I am not the only one who loved Before Midnight. Most of the critics I respect wrote about Richard Linklater’s new film with the kind of breathless admiration usually reserved for established classics or the mature work of an acclaimed auteur. I am with them 100%. I don’t remember having seen recently a film with such a unique understanding of the human psyche as this last installment of the Before . . . series. Rich, funny, poignant, and profound are some of the words to describe Before Midnight, in which Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy continue the saga of a relationship that sparked to life in 1995 with Before Sunrise, peaked in 2004 with Before Sunset, and now comes to a heart-wrenching conclusion with Before Midnight, where we find the couple in full-on, soul-searching mode while vacationing in an idyllic part of the Southern Peloponnese in Greece.
The movie had an additional layer of resonance for me. I have spent the last four years working on a theater project just a few miles away from where the movie takes place. I couldn’t keep my eyes off the backdrop of the story—the lush landscape with centuries-old olive trees, vineyards of luscious, ripe tomatoes, sleepy villages, and secluded—and unusually rough for Greece—rocky beaches. Every time I visited our project there, a fleeting thought crossed my mind: Do I have to go back to the States? Life seems so much simpler and unhurried here. Even work feels like vacation. Sadly, just like a vivid dream that evaporates as soon as we step out of bed, thoughts of escape or defection to an enchanting locale fade away the moment we are on a plane on our way back home.
But there was another reason I felt so close to Before Midnight: I was surprised to discover that the role of Natalia, the host of the vacationing couple and the owner of the villa where they are staying, was played by Greek actress Xenia Kalogeropoulou. I grew up with her movies. As a 10-year-old kid, I was so smitten with her that my cousin Roula used to put Xenia’s picture on my chest and have fun feeling my heartbeat race.
Xenia was poised for international stardom when in 1962 she was selected by the then president of 20th Century Fox, Spiro Skouras, to co-star with Jayne Mansfield in It Happened In Athens. Typical for a Hollywood studio of that era, Fox re-baptized the Greek star and “introduced” her to an international audience as Maria Xenia.
But international stardom never happened. Xenia stayed in Greece, where she had a rich career in the theater, especially theater for children. In the ’90s, the renowned Greek actor, writer, and director Stamatis Fasoulis introduced me to Xenia while she was visiting the States. I spent a week with her in New York showing her around and reminiscing about Greek movies and Greek theater. I remember asking her what it was like to work with Jayne Mansfield. Behind her screen persona as a cut-rate Marilyn Monroe-like bimbo, legend had it that Mansfield had one of the highest IQs in Hollywood. Was it true, I asked Xenia? Not even close, she said. Mansfield was sweet but as dumb as she looked on the screen.
Xenia (third from right) with Jayne Mansfield.
Over the years, I lost contact with Xenia, one of the most intelligent, sweet, and unpretentious people I have ever met. It was such a treat to see her play old Natalia in Before Midnight, bringing to her small but pivotal part the same charisma, dignity, and wisdom that has defined her long-standing career. I fell in love with her all over again!