Call it a Hollywood twist, something straight out of the movies: Oscar winner Olympia Dukakis didn’t become a bonafide movie star until age 56. Bolstered by her best supporting actress win for Norman Jewison’s 1987 romance “Moonstruck,” the career actress of both stage and screen found her life taking on an entirely new direction, nearly four decades after she had gotten into show business. It’s fitting then that, when asked about the business and craft of acting, Dukakis is cagey about recommending it as a career path.
Dukakis was honored over the weekend at the Sarasota Film Festival, where she was awarded The Impact Award by Carol Poteat Buchanan of the Gulfcoast chapter of UN Women at a special Tribute Luncheon held at the Sarasota Yacht Club. Over Greek-themed foods like spanakopita and herbed chicken salad with lots of hummus, Dukakis sat down to chat with cultural critic and journalist Regina Weinrich about the road that led here to, well, right here.
A pre-chat highlight reel showed off some of Dukakis’ best performances, but it was a clip from “Moonstruck” that really brought the house down:
Dukakis and Weinreich’s wide-ranging conversation hit the highlights of her career (from a college experience steeped in theater to her hopes for what comes next, which is pretty much anything that doesn’t involve performing for eight exhausting nights a week) to some eye-popping comments on some of Hollywood’s other leading ladies (including an uproarious anecdote concerning an apparent on-set rabble between “The Cemetery Club” co-stars Diane Ladd and Ellen Burstyn; Dukakis remembered that Ladd believed that Burstyn was literally possessed by the devil, to the point she even dreamed about it), but it was when she spoke about “Moonstruck” that the conversation really hit an emotional peak.
Before the film, Dukakis said, “My daughter was going to college on credit cards. I was doing every TV movie I could get my hands on. My husband had been in a terrible accident and for five years he didn’t work. I was hustling. It was not a pretty picture.”
And yet it was only someone like Dukakis, who founded her own theater company (the Whole Theatre Company) before she even hit age 40, who could carry the role of worried mother and heartbroken wife Rose Castorini without missing a beat. Jewison, it seemed, wasn’t too caught up in the craft of acting, instead precisely setting up scenes and sticking closely to John Patrick Shanley’s Oscar-winning script, eschewing any kind of improvisation or other actorly flourishes.
“With Jewison, you don’t improvise. Jewison knows every cut he’s going to do, he knows everything. He knew what he wanted,” Dukakis said. “Nobody improvised, you went where he wanted you to go.”
She remembered, “He never talked to you about the acting. I said to him once, ‘I’d love to talk to you about acting,’ and he said, ‘Acting? You want to talk about acting? Oh, please!’ and he walked away.”
Dukakis added that, during filming, Jewison (quite accurately) predicted that she would win an Academy Award for her work in the film. Dukakis wasn’t moved by the sentiment. “Only out of respect, I didn’t say, ‘You’re an idiot,’ ” she said. “Win an Academy Award for playing Rose? I don’t think so. And it turned out that he was right.”
But a gold statuette wasn’t the only thing that Dukakis earned for her work on the film, she also picked up a brand new career. After the film, Dukakis said, “I got good jobs and good pay.” Roles in features like “Steel Magnolias,” the “Look Who’s Talking” franchise, “Mr. Holland’s Opus” and many more rolled in, and Dukakis is still working, both on the big screen and the stage, today.
Still, Dukakis had some surprising advice for enterprising actors, telling the audience, “If there’s one thing you can do well, do that before you become an actor.” Dukakis, luckily enough, didn’t take her own advice.
Check out the trailer for “7 Chinese Brothers,” featuring a recent Dukakis performance, below: