Lila Kedrova: A State of Prayer

Lila Kedrova (1918-2000)

Madame Hortense was much older than me. But when I read the script, I saw the poetry. She is an old woman but she is like a child. Pure inside of her. It is so marvelous in this woman. When she meets Zorba, she becomes this young person. Also a little bit ridiculous.

If I played her like a young woman, it would be no good. So I played me exactly as a young girl. When they put the old makeup on me and those awful dresses and this hairstyle, it was so sad and funny [at] the same time. The director gave me a gesture. I am flirting with Zorba and in the same time my stocking is falling down. And I try to lift them. Everybody on the set was laughing. Immediately, it was clear to me how this woman behaves. The other gestures came from myself because I now understood her.

Afterwards, when she is in love with Zorba and he's not there, Madame Hortense goes to Basil, which is Alan Bates, the English actor. Zorba's boss. She asks him to read Zorba's letter and he lies. He told her that Zorba loves her and wanted to marry her. She is transformed. She becomes like somebody from a very good family. An aristocrat, almost, yes. I cried because this scene is so full of emotion and Cacoyannis [Michael, the film's director] he cried himself, too.

The death of Madame Hortense in Zorba the Greek (1964), with Anthony Quinn.

When Madame Hortense is dying, remember? She grabs ahold of Zorba tight. She wants to say, "Don't let me go. I would like to stay with you forever." And in this moment she is dying. Her eyes are open wide, she is so afraid. Don't let me go. You know, I saw somebody on his deathbed. Chaliapin, the great singer. [Feodor Chaliapin, the most admired basso in the history of opera.] He was the greatest friend of my father for a long, long time. It was in Paris, not long after we left Leningrad. I was a small girl. He said, "Your father told me you can recite Pushkin. Please say something from him now." And I did. He was very touched and he said, "Come here, near." And he kissed me and he blessed me. A very great moment. And he told me, "Lila, you will be actress, I am sure." He was almost near to dying. I prayed and prayed to myself, "Please Chaliapin, give me a little bit of talent. I would like to be like this." I think it was his last day."

Lila Kedrova, in conversation with Studs Terkel, 1965, the year she won the Oscar as best supporting actress for her performance in Zorba the Greek. 

You know, when I was making the film [Tell Me A Riddle, based on the short-story collection by Tillie Olsen] with Lee [Grant] and Melvyn [Douglas], I was in a state of prayer as that character. I was remembering watching a great man die, slip away, and my character was slipping, like sand through tiny, weak hands. I reflected on that, and moved as gently as I could, until I was angry or overcome. I was aware of transferring as much love as I could to those around me, and I got so much love from everyone on that film.

Lila Kedrova, in conversation with me, after a Christian Science lecture, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, given by her husband, a lecturer. This was in 1983, and she was bursting with life and humor; she was tiny and giggly and expansive. Kedrova was preparing to go into the musical Zorba, again assuming the role of Madame Hortense, and the following year she would receive the Tony award for her performance.

Lee Grant directing Lila Kedrova in Tell Me A Riddle (1980).


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