Olympian heights

Olympia Dukakis was always the consummate actress, above all a ‘theatre animal’. Then, in 1988, she won an Oscar for her role in the film Moonstruck, and since then celebrity has never been far away. But now she is back treading the boards, this time in London, with a gruelling one-woman show.

The first thing that grabs your attention is the name. Dukakis. More than a decade ago, it was the name you could not avoid in the United States. Two cousins, both Democrats. One, Olympia, catapulted into a new orbit as a movie star playing Cher’s mother in the hit film Moonstruck; the other, Michael, stood forlornly against George Bush in the battle for the White House. Dukakis, 1988: a Presidential loser and an Oscar winner.

The second thing you notice is her face. Composed, like a mask, it carries ancient wisdom. In profile it comes from a child’s flip-over book – each feature oddly from a different person. There’s something of The Hobbit in the chin, Streisand in her nose, and in between the most expressive wide mouth. Each part separate and eccentric, but together as a whole quite beautiful.

And finally the voice, American, a Massachusetts rasp, one minute whispering wearily, what she says half a step from her thoughts, and the next firing single words like shots, rising rhythmically in energy and volume, though not speed, to the top of her register of passion. While clearly being capable of great tenderness, she is unavoidably theatrical, not in the daaahling, daaahling, centre-of-the-universe, chauffeur-driven way, but she is rivetingly, dramatic.

She is not the kind of actress that you vaguely remember or can’t quite put a name to. In fact, Armistead Maupin says that one day he just woke with a shock and saw her face. He knew immediately that she was Mrs Madrigal – the dope-smoking, bohemian, ambiguously gendered, motherly recipient of the confidences of the sexually bewildered tenants of 28 Barbary Lane in the television adaptation of his Tales of the City. It wasn’t so much casting as destiny.

The writer Martin Sherman says the same. In 1997, perhaps delving into the place in his Jewishness that produced his best-known work, Bent, he wrote a monologue called Rose. An 80-year-old woman on a bench sits shivah for someone who has died. She tells her story and eats ice cream. Taking us from Russia to Miami, from the pogroms, through the holocaust to America, he wrote two tender, funny and insightful hours of one woman speaking of her life and of the experience of modern European Jewry. And when he had finished it, he thought of Olympia Dukakis.

So now she is in London, about to appear at the National Theatre, recalling her father’s words: “He used to say that ‘Memorisation is the lowest form of intelligence’. Oh no, it isn’t. Not when you’re talking about 74 pages of Rose, it’s not.”

Dukakis was born in Lowell. She doesn’t like to say when. “It probably isn’t as bad in this country, but in the United States it’s stupid to tell your age.” Her father, an Anatolian Greek, had arrived in America fleeing the Turks in 1912. A little earlier, in 1907, her mother, a Pelleponesian – “who are different from the Anatolian Greeks, who are different from the Thracian Greeks, and who are certainly different from the Athenians…” – had come with her family from southern Greece. Being part of this “Greek Dias-Pora”, pronounced thus, in two parts, by Dukakis, is threaded through her being.

In the monologue, Rose says of her itinerant Yiddish life across three continents, “Maybe there is a joy in not belonging.” Dukakis says, “One of the things that Martin realised about me immediately was that, since I am first generation, the idea of being the other, of not belonging, is a very real thing for me. When I grew up, I always felt that there was the Greeks and there was the Americans – the Greeks were ‘the others’. Every minority in the States feels this, so it’s not unique. But it is unique when it happens to you. So I fought a lot of physical battles on the streets with anyone who wanted to take a pot-shot at me or my name, or whatever. Oh, there was much to do on the streets of Lowell, Massachusetts!”

