2019 MFF: Olympia verite
By MARK S. PORTER
For Montclair Local
One scene reveals a makeup artist applying mascara on actress Olympia Dukakis. There’s another scene of Olympia dabbing the makeup on herself. And here, she’s talking to the camera, seeking fashion advice. And there, she’s singing an a cappella tune while in Toronto for a film festival.
Similar, in a sense, to the Montclair Film Festival, where the documentary “Olympia” featured on Sunday, May 5.
In 101 minutes, this biographical documentary, or bio-doc, covers Dukakis’ 87 years, including her childhood in Lowell and Arlington, Mass., her education at Boston University, some of her many roles on stage, in the movies and on television, and her 25 years as a Montclair resident.
Along the way, Dukakis has won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for her performance in “Moonstruck,” achieved an Obie for performing in an Off-Broadway production of Bertolt Brecht’s “Man Equals Man,” and co-founded the Whole Theater Company in Montclair with her late husband, Louis Zorich, and other thespians. Whole Theater staged its first production, Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” in 1973.
“Montclair really embraced the Whole Theater for about 25 years,” she said. “Subscribers came from New York, and actors came from New York. We had some good times. It meant a lot to me, that theater, that company, that audience, and to make me feel wanted.”
But federal funds kept the Equity theater financially afloat, and with cutbacks in funding, the troupe struggled. In 1990, Dukakis departed the theater, and soon thereafter it shut down.
Dukakis urges the Montclair Film Festival audience “to continue to support theater, local theater, especially young companies that ... want to develop ensembles and want to become part of the community.”
Nine years after Whole Theater’s demise, with their two sons and their daughter out of the house located on Upper Mountain Avenue, across from Watchung Avenue, Dukakis and Zorich departed Montclair and moved back to Manhattan.
With deliberative editing, “Olympia” is presented as cinema verite, as if the camera is Dukakis’ surrogate shadow. But “Olympia” isn’t delivered entirely straight, however. When the camera is on Dukakis, she sometimes mugs, or postulates, or philosophizes, or stage-confides to the viewer.
“My mind is like chaotic, so I have to have order around me ... It can’t be disorder out and disorder in,” she says.
Director Harry Mavromichalis said Dukakis is “a little fun to be around with. There’s never a dull moment. She’s very inspiring at the same time.”
Through her career, Dukakis has advocated more roles for women, and women’s rights and gay rights in general. She’s been an activist for preserving and bettering the environment. Having performed in the starring role in Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children,” some of her motivation might stem from Bertolt Brecht’s thesis that art “can and must contribute decisively to the nation’s vital problems.”
She attributes her upbringing in a working-class family of Greek emigrés to engendering a rebellious attitude toward “traditional” roles.
“I was very aware of being an immigrant in this country,” Dukakis said, citing the traditional expectations placed on her as a girl and a young woman. “I pulled away from the Greek community as I was growing up.”
In the film, she notes, “My mother was my first acting teacher ... Her job was to keep shame from the family.”
In college, Dukakis became a champion fencer, and focused on acting.
Now a Manhattanite, Mavromichalis had a Montclair connection with Dukakis, having attended Montclair State University before transferring to Rutgers University.
Now 47, he was attending New York University when Dukakis was scheduled to teach a course on acting for would-be directors. “I signed up, and a week later it was canceled. I was devastated,” he said.
“He, being Greek, wanted to meet me,” Dukakis recalled.
Mavromichalis then invited her to participate in a series bringing dance and theater to Cyprus, where he holds a dual citizenship. She agreed.
Already a filmmaker, Mavromichalis envisioned developing a documentary about Dukakis. He had organized the first Gay Pride Parade in Cyprus, and had curated the island nation’s first LGBTQ film festival.
“Olympia” includes a scene where Dukakis is the Grand Marshal of the San Francisco Pride Parade. Amid the festivities, Dukakis rides in a convertible as she’s cheered.
Dukakis has appeared in more than 40 films and numerous television shows, often cast as someone’s mother of Greek or Italian descent. But she’s also accrued many fans for her portrayal of Anna Madrigal, a transgender person in the “Tales of the City” television miniseries released in 1993 that was rekindled in 1998 and 2001.
She and co-star Laura Linney return this summer in a 10-part continuation of Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” on Netflix.
“Anna Madrigal,” Dukakis said. “Are you into anagrams? ‘A man and a woman.’”
Linney is among the numerous actors, directors, and movie executives commenting on Olympia in “Olympia.”
Others praising her include Zorich, actress and television host Whoopi Goldberg, and former Massachusetts Gov. and Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, her cousin.
“I find her to be one of the most intelligent people I’ve met,” said Mavromichalis. “Her life revolves around her family and her work and the things she cares about.”
Three years of filming Dukakis and three years of editing the visual epiphanies revealed themes such as the struggle against expectations she confronted as a child of immigrants, where “in Greek culture, everything’s about boys,” he said.“She used acting and teaching to discover who she was. Her understanding of history was what liberated her.”