Onassis: The Richest Man in the World (1988)

Because the miniseries movement made a virtual sub-genre about anything having to do with the Kennedys, naturally it got around to Ari Onassis, though he was certain a dramatic larger-than-life figure of his own, perfect dramatic fodder for the personalities the miniseries celebrated.  He appears in nearly all of the Kennedy miniseries and had at least one theatrical movie made about him (“The Greek Tycoon,” though it’s “fiction,” it’s clearly about Onassis), usually played by an elderly vet who looks like a gross old man next to ethereal Jackie, so it’s nice to have a story where he’s allowed to be a gross young man next to everyone, Jackie included (this movie is awfully kind to his aging process, not to mention his looks).  In life, Ari Onassis was the very personification of 20th Century Eurotrash, parvenu nouveu riche, a man coarse and vulgar, but with so much money that everyone paid homage.  If he hadn’t been for real, the miniseries would have certainly invented him.  So, it stands to reason that it instead gets to re-invent him as some sort of charming Lothario who went from woman to woman as he happened to be gathering the world’s greatest fortune.

“Onassis: The Richest Man in the World” also features our muse of the miniseries, Jane Seymour, in her only Emmy-winning role.  Can you believe it?  Just one Emmy.  I thought she won at least a few for “Dr. Quinn,” but nope.  Not “East of Eden” and not even “War and Remembrance.”  She sure as hell deserved a wall full of Emmys, but for now, this one will have to do (and it does, because she’s magnificent).

This movie is a Grade-A cheese-fest, the kind that made American television so delicious in the 1980s.  Ridiculously cast and no deeper than page two of a tabloid, “Onassis: The Richest Man in the World” is presented as a Greek-infused “Dallas,” with Onassis basically J.R. Ewing on a boat.

The movie begs us to laugh from the onset where Raul Julia does does his version of a dramatic Greek dance amidst ruins on a Greek cliff while the major players on his life give one-line obituaries about him.  It’s okay, you can hit pause while you stop laughing.  Raul Julia as Ari Onassis?  The most Hispanic of actors playing the most Greek of men?  Fine if the movie wants a star, but Raul Julia?  Not once in his career (not even here) did he try to hide his natural accent for a film role.  But, on top of that, wow, they certainly upped Ari, who was an ugly little gnome of a man, on the handsome scale! 

The movie starts with Young Ari (Elias Koteas) running a race on the beach while his disapproving father watches.  Socrates Onassis (Anthony Quinn, who played the Ari character in “The Greek Tycoon”), clucks to his family, “I have to teach him something…before life does,” when he’s told he’s too hard on his son.  That’s interesting parenting.  Because Socrates is so nasty, Young Ari loses the second race.  But, his uncle sweeps him off to a local whorehouse where Young Ari is baffled to find out that someone may like him only for his money.  He better get used to it, because everyone in the man’s life would do the same. 

Socrates Onassis is a Smyrna merchant who dispenses advice to his son that sounds like the Greek version of fortune cookies, but with a sincerity that borders on the fanatical (Tony Quinn had long given up trying to actually act by this point in his career).  War between the Greeks and Turks splits Socrates from his brother, Ari’s favorite relative, and the Turks confiscate Socrates’ property and money.  Ari volunteers to stay on in the house to avoid being sent to a labor camp. 

Anthony Quinn goes into melodrama hysterics living in a prison camp, begging his son through the fence to get him some new pants as he has soiled himself.  Young Ari can help by sharing a bed with the Turkish general who has taken his family’s home, but it takes his papa’s money, hidden under the floorboards, to bribe officials and reunite the family.  Is Socrates grateful?  Of course not!  He castigates his son for leaving him nothing to restart his business.  Of course the argument is REALLY about Ari’s relationship with the Turk.  Papa tosses Ari out of the house, but he’s more than willing to go, boarding a ship to Buenos Aires and vowing to return, wearing a suit but playing good old-fashioned Greek tragedy.