It’s a surprise to be reminded that Olympia Dukakis has been a star for just 11 years. In fact, since that Oscar in 1988. It’s probably one of the reasons she’s sensitive about her age. Before then, she was certainly a great actress, but toiling away mainly out of the public gaze as co-founder of a non-proft-making outfit, The Whole Theater, in the New Jersey town of Mont Clair, where she and her husband, the actor Louis Zoric, brought up their two sons and a daughter. Despite occasional outings to the New York theatre, on and off Broadway, there were no trappings of stardom, and precious little money. She’d been on the stage for 30 years, and appeared in small roles in the best part of a dozen films before, at the age of 50 odd, she found herself famous. “Moonstruck really turned it round, and we were finally able to pay the bills, pay the mortgage.”

The Norman Jewison-directed hit was followed, in 1989, by Steel Magnolias, a warm, womanly bath of sentiment, in which she co-starred with Shirley Maclaine and Sally Field. With the greatest of ease, she shared the screen with these veterans of the limelight, as if she had been there herself for all of her life. Her bank balance got a further substantial shot from a run in all three of the Look Who’s Talking movies as Kirstie Alley’s mother. She’s played a lot of mothers, including Ted Danson’s septuagenarian mum in the film Dad. However her favourite is, without doubt, Anna Madrigal in Maupin’s Tales of the City.

We didn’t get to talk about Tales of the City and Mrs Madrigal until right at the end of the afternoon. Before that, we had been too buried in her own past, and then even further back in the pre-Grecian past, the time of the Goddess, of Ancestor Worship, of Inanna, of “the Lady of blazing dominion, clad in red”, as it says in a poem she has.

The story she has told me so far is of a tough life for a family in a new country, making their way with enterprise rather than the ability to speak English. Her mother’s brothers were immediately successful. They started drug stores. They opened the first ever Soda Fountain. In America? “No. In Lowell!” Early success turned to tragedy when, just before she was born, her mother’s two brothers and three in-laws were all killed in a car crash. “The family was decimated. Then the Depression came and they lost the stores and a lot of property. And, in 1929, my father had just graduated from law school.”

So, in her early childhood in the 30s, life for her family was all about surviving the Depression. And they were always a political family. Her father was a socialist. “He was never a communist. He was a socialist, but he ended up a Republican. My mother was always a Democrat. I don’t know what the difference between them was. My father was the union organiser at the plant where he worked. When Senator McCarthy came to Boston, my father disappeared for three months. He completely disappeared from the house, and I have no answer to that.” Well, any idea? And, with perfect timing, she says, “I think he was having an affair.”

“Isn’t it funny to delve into all these things. I mean, very recently I found something my father wrote. One of his best friends was a professor at Harvard, who was asked to help out teaching at the Greek Theology College to try and raise the standards. He found there was all sorts of irregularities. For sexual favours, they were advancing certain students and things like that were going on. And when he blew the whistle, the Archbishop called my father’s friend a communist, which isn’t such a big deal now. But then…”

At which point her father did something very brave. “My father sued the Archbishop. And he won. You see, at every gathering of our family, the main discussion was what was going on politically, in America, in our corner of the world, or if for some reason that wasn’t very hot we’d just discuss social issues, like…” Her voice is ascending in passion now…”… what to do about the poor, or race, or trees, or whatever. And, of course, it happens in my family. My daughter has had boyfriends who can’t believe it. They say, ‘Your family is always arguing and shouting at each other.’ And she says, ‘No they’re not, they’re just discussing things.’ ”

From this argumentative background, she and her younger brother, Apollo, both decided on the theatre. “He made up his mind when he was seven. I was just fumbling around. I thought I was going to be an athlete. I played all sports – basketball, field hockey, tennis, track-and-field, riflery. I was best at tennis, track-and-field and riflery, and, as a matter of fact, I was New England Champion at fencing for three years from when I was 19.”

She was on a scholarship, so when she happened on theatre in her sophomore year and wrote and produced the class revue with another girl, she couldn’t afford to go to drama school and become an actress. “My mother was the one who sat me down and said that there was no money, and that I’d have to go and get a job. So I worked out that the the best-paid job for a woman at that time was as a physical therapist. And the National Foundation of Infantile Paralysis was giving scholarships to people who would train and then go and work in the field.”

