Russian-born French actress Lila Kedrova (b. Petrograd (now St. Petersburg), Russia, 9 October 1918 (?); d. Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, 16 February 2000) is best known in the English-speaking world for her Oscar®-winning performance as Madame Hortense in the film Zorba the Greek (1964), and for winning a Best Actress Tony Award® twenty years later in the same role on Broadway in the stage musical Zorba (1983). She was a great favorite in London’s West End in the 1960s and ’70s, appearing as Frau Schneider in Cabaret, and leading the cast in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and other classics. Although she much preferred working in the live theater, she appeared in as many as fifty movies, half of them in French, the rest in English or Italian.
The actual year of Yelizaveta Nikolayevna Kedrova’s birth is uncertain, since her family escaped from Bolshevik Russia when she was just three or four, leaving her birth papers irretrievably behind. Both her parents were singers: her mother Sofia Gladkaya had sung opera at the Mariinsky Theatre; her father Nikolay was also a composer and leader of a male vocal quartet. They first sought refuge in Berlin, but moved to Paris in 1928, where Sofia taught voice at the Conservatoire and Nikolay revived the “Quatuor Kedroff.”
There can be little doubt that the facts of Lila Kedrova’s early life were to some degree exaggerated in her own telling: that she ran off with the gypsies (she tried, but the police returned her to her parents), that she pretended to be an orphan so that she could join the circus, that she knew Stravinsky and Prokofiev, that she turned pages for Shostakovich (a patent impossibility). It is true that she studied the piano, played in public as a teenager, and went to a Russian school in Paris.
When Lila was just fourteen, she hooked up with a touring troupe of expatriate Russian actors from the Moscow Art Theatre, adherents to the Stanislavsky Method. In an effort to win her parents’ approval, she invited the entire company to lunch, but when they remained adamant, she absconded with the actors to Brussels. Her mother pursued her and bought a front-row ticket for the play Lila was performing in. “I had a lovely part and I played it beautifully,” Kedrova later told an interviewer. “[My mother] came backstage afterward and said, ‘Yes, Lila, you can be an actress.’” Thereafter, she studied at a drama school under actor-director Pierre Valide, whom she married.
Valide directed Kedrova’s first stage successes in Paris in the ’50s: French versions of The Rose Tattoo, A View from the Bridge, A Taste of Honey, and Razzia sur la Chnouf, in which she played a drug addict, winning a French Cesar Award when the play became a film.
Kedrova had made seventeen movies in French when in 1964 director Michael Cacoyannis made an urgent phone call to her from the island of Crete. He asked her, in French, if she spoke English. “Oui,” she lied. Simone Signoret, who had been cast as Madame Hortense in the film of Zorba the Greek, opposite Anthony Quinn, had walked off the set one week after shooting had started, and the whole production had come to a screeching halt. Kedrova caught the first plane to Crete and directly came down with the flu, but holed up in her hotel and learned the English lines for her first scene.
Kedrova was persistent – hence Cacoyannis’s nickname for her, “Little Monster” – and with the support of the crew and the director’s patience, she scored a signal victory, winning the year’s Academy Award® for Best Supporting Actress. She was also nominated for a BAFTA Award (Best Foreign Actress), a Golden Globe, and two Laurel Awards (Top Female Supporting Performance, Top Female New Face). Thus her first English-language film put her solidly into the international arena.
Somewhat reluctantly, she soon took on a number of eccentric roles in Hollywood productions: A High Wind in Jamaica (1965, again with Anthony Quinn), Torn Curtain (1966, with Paul Newman and Julie Andrews), Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976), and Tell Me a Riddle (1980, with Melvyn Douglas, winning the Golden Mask award at the Taormina Film Festival). Much more to her taste were her stage roles in London’s West End during this period: Lyuba Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard (1967), Frau Schneider in Cabaret (1968), and the aunt in Gigi (1976). During the run of The Cherry Orchard she met her second husband, Canadian stage director Richard Howard, whom she married on the last day of 1968.
By 1983 Lila Kedrova was twenty years older than she had been while filming Madame Hortense to Anthony Quinn’s Zorba, and, as critic Frank Rich would point out, more the right age for the role, more “out of a Toulouse-Lautrec canvas.” (With her ski-jump nose, Kedrova did bear a striking resemblance to Lautrec’s Yvette Guilbert.) The musical stage version of Zorba would be Kedrova’s only Broadway appearance (again opposite Quinn), and it won her a Tony Award® for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical and a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actress.
After this sensational success she made only five more films (one of them, A Star for Two (1991) again starred Anthony Quinn). In Chichester, England, in 1989 she triumphed as Madame Armfeldt in a revival of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. By this time she and her husband had homes in Paris, Toronto, and Sault Ste. Marie in Ontario, Canada.
After a long battle with congestive heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease, Lila Kedrova died at her summer home in Sault Ste. Marie, leaving no family other than Richard Howard.
– Lucy E. Cross