I’ve interviewed Olympia Dukakis a few times over the years, but let me tell you about catching the Oscar winner, stage legend and TV acting icon on a bad day.
She was just recovering from an injury, but had gamely agreed to show up at an acting conservatory I covered to talk to the students, buck them up and give them the lowdown on “the craft” and “the profession. She was a bit wary when I showed up. I think the school sprang the “reporter here to talk to you and listen in” thing on her, literally over lunch, so she was taken aback and withdrawn.
But then she sat down in front of the assembled thespians and the performer kicked in. She was gregarious, uproarious, loud and a laugh riot. “It’s not a competition,” she said of acting, a mantra based on a personal epiphany. She was mesmerizing and moving. What kid with greasepaint dreams could not be inspired?
THAT’s the Olympia Dukakis the public loves, larger-than-life, fervently urging Sally Field to punch out Shirley MacLaine in “Steel Magnolias,” giving Cher (playing her daughter) the business in their Oscar-winning turns in “Moonstruck,” swearing like a sailor on leave in “Tales from the City.”
That’s the Dukakis of Harry Mavromichalis’s “Olympia,” an adoring portrait of a brassy woman made of bronze.
She may reflect on her wayward, rebellious youth, her down times, and guiltily ponder her (sometimes absentee) parenting.
She describes the mother hellbent on making a “traditional” Greek-American woman out of her, the New York casting folks who wouldn’t even audition her based on her surname.
“Too ETHNIC…But who in America DOESN’T have an ‘outsider’ feeling?”
And then Armistead Maupin, author of “Tales from the City,” the TV mini series that provided one of her iconic roles, shows up at her hotel after she’s been grand marshal of San Francisco’s Gay Pride parade.
“Sit DOWN and have a drink!”
First-time documentary director Mavromichalis follows her from the Toronto Film Festival, there for a “Moonstruck” anniversary celebration but where she’s quick to comically chide the festival director for not admitting her latest film, to New York, Hollywood, Cypress and Greece, where her mother was born and where Dukakis shares the books she’s read that changed her perspective and pointed toward the lie that the past couple of thousand years has sold humanity.
“For 25,000 years, God was a woman,” she declares as we see her duck into the Tomb Clytemnestra, as good a place as any to make that point.
She waves from the grand marshal’s convertible in that San Fran parade, smiles and mutters to the camera “These people don’t know who the f— I am!” Oh, but they do.
Colleagues from Laura Linney and Lainie Kazan to Austin Pendleton and Lynn Cohen sing her praises. Ed Asner was there to unveil her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
“This is TALENT up the WAZOO,” he enthuses.
The film, largely filmed a decade ago (2011 Toronto FF, etc.), captures Dukakis as she turned 80, speaking frankly about her marriage to actor Louis Zorich (“Mad About You”), her struggles with self-image and drugs (briefly), the determination it took to launch Whole Theatre in Montclair, New Jersey, where she and her company tackled the classics and she played the Great Roles of the Stage.
Norman Jewison caught her in the comedy “Social Security” on Broadway and cast her in “Moonstruck.” And suddenly, the struggle for recognition and parts was over.
“Olympia” has been finished since 2018, Zorich has since died and Olympia will turn 90 this June. It may be that this film sat on the shelf for years because that struggle to recognize her is ongoing, or that the film is a bit fawning and the questions tossed at her from behind the camera can be inane and/or random in the extreme.
“How do you feel about death?”
But she finds something to grab hold of and conjures a response worth remembering every time. And injured (she’s in a cast for part of the film, too) or exhausted, exasperated (tech rehearsals for a show) or chatting with fans in English or Greek in a Cypriot supermarket or a Greek village, Olympia Dukakis is sure to never come off as anything less than larger than life.
MPA Rating: unrated, smoking, drinking and lots of profanity
Cast: Olympia Dukakis, Ed Asner, Laura Linney, Lanie Kazan, Austin Pendleton, Michael Dukakis and Louis Zorich.
Credits: Directed by Harry Mavromichalis, script by Sam Eggers and Harry Mavromichalis. An Abramorama release.
Running time: 1:40