He sends his family letters about how he lives among “high society” in Buenos Aires (he works in a restaurant where they eat) and he has the finest instruction in the tango (he reads it out of a book and draws chalk outlines on the floor) and has a job in communications (he’s a switchboard operator who listens in on conversations).  It’s the importation of Turkish tobacco that starts Ari’s fortune, swindling a bank into giving him a loan for the materials because he listens in on a call that says Turkish cigarettes are all the rage. 

Only when Ari returns to Greece does Raul Julia take over playing him.  I suppose that makes sense.  One leaves Greece Greek and returns to from Argentina Latin.  That’s the only explanation I can think of for how the hell anyone cast Raul Julia as Ari Onassis.  Because Ari returns to Greece wealthy, Papa Socrates is thrilled to see him.  A welcome home dinner gives Quinn a chance to revisit his Zorba dance moves, and when he invites his son to dance with him, one expects a tango from the son and a heart attack from the father.  Only the latter happens, of course, because old people who dance in miniseries are not long for the world, and the next scene shows everyone on the way to his funeral.

Onassis is interesting in shipping, helped by his loyal friend Costa Gratsos (John Kapelos), and a montage shows us how quickly he became a gazillionaire, inventing the supertanker, exploiting wars and finally making it to America, where he works his smooth Latin charm (sorry, Greek charm…no, Latin charm, because Raul Julia isn’t even attempting to play Greek here) on the Tina Livanos, a Greek girl whose father is a shipping magnate.  Onassis suggests “a merger…a personal merger” to her father, telling him he might as well take him into the family and avoid being competition.  His “killer instinct,” as Costa calls it, is fully in bloom.  Tina (Beatie Edney) is certainly no prize, but Onassis is too focused on monopolizing the oil shipping industry.  Even at his wedding he’s all business. 

The wedding night is not exactly as upper-crust Tina expected.  No silk pajamas, just Ari in a towel, delighting in his physical prowess.  Time passes, two children are born, Onassis fills his home with golden everything and he goes after an airline company.  The marriage doesn’t work.  Ari sleeps around and Tina resents being “a possession.”  “You’re nothing but a Turkish peasant,” she snaps in a dialogue exchange that occurs in every miniseries about a rich person with an unhappy spouse (we saw it a few times with Barbara Hutton already), but this miniseries gives us a twist here.  Ari slaps her and then kisses her for it.  The man is a sexual fiend.

It’s Jane Seymour time!  We have our first glimpse of her Maria Callas mid-opera, with Onassis bewitched in the audience.  Okay, is Jane any better cast as Maria than Raul as Ari?  Probably not, but here’s the difference: Jane Seymour can act and therefore makes us believe, whereas Raul plays himself and remembers only periodically he’s being filmed. 

Callas is invited aboard the Christina, Onassis’ island-sized yacht, and the two oversized personalities meld beautifully.  Callas is nagged by her manager-husband about an upcoming concert and Jane runs around the boat yelling, “I will always have another concert.  I may never have another yacht,” before tossing a newspaper into the sea, getting a standing ovation from Ari for that bit of histrionics.  Ari counters with some cheese of his own, plucking flowers and talking about how they remind him of the past and then seducing her in a tiny watering hole with more of that Greek dancing he doesn’t do so well.  Watch this scene for the contrast in styles: Julia smolders like Valentino because every actor dancing sensually since the 1920s is supposed to do that; Seymour works from the eyes, never forgetting she’s in character.  Mr. Callas (Geoffrey Hutchings) doesn’t stand a chance, even though he rails at his wife that he turned her from a “fat kid from Brooklyn” into the world’s reigning opera diva.

The pull from Ari is just too strong and she leaves the argument with her husband to go to Ari’s room, where she gives in, but not without expected dramatics.  “My heart is beating so fast,” she whispers, contorting her body like she’s on stage as Ari just wants to get it on.  Oh, and did I mention they left the door open, too hot to bother with details?  Cue Tina, who finally leaves Ari, because she won’t “stand around while you and your canary cavort in public.”  Their goodbye argument returns us to the world of cliche (she can’t handle his whoring and he’s bought her everything but never given her himself, blah, blah, blah).

