"Now that Melina's a star from 'Never on Sunday,' let's update that ancient Greek play by Euripides, already updated by Racine, make them Greek shipping magnate families, and get that 'Psycho' guy -- Perkins -- as her stepson / lover."
Hollywood NEVER thought like that. Nobody else did either, except Jules Dassin, to whom filmgoers owe eternal gratitude for "Phaedra." Dassin's story (with Margarita Lymberaki) and script are tight as a drum, so emotionally potent that the roles are perhaps playable by hand puppets.
His casting is breathtaking. Melina Mercouri is the obvious choice for Phaedra, coming off her adorable star-making turn (at 40) in "Never on Sunday" two years earlier (and not to mention her growing personal relationship with Dassin, whom she was to marry). Her Phaedra is everything her waterfront hooker is not: rich, controlled, sophisticated, trapped in a marriage of wealth and convenience.
Raf Vallone as her powerful husband may also seem obvious casting: his Mediterranean virility is the masculine equivalent of Mercouri's Greek goddess passion and presence.
But Anthony Perkins as her stepson, Alexis? Hardly the obvious choice, yet perfect nonetheless. He even looks like he might be Greek. In those days (early '60s) he was a handsomely sensitive and intense "young" man (not to mention a brilliant actor: his playing against type made "Psycho" that much more shocking: try imagining anybody else in that role. Hitchcock knew what he was doing with Perkins too.). Yet his previous filmic forays as a romantic leading man (opposite, say, Jane Fonda in "Tall Story") felt curiously flat and false. Today we know that was because the actor himself was tormented and conflicted by being gay, eventually marrying and having children, yet still dying from AIDS because of his secret life. That secretive, hidden, conflicted sexual intensity worked perfectly in "Psycho" and it does in "Phaedra" where, for the first and only role in Perkins' screen history, his full sexuality gets its chance to explode.
The careful script construction builds tensions slowly, on every level. The competition between Greek shipping tycoons seems realistic and involving. So does Raf Vallone's urgency to bring his "art student" son back to Greece from Europe to help run the family empire. He hasn't time to go himself, and sends his wife, Melina Mercouri, to convince her stepson to return.
From their initial meeting, the sexual tension between Mercouri (perhaps the most complex portrayer of feminine passion in the history of film, including Anna Magnanni and Sophia Loren) and Anthony Perkins (perhaps the most intensely complex and sexually ambiguous male American star since Montgomery Clift) is electric.
They seem to be doing little, if anything, in their initial scenes, in the museum, for instance. She's trying to seduce him into returning home. He's resisting. Two actors have never played subtext better.
By the time their repressed passions overcome them, in front of that fireplace, and they begin to undress each other and make love to Mikis Theodorakis' pounding score and Jacques Natteau's lyrical cinematography, Dassin has achieved what many still consider to be the single most erotic scene ever filmed.
That he did it with two of the seemingly most improbably-matched actors, and without any real nudity (no pubic hair, no nipples other than Perkins' visible) . . . just with looks and kisses and caresses like none ever captured on film before or since . . . is no small tribute to his director's genius.
That scene shocked audiences and left them sexually limp and satiated in the '60s. It no longer shocks. It's simply beautiful and fulfilling and haunting -- as it must be, for the moment seals all the characters' fates.
From that passionate consummation, in fact, "Phaedra's" grip tightens and pulls us into darker depths than we ever anticipated.
Love -- this love -- is a kind of fatal madness from which there is no escape.
Phaedra is not Ilya the hooker from "Never on Sunday." Alexis is not Norman Bates from "Psycho." It is difficult to recall a more vivid demonstration of on screen acting versatility by two stars in two years, ever.
Phaedra's and Alexis' descent into tragedy is truly painful. Perkins' playing of his final suicidal "mad" scene is unlike any other scene he ever played. It is tempting, knowing what we know today of Perkins the actor, to believe we're witnessing an eruption of his own internal passions besting him and leading him to his death. That's a false temptation. Perkins had no more knowledge of when and how he would die than any of us do. He was, simply, brilliantly, fully in character and (as an actor) so trusting in his director that he took chances he never had before nor ever would again.
That Perkins' "mad" scene occasionally elicits discomfort is testimony to his gifts. It is not, in fact, "over the top." As anyone knows who's ever seen anybody go "mad," it is utterly real. So real, so impassioned, so demented and hopeless (and brilliantly conceived: driving himself to his death in a luxury sports car while singing along with / shouting at Bach???) that some viewers use any defense, including ridicule, to remind themselves that "this is only a movie." Dassin beautifully orchestrates Perkins' arc from neurotic "artist" to passionate, even insane, lover . . . and contrasts it with Mercouri's descent from emotional Greek goddess to almost mutely resigned walking death mask. Both arcs, and both actors, are equally devastating.
Over four decades after its production, there has never been a film like "Phaedra." In a hundred years, there still won't be.