By Ron Fassler
Virtual cinema is on the rise. With no theatres open to present them, more films are premiering online these days than ever before. This might not be the best news in the world for blockbuster movies that cost a fortune to produce, but for modest documentaries, it could be a way for thousands more people to see them in their homes during their initial engagements than could possibly be counted to go out and see them on the big screen. And that’s a good thing.
In the case of Olympia, a new cinema verite-style documentary by Harry Mavromichalis, we get the ongoing story of Academy Award winner Olympia Dukakis (Moonstruck), who has appeared in more than forty films, one hundred plays and twenty-six television movies. Having turned eighty-nine last month, the director first began shooting scenes with the actress in 2011, resulting in nine years of footage to cull from. What we get to see is (warts and all) a brave woman of indomitable spirit, a dirty mouth, and a freedom of expression that is a joy to witness. Still as passionate about her art as she ever was, her long life (mainly in the theatre) is dissected and analyzed, but always with an eye towards tomorrow. Never one to rest on her laurels, it showcases Dukakis’s innate curiosity—any actor’s greatest tool—which allows the imagination to explore unlimited possibilities.
As a young girl from a Greek family, growing up in Lowell, Massachusetts, Dukakis was determined to forge her own way in the world. Feisty doesn’t begin to describe her combativeness, and in an honest moment, she reflects on how her overbearing and dramatic mother “was my first acting teacher.” She describes how “my mother tried to teach me shame… but I’d go to the bathroom and cry so she wouldn’t see me.”
That Dukakis would lean towards acting as a profession feels right, as it provided her with an outlet for her outsized emotions. But even with striking looks and an abundance of raw talent, finding work was a constant struggle. Convinced that it was her ethnicity keeping her back wasn’t paranoia. It was real. “I couldn’t even get auditions because My name was Olympia Dukakis. They didn’t even see me or hear me.”
So, instead of trying to fix it (how DO you fix it, after all?), she embraced her ethnicity and, in so doing, discovered the secret to her success. At forty-two, and already an Obie Award winner for her Off-Broadway work (she had a few insubstantial Broadway credits in quick failures), Dukakis still had to audition for every part she could scrounge, many of which left her creatively unsatisfied. So, she created her own theatre company alongside her actor-husband Louis Zorich and willed herself to be part of the theatre. The Whole Theatre Company began in 1973 in an old Baptist church and entertained audiences in Montclair, New Jersey and its environs (including many who would make the easy trip from Manhattan by way of the Port Authority Bus Terminal) for seventeen years. Besides she and her husband, the company was able to cast the likes of José Ferrer, Colleen Dewhurst, Blythe Danner and Samuel L. Jackson.
It doesn’t take a genius to recognize genius acting, which is what Dukakis gave us in the role for which she will be remembered: Cher’s mother Rose in Moonstruck. It was the case of an actress bringing all she’d learned about life and acting to a role. She used everything within her to bring emotional truth and honesty to that largely comedic performance, which is what makes it so great. And when you spend 90 minutes with the real Olympia, you understand how she made Rose so real. They’re one and the same. She just heightened a few things about herself for comedic effect, which enabled the character to take flight. No doubt the writing by John Patrick Shanley was wonderful on the page, but in Dukakis’s execution it is glorious. That’s what the best actors do. It’s not so much about transformation, but about definition.
Acting is an ever-changing process and by watching, Olympia Dukakis’s story taught me new things about the art of the profession. And that’s a gift.
You may also be interested in the autobiography Dukakis wrote in 2003. Titled Ask Me Again, it offers even more insight into what makes this wonderful actress/teacher tick.
The film also features interviews with Whoopi Goldberg, Laura Linney, Diane Ladd, Lynn Cohen, Lainie Kazan, Austin Pendleton, Ed Asner, Armistead Maupin and Michael Dukakis.