Having learned the fine art of over-the-top fighting from Maria Callas, Onassis threatens Tina’s father not to mess with him in a scene that is gut-bustingly amusing.  He won’t give Tina what she wants in the divorce, but he also won’t give up Maria, he tells Costa in an equally goofy scene following.  When the press asks him about his Callas, Ari’s response is “I’m a sailor, these things happen.”  Yes, and in only 10 minutes of screen time. 

Although Raul Julia has finally decided to open up his performance a little, he picked the wrong time.  He’s no match for Jane Seymour’s Callas, who gets all pissy when he refers to her as a “friend” in the paper, throwing a tantrum that she wants to be known as the mistress of Onassis.  She’s not at all thrilled that Ari’s kids make fun of her, but this is a woman who packs her luggage in a full face of make-up, not exactly the maternal type.  Every discussion turns into a fiery argument where Callas explodes again and again.  It’s great fun to watch, because Jane wipes the deck with Raul each time.

But Maria Callas doesn’t have Ari to herself for long.  Ari entertains the Churchills (yes, those Churchills) on his yacht along with Lee Radziwill (yes, that Lee Radziwill).  Talk turns to her sister Jackie (yes, that Jackie) immediately, though there’s a gigantic historical error here.  When Lee tells all that Jackie is pregnant, Churchill says, “why not?  A Camelot on the other side of the Atlantic.”  The whole Camelot-Kennedy connection wouldn’t actually start until the tail end of JFK’s life, but it wouldn’t turn myth until after his death, because Jackie carefully created it.  I know, I know, I’m the only person who would even hear that sentence, let alone note it.

So here come the Kennedys.  Jackie (Francesca Annis) loses her baby and accepts an invitation to recuperate on Ari’s yacht.  Annis doesn’t do a lot but whisper, not one of the better Jackie O impersonations in miniseries history.  Ari lays it on thick when he squires Jackie, talking nonsense about legacies and history.  “You, you could become a legend,” he tells her, which of course she wants to hear.  He’s learned to manipulate women.  The Kennedy brothers, basically a bunch of guys with Boston accents, are not happy with Jackie’s choice in yacht mates.  They order her home and Bobby tells Jack the next time she needs to rest, “send her to Hyannisport.”  Oh, yeah, kick back during tackle football, that’s exactly what Jackie wanted. 

This Jackie is frankly annoying.  “I just realized, I haven’t seen your eyes this entire trip,” she whispers to Ari, the sunglasses-wearing Jack Nicholson of the high seas “and eyes are the windows of the soul,” sounding like one of the highfalutin’ books she read at Miss Porter’s.  “I like to keep the curtains drawn,” he replies, sounding like a hokum-laden miniseries character.  “I think I’ll start wearing glasses all the time.  It does add a certain mystique,” Jackie replies.  Ah, mystery solved!  Now we know where Jackie got her obsession for sunglasses: a chance quip on the Onassis yacht. 

Just because Jackie has entered the picture doesn’t mean Maria Callas has left it.  Maria isn’t initially that jealous.  “I heard her speak once.  She sounded like Marilyn Monroe playing Ophelia,” she jokes in the movie’s best line.  They start mauling each other with kisses and then JFK is killed.  Onassis is invited to the funeral by Lee.  “A Greek in the White House?” Bobby rages.  Onassis, in hushed tones, offers Jackie any solace she may require, but he’s still with Maria, at least physically for his attentions have of course been turned to the world’s highest prize, the widow Kennedy.  He visits her at a rehearsal (which she conducts in a fur coat), and she tells him she needs him at an upcoming concert because she knows the audiences are turning on her.  He says he’ll be back in time for the concert and invents an excuse about having to visit one of his tankers. 

