Laughter and Tears with Olympia Dukakis

The Daily — May 5, 2021
Olympia Dukakis and Cher in Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck (1987)

As news spread this past weekend that Olympia Dukakis had died at the age of eighty-nine, many lucky enough to have worked with her posted a few memories on social media. Anita Gates is certainly not wrong when she describes Dukakis in the New York Times as “the self-assured, raspy-voiced actress who often played world-weary and worldly wise characters,” but Dukakis clearly also knew how to have a good time. “She was the acting teacher who spoke to me (and many, many others) with clarity and humor and no censor,” tweeted Michael McKean (This Is Spinal Tap, Better Call Saul) on Saturday. “She would tell us: don’t forget that the reason you wanted to do this was that it looked like fun. And it is. Amid the sweat and the angst, don’t forget the fun.”

Sarah Polley first worked with Dukakis on Thom Fitzgerald’s The Event (2003), a movie about AIDS and assisted suicide that Scott Tobias, who was still at the A.V. Club at the time, called a “deadly earnest, relentlessly solemn affair.” On their first day together on the set, Dukakis asked Polley where they’d be going for margaritas that night. Polley said she was planning on turning in early, but Dukakis wasn’t having it. “She said, ‘We gotta have some laughs. Otherwise we’ll blow our fucking brains out.’ We went for the margaritas.”

A few years later, Polley directed Dukakis in Away from Her (2006) and recalls that she “didn’t have a day with her when I didn’t end up in laughter so out of control that I was weeping. Or didn’t have my thinking challenged so profoundly that I grew.” And then, of course, we also heard from Cher. “Olympia played my mom in Moonstruck, and even though her part was that of a suffering wife, we [laughing emoji] all the time.”

Moonstruck, written by playwright John Patrick Shanley and directed by Norman Jewison in 1987, was Dukakis’s big break. She was fifty-six, and for decades, she had been appearing in major roles in small theaters and taking small parts in movies and television shows and, as she wrote in her 2003 autobiography, Ask Me Again Tomorrow: A Life in Progress—the quote comes from Nardine Saad in the Los Angeles Times—“clipping coupons and shopping for bargain jeans, while working ten- to twelve-hour days at the theater.” She and her husband, Louis Zorich (Mad About You), had been maxing out their credit cards to put their daughter through college.

Nora Ephron spotted Dukakis in an off-Broadway play and recommended her to Mike Nichols, who cast her in his Broadway production, Social Security, which is where Jewison saw her for the first time and recognized immediately that she was perfect for the role of Rose Castorini, wife of philandering Cosmo (Vincent Gardenia) and mother of Cher’s Loretta, a young widow engaged to a man (Danny Aiello) she doesn’t love and falling hard for his brother (Nicolas Cage). Two clips have been going viral over the past few days, the first being the immortal “ti amo” exchange between Rose and Cosmo, and the second featuring Dukakis’s delivery of a line to Loretta that she threw in because it was once thrown at her by her own mother: “Your life’s going down the toilet!”

Sheila O’Malley passes along a powerful lesson about acting gleaned from Dukakis, an anecdote about examining every word to be spoken on stage, and tells another story that isn’t nearly as significant though it’s a whole lot funnier. Dukakis was speaking to a class O’Malley was taking when a student asked if it might be easier for women of a certain age to land roles since there must be less competition. “Listen,” Dukakis replied, “every script that comes to me has been offered to Gena Rowlands first. I get the script and Gena’s fingerprints are all over it. Any role I get, it’s only because she’s already turned it down.”

It’s possible to imagine Rowlands being offered the role of Clairee Belcher in Herbert Ross’s Steel Magnolias (1989) and relishing a shot at delivering one of that film’s most memorable lines: “Well, you know what they say: if you don’t have anything nice to say about anybody, come sit by me.” Of course Rowlands could have aced, albeit in an entirely different fashion, roles in Mike Nichols’s Working Girl (1988), the Look Who’s Talking franchise, Stephen Herek’s Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995), or Thom Fitzgerald’s overlooked Cloudburst (2011), the story of an aging lesbian couple on the run and heading up to Canada to get married.

But wouldn’t the creative team behind Tales of the City (1993) have thought first of Dukakis? In the television miniseries and in its follow-ups, More Tales of the City (1998) and Further Tales of the City (2001), as well as in the 2019 revival on Netflix, all of them adapted from Armistead Maupin’s series of novels, Dukakis plays Anna Madrigal, a landlady in San Francisco who was born the son of a brothel owner in Nevada. “Oh, now, see, that’s my favorite of all!” Dukakis exclaimed when Will Harris was asking her at the A.V. Club in 2015 about several of the characters she played and arrived at Anna Madrigal. “That’s the one!”

Dukakis told Harris that she’d read just about everything available in the early 1990s about the trans experience—and it wasn’t much—and realized that she would have to actually meet and talk with someone who’s lived it. “They found someone,” she recalled. “And I asked her, ‘What was it that you wanted so much that made it possible for you to go through this incredible journey? I mean, I’ve read about it, but . . .’ And this is what she said to me: ‘All my life, I yearned for the friendship of women.’ And I started to cry. I couldn’t help it. I don’t know what I expected her to say, but not that. And that I knew. And I totally understood. To have your voice silenced, to not be able to be able to speak and be who you are . . . Who doesn’t know about that?”

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