Documentary Review: ‘Olympia’

Greetings again from the darkness. She is now in the 7th decade of her acting career. She was married to one man for 55 years. She recently turned 89 and is still working regularly. Olympia Dukakis is a marvel to behold. Strong-minded, direct-speaking, charismatic, talented and long-lasting, she makes a fascinating subject for director Harry Mavromichalis in his first feature-length documentary.

An early segment features Ed Asner presenting her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Soon after she admits that “it doesn’t mean anything” to her, but her Academy Award did. She won the Best Supporting Actress for her role as Cher’s mother in MOONSTRUCK (1987), and we later see her at the ceremony as her elderly mother is captured watching it unfold on TV. This moment matters because we have already heard Olympia discuss her challenging times growing up with her mother (she claims to have channeled her own mother for the role).

Much of this documentary was filmed years ago. We are there on her 80th birthday and her 49th wedding anniversary. Clips are included from some of her theater work, as well as movies. Playing a transgender character in PBS’ “Tales of the City” (1993) made her a gay icon, and we see her as Grand Marshal of the Gay Pride parade in San Francisco. This is especially timely today given that Halle Berry just announced she was stepping down from a transgender role … due to the pressure brought on by her not being transgender.

Olympia is very forthcoming in discussing her approach to life, and life itself. She discloses the initial doubts she had regarding a woman’s place in Greek history, before bucking up and proclaiming “it’s not me that’s less.” When she felt the theater world considered her “too ethnic”, in 1973 she founded The Whole Theater in Montclair, New Jersey. She refused to let the world place limits on what she could do. She offers up many personal memories such as her time fencing at Boston University – stories that provide clear examples of her personality and makeup.

As I watched the film, my thought was that it meandered a bit too much. Upon reflection, it makes complete sense, as that’s the manner in which she lives and works and thinks. We see clips as she converses with her cousin Michael Dukakis, the former Governor of Massachusetts, during his candidacy for President. The film bounces around with stops in New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, and Cypress. Toronto was for a Norman Jewison retrospective (including MOONSTRUCK), and while in Cypress we walk the aisles of a grocery store with her (very weird).

Insight is offered from fellow actors such as Laura Linney, Austin Pendleton, Lainie Kazan, and Whoopi Goldberg, but it’s really the bits and pieces we get regarding her long-term marriage to actor Louis Zorich that are most meaningful. The couple discuss why their marriage and partnership has worked, and how friendship is the key. Louis passed away in 2018, and Olympia continues to act and teach acting classes. We even get a peek behind the curtain when we watch her work through/find a character in rehearsal. Seemingly tacked on towards the end are clips from a trip to her mother’s village in Greece with her daughter and grandkids. It’s a chance to see her interact with local women, and does provide a stark contrast to what Olympia has done with her life. She claims that she can “remember plays and theaters”; however, “it’s people” she doesn’t remember. She can be certain that the people will remember her.

Virtual cinema release on July 10, 2020 via https://www.abcinemanow.com/

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