Anthony Quinn, born Antonio Rodolfo Quinn Oaxaca, never really made it as a Hollywood leading man, and that served him perfectly. When director Elia Kazan chose Marlon Brando over him to play Emiliano Zapata in the 1952 film Viva Zapata!, Quinn accepted the role of Zapata's brother and won the first of his two Best Supporting Actor Oscars. He was able to work with filmmakers such as Federico Fellini (La Strada) and Vincente Minnelli (Lust for Life), and though his first major leading role in The Savage Innocents (1959) has largely been forgotten as a film, it did inspire Bob Dylan to write "Quinn the Eskimo (Mighty Quinn)." Few actors can say they have had a Dylan song written about them.
Ironically, it was his failure to take off as a leading man that led to his greatest role, that of Alexis Zorba in Michael Cacoyannis' 1964 film Zorba the Greek. By building his reputation as one of Hollywood's top character actors, and sticking with his natural ruggedness over slicked-over suaveness, Quinn was the perfect fit to play the Greek peasant with a lust for life, whose friendship with uptight Brit Basil (Alan Bates) teaches both men important life lessons.
Make no mistake, Zorba the Greek, this week's selection for "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," is the Anthony Quinn show. But there's more to this film that just one performance.
More after the jump.
Zorba the Greek was nominated for seven Oscars in 1964, winning three: Best Cinematography (Black-and-White), Best Art Direction (Black-and-White), and Best Supporting Actress for Lila Kedrova (more on her in a minute). Filmed on location in Crete, Cacoyannis - a Cyproit-born Greek filmmaker - makes the most of his Mediterranean setting. At the beginning of the film, he films everything mostly in a series of close-ups, including the introductions of the main duo:
But once the action moves to Crete, the camera opens up to take in the landscape. While Cacoyannis still uses close-ups fairly regularly, there are plenty more wide-shots that take in the splendor of Crete. As far as that cinematography victory goes, it was a deserving one.
More than anything, though, this is a performance-driven film, one that overcomes its shakier story elements through the power of the actors portraying each character. Bates plays buttoned-up British reserve very nicely, and he makes a delightful audience surrogate in the story. And Irene Papas, playing the local widow who meets a grisly fate, delivers a near-silent performance that is stunning in how much she can convey with a single look.
The above was almost my favorite shot, for how much contempt Papas is able to express with her glare.
Kedrova, though, is an absolute scene-stealer as lonely French widow Madame Hortense. She matches Zorba's joie de vivre, which is why they make a fantastic couple when they pursue each other. It also makes it that much difficult to watch when she becomes ill later in the film, losing her wide-eyed smile and succumbing to her illness. But when it's light, Kedrova clearly is having a blast, and her Oscar was a well-deserved one.
In the end, though, it all comes down to Quinn. He didn't win the Oscar for this performance, but he was a part of what I consider one of the best Best Actor fields ever. He was nominated alongside Rex Harrison for My Fair Lady, Peter Sellers for Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, and the dynamic duo of Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole for Becket (Harrison won). Quinn's performance is marked by his mesmerizing exuberance and ability to show that, despite having some questionable ideas, Zorba is so charming and charismatic that even he believes some of his own bullshit.
So, in choosing my best shot, it had to be one of Quinn. The film makes a strong point of Zorba's dancing: he only dances when the moment is right for it. At one point, when he convinces a group of monks to sell their land to him, a pair of the monks are startled by him and refer to him as "the devil." It seems appropriate, because when Zorba dances, he moves like a man possessed.
This shot, I think, captures that idea the best. Zorba is not evil, he's not The Devil. But he behaves like a devilish imp, and the lighting in this shot - heavy shadow behind him, arms outstretched, grin across his face - best shows how entranced he can become in his passions. He invites you to dance with the devil in the pale moonlight, so to speak, and with Quinn's masterful performance, there's no way you turn him down.