Television Review: Onassis: The Richest Man in the World (1988)


Today’s audience, accustomed to high standards of Golden Age of Television, might have problems realising how US television shows and dramas in last decades of 20th Century were constrained by low budgets and tight censorship standards. This affected even the projects that were supposed to be “the events” featuring stellar cast and dealing with some of the most attractive subjects. One of them was Onassis: The Richest Man in the World, 1988 two-part television biopic directed by Waris Hussein.

The film is based on the eponymous book by British journalist Peter Evans, the unauthorised biography of Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Socrates Onassis, one of the most colourful personalities of 20th Century. The plot begins in early 1920s in Smyrna, city on the eastern shores of Aegean Sea where young Aristotle Onassis (played by Elias Koteas) grows up in the family of wealthy Greek merchant Socrates Onassis (played by Anthony Quinn). After the First World War and collapse of Ottoman Empire area gets contested between Greek army and Turkish nationalists; when the latter prevail Greek community, including Onassis family, is subjected to persecution. Aristotle is forced to use all of family’s money and even his body in order to save father from execution and bring him to Greece. From there young Onassis goes to make his fortune in Argentina, where he would, as an employee of telephone company, receive enough inside information to successfully trade stocks. Later he invests money in cigarette brand marketed at women and, later, shipping company. A decade later Onassis (played by Raul Julia), predicting that the upcoming Second World War would increase demand of oil, buys fleet of tankers. He becomes so rich and powerful that he marries Tina (played by Beatie Edney), 17-year old daughter of his main rival Livanos (played by Anthony Zerbe). Onassis becomes prominent figure of the international jet set, with his yacht “Tina” becoming favourite destination for the world’s richest and most powerful people. His marriage falls apart due to infidelities, including wildly publicised affair with famous opera singer Maria Callas (played by Jane Seymour). It is an encounter with Jacqueline Bouvier-Kennedy (played by Francesca Annis), glamorous wife of ambitious US politician John F. Kennedy (played by David Gilliam) that would start the best known romantic episode of his life. After Kennedy becomes US President, Jacqueline is still intrigued by charming larger-than-life tycoon and, five years after husband’s assassination, marries him. The marriage of the century, however, ultimately won’t bring happiness to Greek tycoon.

Onassis features very strong cast. Raul Julia, then at the top of his game, is formidable as larger-than-life tycoon, easily conveying qualities that would help his character seduce world’s most desirable women and force potential partners to accept his business schemes. Jane Seymour, one of the most respected television actresses of her time, is quite good in the role of neurotic and emotional insecure diva, and her portrayal of iconic Callas brought her Emmy Award for Supporting Actress in Limited Series. The rest of cast members, however, aren’t that impressive. Elias Koteas, Canadian actor who would later play many memorable characters on big screen, is quite bland in the role of young Onassis. Francesca Annis, on the other hand, mostly tries to mimic Jacqueline Bouvier’s accent and her character remains one-dimensional.

Waris Hussein, British director who worked mostly on television and whose best known work is similarly-themed miniseries Edward & Mrs. Simpson, does a decent job in trying to portray five decades of someone’s life in three hours. However, production constraints are quite visible. Series was entirely made on Spanish locations, and even with decent budget, 4:3 screen format deprives it of epic look. The biggest problem for Onassis, however, is the script by Jacqueline Feather and David Seidler, which begins quite promisingly by depicting protagonist’s rise from rags to riches. That segment also tries to “hook” audience’s attention with a detail which was still relatively rare on 1980s US broadcast television – young Onassis being involved in homosexual relationship with Turkish officer (played by Richard Cheves). Although the relationship is only heavily implied (and Onassis’ later heterosexual affairs displayed more vividly), this makes Onasssis quite “spicy” for similar television biopics from the era. Unfortunately, once the protagonist becomes rich and powerful, all drama ends. The film reveals itself as being made by the Boomers for the Boomers and relying on their memory; the momentous events of 1960s are only briefly mentioned without any context and film might be quite confusing for latter generations. Onassis looks even worse when compared with The Greek Tycoon, another Onassis biopic made a decade earlier in which Anthony Quinn (who here appears in relatively small role of father) played Onassis-like character with more passion, conviction, helped by better production, direction and more focused script.

RATING: 4/10 (+)

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