Remembering Olympia Dukakis, the Smartest Grande Dame in the Room
Olympia Dukakis, who died on May 1 at 89, had a face like no one else’s. Stern but perpetually amused, with a warm leer of a grin that could light up a scene, she looked like the comedy and tragedy masks fused together. That’s a fitting reference, since Dukakis was of Greek heritage and, in a stage career that stretched back to 1961, appeared in classics from “Electra” to “Titus Andronicus” to “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” Yet even when she was carving out her place in movies and TV, often cast as the Grande Dame Who’s Smarter Than Anyone in the Room (it’s telling that she took on that role as far back as the 1969 Dustin Hoffman/Mia Farrow trifle “John and Mary,” when she was just 38), the Dukakis face, part cherub and part statue, made it seem that whatever reality she was confronting, she saw the absurdity of it, and the heartbreak as well. She hopscotched from one ethnicity to the next: Italian in “Moonstruck,” Southern aristocrat in “Steel Magnolias,” Jewish in films like “The Cemetery Club.” But that was because of the universal language of which Dukakis was the grandmaster. In role after role, she spoke mom: imperious, testy, kind, haughty and, in the end, always looking out for you.
In “Moonstruck,” that delirious 1987 fairy tale of loopy passion, opera and dowdy depressives who learn how to bloom, Dukakis, as Rose the steel-lasagna wife and mother, attempts to counsel her daughter, the widowed Loretta (Cher), to do the right thing. But what, exactly, is that? When Rose learns that Loretta has gotten herself engaged to a middle-aged mediocrity she’s not in love with, she offers the following advice: “Good. When you love ’em, they drive you crazy. Because they know they can.” That’s the kind of line that followed Dukakis around — the kind her fans would come up to her on the street wanting her to repeat. In “Moonstruck,” she turned lines like that (or the even more indelible “What’s the matter with you? Your life’s going down the toilet!”) into addled diva classics, but the reason the film won her the Oscar for supporting actress is that she cut right to the romantic paradox that Rose was the only one in the movie wise enough to see. Should marriage be everyday drudgery or moonstruck craziness? Should men act responsibly or were they put on Earth to be wolves? Dukakis, with that noodgy droll gleam, let you know the answer was both.
After the triumph of “Moonstruck,” she played a tart-tongued matriarch in “Steel Magnolias” (1989), the gossipy small-town weeper in which she kept dropping in to do what she did best: preside. And that’s what she continued to do. Playing characters like the flinty principal of “Mr. Holland’s Opus” or the trans landlord Anna Madrigal over four installments of “Tales of the City,” she had the mien of a psychiatrist: a debonair empath with X-ray vision and pouffy white-custard hair, articulating the stubborn truths other characters were bound to resist. You could easily have envisioned her as the shrink on “The Sopranos” — but then, with a nudge, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine her as Tony Soprano’s mother, since even in the quaintest settings Olympia Dukakis had a stealth power and an old-world comfortableness with the dark side. As Rose says to her unfaithful husband, Cosmo (Vincent Gardenia), in “Moonstruck,” “Your life is not built on nothing. Te amo.” Dukakis’ was built on seeing (and loving) the world as it is.
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