Tuesday, May 25, 2021

On Olympian Heights: Remembering Olympia Dukakis

Through most of my moviegoing life, I’d never heard of Olympia Dukakis.  But the New York stage veteran, born in 1931,  made her first film in 1964. It was called Twice a Man, and she appeared in the credits as “Young mother.” It seems to have been her fate to play mother roles. In the course of a long career that ended with her recent death at age 89, she was credited as  “John’s mother” in John and Mary, “Gig’s mother” in Made for Each Other, and “Joey’s mom” in The Wanderers. She also often showed up in authority roles, as judges, doctors, and a Mother Superior, as well as a high school principal in Mr. Holland’s Opus. But of course the role that made her, belatedly, a star was that of Cher’s feisty Italian mother in 1987’s Moonstruck. Rose Castorini is a nurturer, a pragmatist, and a philosopher, one who knows what it’s like to be hurt by love. She’s memorably relieved when daughter Loretta announces she’s about to marry a man she doesn’t love. Says Rose, glaring at her straying husband Cosmo: “When you love them they drive you crazy because they know they can.” Fortunately for Dukakis, she herself had a long-lasting marriage with a fellow actor, Louis Zorich, that produced three children and four grandchildren. So she came by her mom-credentials honestly indeed.

 One of the things I most appreciate about Olympia Dukakis is that she always played intelligent women. Some of them might have done foolish things from time to time, but they were never dumb. Another thing I savor is the fact that she happily took on ethnic roles, giving them spirit and authenticity. As in Moonstruck, she made a great Italian mama, which was doubtless why she was cast as the unstoppable Dolly Sinatra in a 1992 miniseries about son Frank. And she was a convincing Jewish widow in The Cemetery Club. Curiously, despite her very Greek name and heritage, she rarely got the chance to portray her own ethnicity. She’s nowhere to be found in the cast list of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the semi-autobiographical 2002 film by Nia Vardalos that found much of its initial popularity in Greek-American communities. She does, however, have the classical role of Jocasta in Woody Allen’s comic take on Greek mythology, Mighty Aphrodite.

 In her later years, Dukakis took on challenging roles (like that of a trans landlady in the TV series Tales of the City and a so-called “butch lesbian” in Cloudburst). She was outspoken in promoting women’s rights and LGBTQ rights, and also stayed active as a well-loved drama teacher, both at NYU and in other theatre programs across the nation. A 2018 documentary film, called simply Olympia, chronicled her eventful life, including her growing-up years in a Massachusetts immigrant household, facing anti-Greek prejudice and a patriarchal family structure. Her parents certainly had a flair for names: her younger brother, Apollo Dukakis, is an actor I’ve enjoyed often on California stages.

 Once I’d fallen in love with Dukakis in the delightful yet poignant Moonstruck, I was rooting for her to take home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. And she did. When the elegantly clad Dukakis mounted the stage, I was rather surprised that her speech was gracious but also somewhat sedate. I’d expected something more rambunctious from her, especially since it was well known that her cousin, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, was the Democratic candidate for President. But once she’d finished with her thank-yous, she confirmed my expectations by letting out a rip-roaring yell: “OK, Michael, let’s go!”   


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