For several years she worked with polio victims all over the States, eventually quitting and going to Boston University in the late 50s to study acting. Before she graduated, she and a bunch of friends started the Actors Company, putting on works that weren’t being done at the time. “We did plays that were present with today’s situations, we did European plays, American plays, plays that we really thought spoke to our generation. That was just our interest, we didn’t have a policy.”

They did La Ronde, the play recently revived in London’s West End in the David Hare adaptation starring a lot of Nicole Kidman. “We were censored and closed up, and we decided we would perform and we wouldn’t charge and people came. A big to-do.” She says this rhythmically, with the emphasis falling insistently on the last word of each phrase. “And no, I didn’t have any role models in the theatre, because I knew nothing about theatre or New York. There was a freedom in that and also a kind of stupidity.”

Her husband Louis featured fairly early on in her professional life. They met working off Broadway in Anouilh’s Medea. She had seen him once before. “He had auditioned for a play that I had the lead in. He was going to play my husband, but the husband had to die at the end of the first act and Louis was far too healthy looking. At the time, he had tight black curly hair and a tight black beard. So when someone dropped out of Medea, the director asked me if I knew anybody and, only thinking that I wanted to meet him again, and maybe have a thing with him, I suggested Louis. I had no idea whether he was any good or not.” And they have been married for 38 years. Talking about Louis brings a glint to her eye, as does the subject of heroines. “If I did have role models, it was actresses like Sarah Bernhardt and Eleanor Duse, the great Italian actress. So my models weren’t even real. They were historical figures, and I read about the parts that they played and the ambitions that they had and that they all had companies. And I wanted a company and I wanted to play the capitals of Europe. These were the kind of dreams. There was a theatre in Boston called the Colonial. I always wanted to play that… it’s a beautiful, beautiful theatre.”

And have you? “No, of course not… things don’t… I mean, you know… maybe some day . . . there’s still a little time left to play the Colonial.” She is steeped in theatre. Martin Sherman, asked to pick one characteristic that sums her up, says, “She’s just such a theatre animal.” And the stardom she dreamed about from the early days was not the stardom of limos and Oscars and movies but of great theatre work in the places of great culture. Those are a very European set of ambitions. Nonetheless, she followed the obligatory career path to New York, where she began to compete fiercely. She left the Actors Company, where she never felt any of that competitiveness, and went to New York, “where it became real important to to be better than everybody else. I guess it came from doing sport. To prove that I was better than all those Americans around me. And since I was pretty good at sport, it was very satisfying.” She laughs, pauses, and adds, “But I had no friends.” At high school she had a chip on her shoulder “the size of a tree”.

“I remember thinking when I got an award once, ‘I am going to do it differently at college. I want to have friends.’ I remember thinking that very clearly.” And did she? “Yes.”

Eventually, this got the better of her. She knew that she had to be noticed in New York and she had to figure out how to do that. “I really put my mind to it, but the problem is that when you’re trying to be better than everybody else you aren’t playing with them. It was empty. I remember when I was doing a play at the Public Theater once, I had my hand on the doorknob, but was really indifferent about going into the theatre.” For an actress who appears to have such instinct, whose performances seem effortless, unfussy and in some ways quite ethereal – think of the way Mrs Madrigal floats, albeit with a sharpish wit, through the tribulations of her life – it comes as something of a surprise that she was so uptight. As you watch and listen to her now, her passion and intensity so open and positive, so grounded, even a little earth motherish, you have to rub your eyes a bit to be able to focus on the younger her, the defensive Greek girl fighting all comers after school.

What changed her was an unholy row with her brother Apollo who was directing her in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night playing opposite her husband. Was it a huge Greek fight? “No, a good theatre fight.” The problem was that she said she couldn’t see Louis’s eyes, because – in character as Tyrone, the husband – he was squinting. “I turned to my brother and said, ‘I can’t see what’s going on in his eyes.’ And he said, ‘Okay, then you can’t tell.’ And I said, ‘So how am I supposed to play the scene, if I don’t know what’s going on in his eyes?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know that any more than I know why you have to run everything on the stage and control it.’ Waaaaw. My brother and I started to have this big fight. He said, ‘Why can’t you just accept what’s happening? You always look like you’re playing with somebody, but you’re not. You only play with somebody if they are doing what you decide is right on stage.’ And I knew immediately it was the truth. It was incredible. Only someone who watches you that closely and loves you that much would dare to say something like that to you.”

