Here is, roughly, the story of Medea: after she helps Jason steal the golden fleece and regain power over his kingdom (and kills her younger brother in the process), Jason dumps Medea for a younger, wealthier woman and orders her into exile. To get revenge, Medea poisons the bride-to-be. Then she poisons the bride’s father. Then she kills her own children. Jason begs her to let him bury the bodies. She refuses him even this.
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1969 retelling of Euripides’ story, Medea, is most notable for its star: legendary opera singer Maria Callas plays the title role in this, her only film appearance. When she agreed to play Medea, Callas was 46 and recently spurned: she signed on to the film the day before her lover of nine years, Aristotle Onassis, married Jackie Kennedy.
Callas doesn’t sing a note in Pasolini’s film; she barely even speaks. Without words, a creepy blankness issues from the film that—to me, at least—emanates from the original script of Euripides’ tragedy. The silence makes Medea, as a heroine, seem smart—not like she’s mute but like she doesn’t waste words. Her actions bear the cool glint of pragmatism. As she and Jason share their first evening together, we’re treated to a waist-up shot of his muscular back. Medea’s hieroglyphic eye, under heavy brows, peers out—not up at the ceiling in detachment, but sidelong at Jason’s face, like she’s sizing him up. When she’s stealing the golden fleece, she shakes the relic like she’s at a vending machine trying to dislodge a hanging treat.
Critics were surprised at the subtlety of Callas’ camera acting, but they shouldn’t have been. Callas experienced her darkest rages in private. Her secretary describes a late-night call from Onassis that sent Callas into hysterics on the eve of the first day of filming. The staff tried to console her, but when it got late, they made to leave Callas in privacy. “You’re going to abandon me now? You’re just like him! None of you care!” She reportedly yelled. She kept her staff beside her until the wee hours, until finally someone gave her a sleeping pill. But the next morning she was the first to show up to filming, flawless. Callas could play a passionate character who avenged herself with exacting composure, at least in part, because she was one.
A diva approaches her entire career like a woman spurned: with elemental passion, she throws away all else to focus on her goal. And because she is a woman, perfectionism reads to the public like vengeance; her anger creates scandal. Critics of Callas’ behavior throughout her career clucked when she stormed from theaters during rehearsals in violent reaction to perceived slights. Her behavior harmed her professional relationships, too. In 1958 the Metropolitan Opera threatened to fire her after she tried to force last-minute changes in repertoire. When she didn’t deign to respond to the threat—she was in rehearsal for the opera version of Medea—the Met did cancel her contract.
For Wayne Koestenbam, in his essay on the “gay cult” of Callas, this destructive perfectionism is Callas’ enduring potential: “To mourn Callas,” he writes. “There, cult happiness begins.” Never mind hers. Although Callas demanded to be treated like a queen, she was not above ugliness. She suffered, but it gave her power. Like Medea, Callas’ victories—talent itself, as well as fame—were pyrrhic. But aren’t they always? “If I really didn’t get angry, other people wouldn’t work,” the opera singer once told an interviewer. “If you don’t whip them hard, they will never be able to do it.”
Callas’ knowing attitude implies an almost matriarchal air toward her fellow musicians, if not her employers; in Pasolini’s Medea, Callas is most appealing as a cast-aside mother. As she and Jason exchange their longest conversation of the film, their children are present, faces upturned, soaking it in. Kids watching their parents fight—rarely is the myth of Medea configured as a story of divorce, but there’s a connection: the kids are casualties. She and Jason have sex one last time, the camera lingers over Medea as she packs a poisoned dress for his new wife. She asks her children to deliver it. She tells the kids, “Don’t be mad at your dad!”
It’s easy, in endings, to conflate actress and character, when so much else lines up; in some ways, when watching Medea today, the experience is heightened by dramatic irony—directed at Callas, not her character. She’ll too flame out. Callas lost her voice, and died “alone,” one of those famous deaths that make us cringe, because it reveals how much the famous lived off their fame. “She craved applause,” says Koestenbaum, “And died for lack of it.” We keep mourning Callas; we have to, if she is to remain a star. But I’d like to think of her ending as more complex, or rather, as just off-screen. In this film, she’s a sight to behold.
Medea is screening tonight at BAM with an introduction by Wayne Koestenbaum.