R.I.P. Olympia Dukakis

Husband and wife Louis Zorich and Olympia Dukakis in The Seagull, Williamstown Theater Festival

The first thing I thought of when I heard the sad news of Olympia Dukakis’ passing was her compulsive sighs in her Oscar-winning performance in Moonstruck. She would let out these little exhalations of air from time to time, sometimes in conversation, sometimes not, standing at the stove cooking, a little mournful short quick sigh. It was such an interesting choice, so funny, so human. It was a “tic” of the character – we all have “tics” like this – but Dukakis didn’t do it as a “tic”. It was something the character needed to do to let off all of her tension and anxiety.


The second thing I thought of was an interview she did for a wonderful book called The Actor’s Chekhov (about the company of actors who came to Williamstown Theatre Festival every summer, when Nikos Psacharopoulos was artistic director, people like Christopher Walken, Laila Robins, Blythe Danner. It’s a fantastic book, particularly for student actors because these people know how to WORK. One of the best “acting process” books in my entire collection, because none of it is theoretical. It’s ALL practical information.

This passage is my favorite in the book. As a young actress, it blew my mind because it showed just how detailed you had to be – and also curious! Don’t just be obedient and passive: you must be active, you must ask questions about every single thing you say. Wait, why am I saying this again? What is my character doing in this moment?

This anecdote from Dukakis is one of the BEST examples I have ever heard of how to ask questions in the early stages of working with a script.

Listen to how Olympia Dukakis tries to figure out why her character says one line in particular. And it’s seemingly a banal line, a “nothing” line, a self-explanatory line. And then watch how she goes about solving the problem of how to play the moment. People may take issue with her solution. I suppose that’s fair. Her snarkiness towards Kevin McCarthy is apparent (and kind of funny) BUT. The larger point she makes is what is important for actors: you have to know why you’re saying something because once you know the the WHY you then know HOW to say something. Human beings do this naturally, without thinking. You don’t have to think, “Wait, why am I saying this again?” But actors do. Actors have to make choices. What seems like a little throw-off line becomes a huge PUZZLE to Dukakis, and it was a problem she needed to solve. Not just for herself but ALSO for the audience. Chekhov was writing a “moment” here – it’s not random, NOTHING is random- – so what IS the moment (a) and (b) how do I figure out a way to PLAY that moment?

Olympia Dukakis, along with her acting career, was an acting teacher all her life. You can see here why she was such a great one. I cannot even explain how much the following anecdote influenced me in my own work. Transformative:

Something very interesting happened the first time I did Paulina in The Sea Gull. She comes to them in the third act, and says, “Here are the plums for the journey.” And when I was researching it I thought, why is she giving him plums for the journey? It always seemed like she was a batty person! And then I began reading what it was like to go on a journey then. There was a long time on the train, it was very difficult, the food was very bad, people would get diarrhea, constipation. And when I read that I knew what it was! Bowel movements! So, I mean, I could play that! That’s something that’s a private thing, you don’t announce it to everyone. I mean, if I came up to you and you were going on a trip and I said, “Here’s some Ex-Lax,” I wouldn’t make a big announcement! I would try to be confidential about it. So that helped me with how the moment should be acted. But even then, I thought the audience doesn’t know this, they don’t know that that’s what plums are about. The line should be prunes! An audience will know prunes.

Now the word in the text is plums, there’s no getting around it, the specific literal translation was “plums”. At least that’s what I was told again and again by Kevin McCarthy. Because Kevin had been in that production with Mira Rostova, he considered himself the big Chekhov expert among us. He didn’t think it should be changed. As usual I didn’t go up to Nikos and say, “Listen, I think we should change this, blah blah blah.” I just did it one day in rehearsal. Nikos fell over with laughter! Kevin was apoplectic. But I felt – it’s not the specific word, that’s true, but this is the spirit of it, this is what’s intended, this is what Chekhov wants the audience to know the woman is doing.

Nikos waited till Kevin had given me my scolding and left the room and then he came over and said, “Keep it in.”

Olympia Dukakis came and spoke at my grad school. One of the things she said really struck me. She was 70 years old or something like that, and someone asked her something about becoming famous later in life, and the gist of the question was that since there weren’t as many elderly actresses, it might be easier to become famous later because there was less competition.

Dukakis – who was nobody’s fool – and actually rather scary (but in an exciting way) – said, with no bitterness, but her tone was like “let me just shred up the last of your illusions right now, kiddo” – “Listen, every script that comes to me has been offered to Gena Rowlands first. I get the script and Gena’s fingerprints are all over it. Any role I get it’s only because she’s already turned it down.”

The way she said “Gena’s fingerprints” had such a tough hard edge – it was very very funny the way she said it. “Lemme guess. Gena turned this one down, right?” In her tone was massive respect for “Gena”. Of COURSE they’re gonna offer it to Gena first. Olympia wasn’t complaining, wasn’t saying “I should be first in line.” She was acknowledging reality: As long as Gena Rowlands is topside, I will always be second choice.

It was a good lesson. As an actor, you can’t trip about things like that. About being a director’s second choice, or third choice, or whatever. Competition never ends. You’re never “in the clear”. Be good at what you do. Just be grateful Gena turned it down.

No, thank YOU.

Rest in peace.

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2 Responses to R.I.P. Olympia Dukakis

  1. cat clements says:

    i saw a tweet yesterday about dukakis and was reminded of the second time her character asks loretta if she loves the man she’s with in moonstruck. the “ma i love him awful” and rose’s “aw that’s too bad” are so perfect for their characters and what the movie conveys about love. then i saw several more tweets about dukakis and got that sinking feeling that we weren’t just randomly collectively appreciating her unprompted, perhaps as we should. moonstruck was my pandemic movie. i bought a dvd for $7 in january before covid really hit and realized a few months into the pandemic that i’d watched it once a month for the past four months. then it became a routine. now i think that number is between 10 and 15 and i’ve doubled dipped with the fantastic criterion release. thank you for sharing that passage from her. i’ll be thinking about her “whys” on my next moonstruck rewatch

    • sheila says:

      Cat – “moonstruck was my pandemic movie.” This is so beautiful – I love how movies can really “be there for us” when we need it.

      “Aw, that’s too bad.” One of my favorite line-readings – but there are so many others in that movie. “Ol man, you feed that dog one more time, I’m gonna kick ya till you’re dead.” lol!!

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