It really changed her. And when she, leading about 18 others, started the Whole Theater in Montclair, New Jersey, she also discovered that if she took it further and didn’t just stop trying to control the other actors but also left the audience to their own devices as well, she would really change as an actress. “I realised that if the audience did whatever they wanted to do – come, stay, laugh, cry, open their candy, shuffle in their chairs – then I was free to do what I wanted to do.”

And this change was what to lead to her big break, because when she went to auditions she was no longer trying to impress anybody. Always basing herself at the Whole Theater, she started to appear on Broadway. Nora Ephron saw her in The Marriage of Bette & Boo, which lead to a role in Heartburn, the film of her book about her marriage. Dukakis played Meryl Streep’s mother, but through no fault of her own, ended up on the cutting-room floor. However, Mike Nichols, who directed Heartburn, then cast her in a play called Social Security and Norman Jewison saw her and she got Moonstruck. It sounds pretty easy, but until then her daughter had been going to college “on credit cards”.

And it’s when she shows me the pictures of her children that we stumble into the Goddess. There is a photo of an old, rather lined women in her wallet. It’s not her mother, it’s Marija Gimbutas, an archaeomythologist. She and Dukakis are arm in arm together “looking blissfully happy. Although that’s probably the drink.” She had gone on one of Gimbutas’s expeditions in search of evidence. “It started when I was doing The Trojan Women. My brother was directing. And I was rehearsing and I was on the ground talking about my ancestors. I said to him, ‘What is this?’ He said, ‘Ancestor Worship. You know, you’ve read the Golden Bough.’ I said, ‘But what does that mean, what does Ancestor Worship really mean?'” At this point, you get the flavour of the great Greek disputatious family. “He said, ‘You’d better go and find out.’

“So, I went and got a book called Perseus and the Gorgon. I got to the bit about Perseus and how he was supposed to have united Greece, and he’s a great hero and everything. But I had never before questioned what was going on there to unite. And the book talked about how he went to the temple in Corfu to bury the head of the Gorgon and it said, ‘He buried in oblivion and covered in silence the teachings of the Great Mother.’ I tell you, that phrase went ZAP like I got hit in the gut. What were these teachings? No one tells you about these teachings. When you read history, nobody tells you there was anything before the Greeks. All Western civilisation begins with the Greeks. And these teachings of the Great Mother were important and strong enough…” and she repeats the quote very slowly, ” ‘they had to be buried in oblivion and covered in silence’ – it was illegal to talk about it. It just captured my imagination. There is something so much about women in that – things that are buried and silent. Looking back that was why I was so intrigued.”

As an actress, Dukakis finds something of this ancient femaleness in all her work. It’s not just a coincidence of age that she has played a lot of mothers. Rose, the woman she is embarking on now, is a woman in search of some kind of sense, in this case sense about her Jewishness and about things too ghastly to have experienced in real time and place. She is trying to find expression out of numbness. And with wit and insight, she finds a stoical peace as she explores the dislocation that a Jew of her generation increasingly feels with her children, the next generation, and their Israel.

In mid-rehearsal, Dukakis is worried. “It’s two hours long. In America, people take an intermission and go to the bar at an hour-and-a-half.” But there will be no chance of boredom. Sherman has written a narrative that constantly refreshes the audience with the little side bars and tributaries of Rose’s fragmented, filmic recollections. Her restless recall of her life peoples her present with her past as world events in the last 65 years intersect with her personal experience. Dukakis says of Mrs Madrigal something that also rings true of Rose. “The thing that I like so much about her is that she’s survived herself. She asks now of herself only that she lives in the moment and that she is not controlled by the past or the future.” Dukakis might be talking about herself.

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