NEW YORK – Oscar and Golden Globe Award winning actress Olympia Dukakis had her breakthrough performance in the hit movie Moonstruck when she was in her 50s. That’s when she became a household name – she got her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame last year – but she never forgot where she came from, and she appreciates opportunities to share her experiences with young Greek-Americans.
On April 22 the guests of the Association of Greek American Professional Women (AGAPW) so enjoyed the company of the down-to-earth star that they did not want to leave. Dukakis was the featured speaker at AGAPW’s Conversation with Women Leaders Series.
AGAPW’s founder and president, Dr. Olga Alexakos, welcomed the guests and introduced the moderator, Stavroula Toska, who is currently producing a documentary focusing on the innocent women, sent to concentration camps during and after the Greek civil war. The endeavor was inspired by a book given to her by Dukakis, Greek Women in Resistance by Eleni Fourtouni.
During her frank exchange with Toska, Dukakis, a passionate Hellene, proud of her mother’s roots in Mani and her father’s origins in Asia Minor via Lesvos, admitted, however, that there was a time in her youth when she distanced herself from the community.
Like many of the gifted women her generation, she did not like what she was hearing from priests and other Greeks about the role of women and the life she could expect to lead.
Her mild-mannered and well-educated father Constantine was a progressive soul and was sympathetic, but she was also inspired by the Maniati fire of her mother Alexandra, whose family had modest origins – her relatives barely going beyond the 5th grade – but were very enterprising and successful in America.
“I was a combination of my parents, and I did not want to be defined the way other Greek women were defined…I saw what the boys wer getting and what the girls wer getting and I wanted nothing to do with it,” she said.
Dukakis loved sports – she deeply appreciates her mother making her the fencing suit they could not afford to buy – which provided an outlet for the competitiveness that is critical for an actor. “I wanted to win. Winning was not a bad word for me.”
As soon as Dukakis enters a room, people’s immediate impression is that they are in the presence of a winner, and someone who cares, qualities reflected in her Yugoslav-American husband, Louis Zorich. Through the ups and downs of Dukakis’s long career in film and theater – her BS from Boston University was in physical therapy – he provided moral support.
Born and raised in Lowell, MA, she embraced New York as soon as she arrived. Her first roommate was actress Linda Lavin.
After she and Zorich had three children, they moved to New Jersey, where they co-founded the Whole Theatre Company in Montclair. The pair is lauded as master co-interpreters of Anton Chekhov’s plays.
Dukakis is a talented character actress who has portrayed women of many ethnic groups, but when she once asked Moonstruck’s director, Norman Jewison, who first saw her in Mike Nichols production of Social Security, why he picked her to be Cher’s mother, and he said it was for her timing. Timing was of the essence in the classic film comedy.
Toska asked Dukakis what she looked for when choosing roles. “I want a character that starts somewhere, goes through something, and goes somewhere,” she said. She quickly quipped with a smile, “unless they offer a lot of money.”
TNH asked the actress who is also a devotee of poet Constantine Cavafy if it is the journey that intrigues her, ala his beloved poem Ithaka, and she replied: “Yes!”
During the Q & A Dukakis was asked if she would welcome film and stage roles that help promote Greece and “tell the story of Greece,” and what it is going through. She responded without hesitation: “Sure! – if someone comes up with it.”
Dukakis shared her biggest concern about modern theater, the tendency to make the play all about the director’s vision. “Young actors stand around waiting to be told what to do,” she bemoaned, adding that they are discouraged from even speaking with the authors. “I’ve been a director, so I shoot off my mouth once in a while,” she said.
When the topic of the lack of movie roles for older women came up, she was pragmatic, noting that the most important demographic for movie theater attendance is young men. “It’s not that Hollywood does not care about women, it’s that they care about money.”
She spends a lot of time thinking about social issues, however. An ardent liberal and Democrat, Dukakis is a strong supporter of women’s rights and environment causes. She is very close to her cousin Michael Dukakis, and is still amazed that 1988 was the year he won the Democratic presidential nomination and she gained her Oscar for Moonstruck.
Her long list of achievements prompted the question of what she still looks forward to doing. “I’ve never jumped out of an airplane!”
Among the advice she offered to the women, and the handful of men present, is to take time to read plays. “Pick a playwright, sit down and read all his plays.”