New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
Photos: Dimitrios Panagos
“One of the things I like about the film is that it goes off here. And it goes there,” Olympia Dukakis said in her on-stage interview with Foster Hirsch after the showing of OLYMPIA, a kind of bio-pic—but starring the woman herself, an “Always on Sunday” screening presented by the Hellenic Film Society (HFSUS) at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria on May 28. At event’s end, enthusiasm for director Harry Mavromichalis’ thoroughly captivating film and appreciation for Dukakis’ singular wit, peaked; three (or was it more?) roaring standing ovations brought the house down.
HFSUS director, Jimmy DeMetro, made the following statement to the “Greek News”:
The Hellenic Film Society USA wanted to honor a special woman for Women’s History Month and who better than Olympia Dukakis. It was such a special treat to see Olympia in action at the Museum of the Moving Image. She is a feisty as ever, sharp, very – very smart. Special in every way. And very Greek too!
Harry Mavromichalis has made a wonderful documentary about her, and we were happy to have had the chance to present it in our monthly screening series at the museum. And our guest interviewer, film historian Forster Hirsch, was perfect. Knew exactly what questions to ask Olympia.
I think of Olympia as a national treasure. She has been a hard-working actress all of her adult life, honing her craft on stage, playing a broad range of roles from the Greek classics to Tennessee Williams. Has there ever been a more deserving Academy Award than the one given to her for Moonstruck?
It was very exciting to feel the love of the audience at the screening. Not one but two standing ovations for Olympia. I know she was touched by the whole experience, and I am so proud that we were able to make it happen.
Dukakis, who now happens to be 85 or so in chronological years, has stepped up the pace, her pithy retorts and quips coming even faster, funnier… and more outrageous than before. She’s a star. And she was a hit.
Perhaps the film’s “here” that Dukakis spoke of refers to her childhood, teen years, and her adult life as lover, wife, mother, daughter, theater and film actress, director, co-actor, and producer. And perhaps the “there” in the film is her journey to Greece, which brings out her inner life—philosophy, and questions: Running her hand along the cyclopean walls leading to the Lion Gate at Mycenae Dukakis contemplates the role of women in the human life cycle. Taking a stone seat in the front row of the vast Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus, she thinks of the Greeks that came before her. And overcome by sadness, perhaps for her mother, or nostos, Dukakis considers that if her parents had never left Greece, she and the three women with whom she just spoke in her mother’s village would have been girlfriends.
Filmed over the last six years, OLYMPIA follows the life and career of the already successful Greek American theater actress who at age 56 became a sought-after film actress after her Oscar-winning performance as Cher’s sardonic Italian American mother in the 1988 romantic comedy Moonstruck.
Knowing Dukakis quite well, finely tuned to her style and loving to run with it, Hirsch brought much of their onstage interview together as high comedy. The inflection and timing of Dukakis’ hilariously cheeky responses to Hirsch’s questions can’t be conveyed in writing, but here are some out of the multitude, including a serious look into some hard times:
H: Did you have any hesitation about doing this film?
D: Hesitation? I didn’t care! I didn’t think I would be involved. I know, I was very naive.
D: My what?
H: Your privacy was invaded.”
D: … Yeah, I minded. But it goes along with the territory. You can’t complain.
H: So, you’re very candid. You’re very frank.
D: I am?
Hirsch: Yes. You’re very frank. And sometimes it’s startling.
D: Ooh. What startled you?
H: I think you know.
D: No, I don’t know!
H: The sexual banter. You’re so open about talking about sexual matters.
D: Oh well…that.
H: Yes. That.
D: That’s not… really. Okay.
H: What’s interesting about the film is that if you saw it in screenplay form you’d say, “this is very disorganized,” because it doesn’t give a neat chronology. It sort of jumbles things together.
D: It has a feeling of chaos. Yes. I like that.
H: It has a bit of chaos, but it lets us put the pieces together; and they do come together. So it’s brilliantly structured.
D: I like that. That’s one of the things I like about the film. It goes off here. And it goes off there.
H: If I were editing it, I would say, we don’t need this scene with Sirie, but it was the biggest laugh of the evening. It got the biggest laugh. So the filmmakers were right to keep it in. It tells us something about you and your humor.
D: I’m afraid so.
H: There are some fascinating characters who emerge from the film. I think I have mixed feelings about your mother.
D: About what?
H: About your mother, as she emerges from your own testimony, from the film itself.
D: What do you mean by ‘mixed feelings’?
H: Wasn’t she a little intimidating?”
D: My mother? Oh, she was very intimidating. My mother was very intimidating. Yeah.
H: But it didn’t stop you.
D: It was meant to… provoke me. it was meant to make me understand that you have to, in this world, stand up for yourself. It was meant to. it was meant.
H: You accepted the challenge.
D: Well, I had no choice.
H: In the scene when you get the Oscar there were tears in her eyes… isn’t that an amazingly moving passage. When your mother is with the theater people in New Jersey, and you’re in Hollywood.
And she’s like that… it meant so much to her that you won.”
D: I know…
H: But when they asked her she said “Oh I was very surprised… I thought she was just an ordinary actress.”
D: That’s what she thought. And I worked very hard. I was starting a company in Boston, then I came to New York, and we started another company, and… My mother was even in a show! The company that we started in New York we moved to Montclair, and we did a show, a new play, and she played a part in it.
H: But starting all these companies, and playing all these roles. Is that her concept of ‘ordinary’?
D: For her, you did everything you had to do… to get there. Because that was what her life was like.
She did everything she had to do. Her family was very successful when they came to America, but at the end of the 20s, in spite of all their wealth, the Depression hit and they lost everything. My mother was the youngest of 6 or 7, who had never known poverty, never known anything like that, and you know, they couldn’t pay the electric bill. It was very rough. The depression was very rough for these people.
H: But whatever challenges your mother had, she got through them.
D: Yeah. Yeah, she did. Not always with the finest of spirits, but like the rest of us, you don’t always, you know. You may prevail but you may not prevail in a heroic way.
OLYMPIA closed in memoriam to Olympia Dukakis’ husband and fellow theater actor, director and producer, Louis Zorich. Dukakis was married to Zorich from 1962 until his death in 2018. They have three children.
Foster Hirsch, a professor of film history at Brooklyn College is the noted author of many books on film.
Olympia Dukakis was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, the daughter of Alexandra “Alec” (née Christos), from the Peloponnese. and Constantine “Costa” S. Dukakis, originally from Anatolia. In addition to her 1988 Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress, in Moonstruck, she has also won an Obie Award, a Drama Desk Award, a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award, and a Golden Globe for her theater, film, and television work. Dukakis was honored with a star, in the category of Live Theater, on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Hers is the 2,498th star.
This year Dukakis plays Anna Madrigal in a Netflix update of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of The City.