Film & Television

Olympia Dukakis: A Life Well Lived On Stage and Screen

The past few years of politics have emphasized the difference (and often the confusion) between hard news and editorial opinion. It seems as though representatives and supporters on both sides of the aisle have reason to complain about the subjectivity in much of today’s new reporting. And most grownups, I would hope, employ a healthy dose of skepticism when a piece of news pops up on a social media feed.

Yet if your life is like mine, that’s the first place you learn about natural disasters, the latest mass shooting, or — this past weekend — the loss of a beloved public figure. I was out of state, attending my daughter’s COVID-belated college graduation, happily uploading pictures of the masked and social-distanced Class of 2020, when I stumbled upon Facebook post after post mourning the death and celebrating the life of Olympia Dukakis.

Dukakis, who was 89 years old, died this past Saturday at home in New York City. Her brother stated only that she had been dealing with “many months of failing health” and that “she is finally at peace and with her [husband] Louis.”

Besides being a tremendously gifted and accomplished actress, Dukakis is an inspiration for two related reasons. First, she didn’t become a household name until she was 56, when she co-starred in the film Moonstruck, stole every single scene she was in, and earned the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. And second, her “overnight success” was rooted in two and a half decades of work and dedication to her craft.

In today’s celebrity-obsessed culture, “craft” isn’t as valued as it should be. Neither is sweat equity or  long-term commitment. (Forbes recently named Kylie Jenner, age 23, 2021’s highest paid celebrity, earning $590.7 million. I rest my case.) 

Dukakis was born in 1931 in Lowell, Massachusetts, to Greek immigrants. She was physically active — especially in fencing, earning a regional championship three years running — and attended Boston University, where she majored in physical therapy and worked with polio patients. I think we can draw some inspiration there as well.

Despite her memorable film roles, Dukakis was first and foremost a stage actress. In 1961, she began her theatrical career with the Williamstown Summer Theatre in the Massachusetts Berkshires (and continued to return there throughout her career into the 2000s). Within a couple of years, she moved to New York and won an Obie Award for her work in the Off-Broadway play Man Equals Man. She appeared in multiple productions with Joseph Papp’s “Shakespeare in the Park.” In 2000, she appeared on Broadway and in the West End as a Warsaw Ghetto survivor in the one-woman play Rose, for which she won the Outer Critics Circle Award. And, in 2013, she played the title role in Mother Courage and Her Children at Shakespeare & Company.

Her husband, Louis Zorich, who passed away three years ago, was also an actor (you probably saw him play characters roles in Fiddler on the Roof (1971); The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984); or Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988), among other films). Together, he and Dukakis co-founded The Whole Theater Company, which produced stage classis by such playwrights as Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams, Samuel Beckett, and Eugene O’Neill, and attracted other fine actors like Colleen Dewhurst and Blythe Danner. Dukakis’s work included directing and staging original adaptations as well as acting.

So, having, I hope, established Dukakis as a legit working stage actor, I can now dedicate myself to praising the roles that brought so much joy to so many of us. The two that come to mind, of course, are the uncompromising Italian-American matriarch Rose Castorini in Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck (which, by the way, holds up marvelously nearly 35 years later), and socialite Clairee Belcher in Herbert Ross’s Steel Magnolias (1989).

As Cher’s Moonstruck mother (a bit of casting magic, since she was only 15 years her senior), Dukakis delivered some of the film’s most memorable lines, whether she was giving her daughter life advice minutes before her fiancé (Danny Aiello) was to return from Palermo: “You got a love bite on your neck. He’s coming back this morning, what’s the matter with you? Your life’s going down the toilet! Cover up that damn thing! Come on, put some makeup on it!” or giving her father-in-law (Feodor Chaliapin Jr.) an ultimatum, “Old man, you give those dogs another piece of my food and I’m gonna kick you ’til you’re dead!”

Rose was equally regal in a suit, handbag, and heels having dinner by herself or in a housecoat presiding over extended family at the breakfast table. She didn’t pull punches, matter-of-factly explaining to a womanizing college professor (John Mahoney) that the coed who had just left him was “too young for you,” and insisting that her husband (Vincent Gardenia), suffering a midlife crisis, give up his mistress, “And go to confession.” Perhaps her most memorable words of wisdom were to her daughter:

Rose: Do you love him, Loretta?
Loretta: No.
Rose : Good. When you love them they drive you crazy because they know they can.

In Steel Magnolias, Dukakis’s Clairee was also a force to be reckoned with. Personifying Southern grit and gentility simultaneously, Clairee coyly suggests, “Well, you know what they say: if you don’t have anything nice to say about anybody, come sit by me.” When hairstylist Truvy (Dolly Parton) comments on a curvy woman dancing without a girdle, Clairee agrees. “You were brought up right,” she assures her, and notes that the other woman “looks like two pigs fightin’ under a blanket.” And while Clairee is quick to admit “That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” she’s the one who, through humor at the expense of neighborhood misanthrope Ouiser (Shirley MacLaine), helps grieving mother M’Lynn (Sally Field) the most.

M’Lynn: I just wanna hit somebody ‘til they feel as bad as I do! I just wanna hit something! I wanna hit it hard!

Clairee : Here! Hit this! Go ahead M’Lynn, slap her! Hit her! We’ll sell t-shirts sayin’ “I SLAPPED OUISER BOUDREAUX!” Hit her! Ouiser, this is your chance to do something for your fellow man! Knock her lights out, M’Lynn! M’Lynn, you just missed the chance of a lifetime! Half o’ Chiquapin Parish’d give their eye teeth to take a whack at Ouiser!

Olympia Dukakis will be remembered fondly by millions of movie fans — and for good reason. But it’s all that she brought to the stage as well as screen that can really be described as her life’s work. Very much a winner herself, she once observed that “Winning is everything in Hollywood.” But it wasn’t everything to her. “Thankfully,” she observed, “It became clear to me that when I compete, I lose my connection to the passion I have for my work.”

And, thankfully, she shared so much of that passion with all of us.

Moonstruck is available to stream and Steel Magnolias is available to rent, both on Amazon Prime.


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