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Harry Mavromichalis’ documentary about Oscar-winning actress Olympia Dukakis delivers an uncommonly personal, cinema verite-style portrait of its fascinating, iconoclastic subject. Following Dukakis over the course of several years, beginning when she turned 80, while providing a chronicle of her estimable decades-long stage and screen career, Olympia emerges as a compelling profile of a woman who’s defiantly marched to the beat of her own drum. The film recently received its world premiere at the DOC NYC festival.
The impressionistic documentary features numerous colorful episodes showcasing Dukakis’ brand of noncomformity. She’s seen showing up for a ceremony marking a star bearing her name on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, even while privately admitting, “It doesn’t mean anything to me.” Appearing at the Toronto Film Festival to participate in a tribute to Norman Jewison, she rebukes its executive director, Piers Handling, for rejecting one of her recent films. Riding in a limousine as the celebrity grand marshal of San Francisco’s Gay Pride Parade (her performance as the transgender Anna Madrigal in PBS’ Tales of the City made her a gay icon), she laughingly points out that many of the onlookers cheering her “don’t know who the fuck I am.”
When she found it difficult to get significant stage roles because of her ethnicity, Dukakis started her own theater, the Whole Theater Co. in Montclair, New Jersey, along with Louis Zorich, her husband of 55 years who died last year (and to whom the film is dedicated). During the theater’s three-decade run, she starred in many classic plays; powerful footage of several of its productions, including The Rose Tattoo, are included in the documentary.
It was her casting as Cher’s mother in Jewison’s 1987 smash hit, Moonstruck, that catapulted Dukakis’ career. We see footage of her and Zorich in their hotel room getting dressed for the Academy Award ceremony, and her elderly mother joyously watching on TV as her daughter wins the Oscar for supporting actress.
The documentary dutifully depicts Dukakis’ work process through such scenes as her rehearsing the title role in King Lear, shaking a bottle of pills to approximate the sound effects in the storm scene. There are many effusive testimonials from colleagues including Laura Linney, Austin Pendleton, Laine Kazan and Whoopi Goldberg, among others, as well as more personal reflections from friends and family members including her cousin, former Massachusetts governor and presidential nominee Michael Dukakis.
It’s the more intimate moments that prove most arresting, and in some cases, hilarious. Dukakis doesn’t shy away from intensely personal revelations about herself, including her freewheeling sexuality when she was younger (“I was the queen of one-night stands”) and the inevitable effects of aging on one’s sex life. “It’s interesting how you take a hard prick for granted,” she observes, ruefully.
Not every episode in the film deserves inclusion. Although mildly amusing, a scene in which she frustratedly tries to get an answer from Siri feels more appropriate to a sitcom. And while a lengthy segment involving her traveling throughout Greece provides some affecting moments, such as when she chats with a quartet of elderly women in the town where her mother was born, but seeing her courteously interacting with fans while supermarket shopping in Cyprus feels like filler.
Despite its occasional flabby stretches, however, Olympia more than lives up to its refreshingly frank and unfiltered subject.
Production: A Little Different Productions, Ella Bean Productions, Stunning Cuts
Director: Harry Mavromichalis
Screenwriters: Harry Mavromichalis, Sam Eggers
Producers: Andrew Ford, Harry Mavromichalis, Muriel Moraes, Keren Seol
Executive producer: Sid Ganis
Directors of photography: Federico Cesca, John Ryan Johnson
Editors: Sam Eggers, Andrew Ford
Composer: Paul Cantelon
Venue: DOC NYC
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