Maria is fit to be tied when Ari isn’t at the concert.  “Roses, roses, but where is Aristo?” she howls when she gets baskets of flowers and downs pills to calm her down before the performance.  Aristo is in a tuxedo serving a fine meal to Jackie, long having abandoned her widow’s weeds for sparkling diamonds.  The scene where Onassis talks to himself in the mirror about how virile he still is, rehearsing a speech for Jackie is terrific camp, especially because Raul looks 40 and Onassis was over 60 by this point.  But, his goony speech works on Jackie, much to Bobby’s ire.  He complains to her on a walk through the woods, but I could only understand his dialogue because hers is so whispered it’s not picked up by the microphones.  He needs her support for his campaign and I think she goes into her “I’m frightened for the kids” speech (a bit prematurely, historically), but again, it’s hard to hear, even at full volume.  Practical Bobby insists that she at least wait until he wins the election before she goes public with her affair.  “Sooner or later it is going to come down to a test of wills,” Ari roars when he gets the news, setting up his well-documented hatred for Bobby (this movie is based on Peter Evans book, his first about Onassis, and his second would be about their actual dispute, making an interesting argument for Onassis’ part in Bobby’s assassination).

Costa reminds Ari that while Jackie is unavailable, he still has Maria, so he shows up with flowers and more of that silky Latin…Greek…Laek…Gratin…whatever, charm.  They end up in bed together, where they work best, Maria happy with “your beautiful lies.” 

We return to the land of the miniseries cliche where Ari’s grown-up son is nervously flying a plane with Dad.  Onassis only wants to hear about boats, while Alexander wants to run the airline.  You don’t have to know Alexander’s story to know where flying a plane will lead.

But, before we can get to that tragedy, Bobby Kennedy is killed.  Jackie goes into whispering hysterics, with her famous line, “they’re killing Kennedys now” and she wants out of the family.  “She’s free of the Kennedys,” Ari tells Costa, now fully able to go after what he wants.  Jackie’s priest doesn’t make it easy, giving her a supreme Catholic guilt trip, throwing in her dead husband, dead son and even Ari’s living wife.  She’s whispers back a fairly long speech that begs for a commercial to stop viewers from falling asleep.

Teddy Kennedy is dispatched to Greece to bargain Jackie’s marriage to Ari.  Ari insists on a prenup in a business-like fashion.  Here’s a failing of the writing.  Until now, Ari has actually seemed enchanted by Jackie, so turning him into a harsh mercenary in just one scene is awfully jarring.  But don’t worry folks, in to clean up that mess is Maria Callas.  Ari tries to blunt her shrieking by saying Jackie needs him.  “She needs your money, while I need youuuuuuuuu,” she insists.  “You are a coward, you are afraid of love,” Maria rails, alternating a scream-a-thon with her own guilt trip about how she’s lost her voice and now his love, which he certainly doesn’t have for Jackie.  “Jackie’s done well, finding a grandfather for her children,” our beloved Jane heckles.

Onassis, with sudden gray hair, marries Jackie and declares it’s the happiest day of his life.  When Jackie whispers complaints about how the American press has turned on her, Ari says, “the only place you’ll find secrecy is in the dictionary.”  Ari said that?  I have trouble believing he could ever come up with a line that clever.  Ari is actually very good with the kids, though Jackie’s queeny pal Billy Baldwin isn’t impressed by Ari’s lack of finesse (if the limp-wrist act doesn’t peg him as one of Jackie’s gay boys, when he hears that breakfast is one and rushes off saying, “ooooh, sausage” certainly will). 

Costa is summoned by Maria, crying her mascara into a Dali painting on her face because she can’t understand how Ari has betrayed her.  I am confident in my assumption that this scene only exists because the final part of the movie without Jane’s performance would be an awfully whispered dull affair.

Back in the questionable writing, Ari seems to be back in love with Jackie, lavishing gifts on her because he wants her to be “totally dependent on me.”  Costa tries to keep Ari in line, explaining to him how he managed to spent $20 million in one year.  “She’s a poor girl from a rich family, I’m trying to give her what she needs,” Ari argues, determined to live up to his end of the bargain and keep her spoiled with luxury.  But, she’s not fulfilled because Ari is never around (which in real life was apparently made her quite happy). 

