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.
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.