Like most of you, I’m guessing my exposure to the work of the supreme actor Olympia Dukakis began with her Oscar-winning turn in Moonstruck (which came out around the same time her cousin Michael was running for president), and a handful of memorable roles that followed in such works as Steel Magnolias, Mighty Aphrodite and the “Tales of the City” television series (based on the works of Armistead Maupin). But her on-screen work barely scratches the surface of what makes Olympia’s acting abilities timeless and vast.
Directed by Harry Mavromichalis, the documentary Olympia covers the entirely of Dukakis’s life and career so far (although it ends just before the death of her husband and fellow actor Louis Zorich, who is featured prominently here), including her childhood, her life as a young woman of Greek origin living in Boston, her self-professed hyper-sexual early-adult years, her beginning a theater company in New Jersey, her hilariously foul mouth, and her deep connection to her heritage—including a really lovely section of the film where she, her daughter and her granddaughter travel to her ancestral home in Lesbos, Greece. The film locks into the relationship she had with her old-country mother, a woman who was so worried about her daughter’s reputation that she would inspect her underwear after Olympia went on dates. But it was her need to rebel that resulted in, among other things, her salty language and progressive attitudes, especially in the world of acting.
She was always considered one of the great talents by casting directors working to fill the rosters of Broadway shows, but she was also deemed “too ethnic” looking and could never get hired, which was one of the reasons she kick-started her own theater company with husband Louis, where they tackled all of the classics, got rave reviews, and finally caught the eyes of more open-minded casting people in both New York and Hollywood.
Olympia gives us glimpses of her career highlights with film clips and interviews with co-stars, admirers and friends like Whoopi Goldberg, Laura Linney, Diane Ladd, Austin Pendleton, Ed Asner and Norman Jewison, but every highlight in this film belongs to Dukakis herself, when the camera is allowed to linger and listen to her speak on any number of topics. She is fiercely defiant against anything that seems unfair, and committed to the idea that the work is king and letting go of anything that stands in the way of the actor embracing the character is essential. We see her in the role of acting teacher, and she gets visibly upset when she can spot someone “acting.” Even she fully admits that some of the more abusive tactics she used to use with her students in the early years wouldn’t fly today, but who among us wouldn’t embrace being verbally abused by Olympia Dukakis?
The film also spends time with the actress and her children and grandchildren, whom she clearly adores though she wishes she had been more present as a mother. Each piece of the picture comes together to form a wholly creative, 80-plus-year-old artistic whirlwind who is deeply passionate about every aspect of her life and is working hard to fill every minute of her remaining days with something that expands her mind and increases her empathy. Throughout the movie, whenever she meets or is reunited with someone whose company she truly enjoys, she always invites them for a drink, and by the end of the film, you’ll wish you were getting drunk with Olympia Dukakis, too. Olympia proves the idea that you can point the camera at interesting people and an interesting film will likely result. Mavromichalis is wise enough to simply get out of the way and allow his subject to roam free in whatever space they’re in. The results are intimate, enlightening and often hilarious.
The film is now available on digital and VOD platforms.
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