Times, Clive Barnes described her as a "very fine, controlled Medea", smouldering with a "carefully dampened passion", constantly fierce.
In 1969, the RCA label released Papas' vinyl LP, Songs of Theodorakis (INTS 1033). This has 11 folk songs sung in Greek, conducted by Harry Lemonopoulos and produced by Andy Wiswell, with sleeve notes in English by Michael Cacoyannis. It was released on CD in 2004 (FM 1680). Papas knew Mikis Theodorakis from working with him on Zorba the Greek as early as 1964.
In 1972, she appeared on the album 666 by the Greek rock group Aphrodite's Child on the track "∞" (infinity). She chants "I was, I am, I am to come" repeatedly and wildly over a percussive backing, causing controversy with her "graphic orgasm".
In 1979, Polydor released her solo album of eight Greek folk songs entitled Odes, with electronic music performed (and partly composed) by Vangelis Papathanassiou. The lyrics were co-written by Arianna Stassinopoulos. They collaborated again in 1986 for Rapsodies, an electronic rendition of seven Byzantine liturgical hymns, also on Polydor.
Papas was a member of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), and in 1967 called for a "cultural boycott" against the "Fourth Reich", meaning the military government of Greece at that time.