Ari has another argument on Alexander’s plane that ends with Alexander refusing to pay homage to his step-mother and as Alexander flies off, Ari yells, “spoiled kid!  I was only trying to teach you how to do business!”  Don’t worry, we’re getting closer to capping Alexander’s cliche. 

When Jackie refuses to wait for him on his island, he follows her to New York, where in the middle of a lavish party, Ari very obnoxiously loads her with jewelry in front of the guest, much to her horror.  This cues an argument where Jackie whispers some nonsense about how he’s never around when she needs him and he counters that she should stay in Greece.  He gets back at her by taking Maria to Maxim’s where she delights in his vulgar thigh-grabbing under the table with the press snapping pictures.  What does Jackie do?  She flies to Paris and takes him to Maxim’s, sitting at the same table.  They resume their argument about how neither is getting what he or she wanted out of the marriage.  Ari goes to Roy Cohn (Garrick Hogan) of all people, to try to figure out how to divorce her.  “I don’t mind a million or two, but I won’t be looted and I won’t have lawyers dancing on my grave,” Ari chides Roy.  Then what the hell is he doing with Roy Cohn? 

Ari is trying his best to divorce Jackie and not lose a fortune when Alexander takes off in his plane.  Costa has to deliver the bad news: yup, plane crash.  We saw it coming many scenes ago, but Ari is surprised.  Alexander is not instantly killed, lying in the hospital while Raul Julia gets his first chance to cry (would it be a lead TV performance without tears?).  “Why would you do this to me?  How did this happen?  You were everything.  I’m human.  I make mistakes, but there was always love in my heart,” he says in a monologue before Alexander finally does die.  He refuses Jackie’s sympathy, going instead to Maria for succor, and to share his theories that the Greek gods have done this to him, “because I squandered their gifts.” 

Now Onassis has gone beyond gray, straight to a full shock of white hair, but the addition of a bit of jowls doesn’t make Raul Julia look at all like Onassis did near the end of his life.  Costa wants him to get back to business, to teach daughter Christina the family business, but he’s too grief-stricken.  Even his beloved sister can’t snap him out of the funk.  It gets worse, because his doctor tells him he has a fatal illness.  As he loses control of his muscles, Christina has to tape his eyelids open, though he can still smoke a cigar.  Ari starts in on the fortune cookie business savvy his father taught him and Christina takes to it pretty well.  They bond over mutual hatred for Jackie, who will not give into his divorce demands, instead waiting for him to die. 

In full (but cheap-looking) old-man prosthetics, Ari is dying in a hospital bed when Maria comes in incognito to visit.  He admits his cruelty to her and his love, “as much as I knew how.”  It’s actually a touching scene, a rare chance instance where Jane gives the scene over to Raul.  If the movie hasn’t painted Jackie as villainous so broadly enough, her pre-written speech delivered on airplane steps makes her a real bitch!  The Onassis family gets back at her by stuffing her into the back of the funeral line.  Costa stands over his coffin and gives him a cold send-off, saying “you were the best of men and the worst.”  Jackie plants a kiss on the coffin and that’s it.  I mean, that’s it for the movie.  Other than a shot of Raul dancing on the rock again, the movie actually ends with Jackie and not Ari.  Cheated by the Kennedys even in his own miniseries!

Prince or bastard, one thing Ari Onassis was not was two-dimensional.  But, as portrayed by Raul Julia, it’s a struggle to get even those two dimensions from him.  Once again, it’s Jane Seymour who takes mediocre trash and makes it sparkle.  She’s working from the same script as uninterested Raul and very bored (and boring) Francesca, but she manages to make her scenes work.  Then again, Maria Callas was probably the most exciting person in the Onassis story, though Jackie O will always be its centerpiece.

Categories: Historical Miniseries

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