Stage and screen star Olympia Dukakis was honored at a luncheon Friday, April 8, at the Sarasota Yacht Club as part of the 2016 Sarasota Film Festival.
The Impact Award was presented to Dukakis by Carol Poteat Buchanan of the Gulfcoast chapter of UN Women, which works toward the empowerment of women around the globe. Buchanan praised Dukakis not only for her “tough, unforgettable female roles” but also for her social activism, singling out the actress’s work to obtain higher wages and better benefits for those working in home healthcare services.
During the luncheon (Greek in flavor, to pay homage to Dukakis’ heritage), journalist Regina Weinrich spoke with Dukakis about her life and career, first asking the 84-year-old star—who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in 1987’s Moonstruck—about growing up in Lowell, Mass.
“It was a textile town during the Depression, with many different ethnic groups,” Dukakis recalled. “Our parents fought in the mills; we fought in the streets.” She admitted to being pretty tough from the age of 8, once knocking down a boy whose mother came to Dukakis’s mother seeking redress. “I don’t interfere with what my daughter does on the street,” was the reply, Dukakis recalled, to audience laughter.
But she added that her upbringing and background may have proven handy when she began her work in the theater, proving feisty not only about getting roles but raising money for theaters she helped to found. Dukakis had built a strong reputation onstage long before she landed the role in Moonstruck; she still appears onstage, most notably with the one-woman show, Rose, but she says, “I don’t want to do eight [performances] a week anymore.” What she does want to do, she added, is continue teaching the Greek theater classics—along with the work of playwright Anton Chekhov—to acting students.
Teaching at NYU is one way she paid the bills in the years before Moonstruck—followed by films including Steel Magnolias, Working Girl, and Mr. Holland’s Opus—brought a measure of financial security. Prior to that, she said, “My husband [fellow actor Louis Zorich] had been in a terrible accident and couldn’t work for five years. We had three children, and my daughter was going to college on credit cards.” After Moonstruck, “I got good jobs and good pay.”
Of some of her colleagues, Dukakis said she got along well with Cher (“She was kind and sincere, and wanted people to be happy”), faced some tense moments with Shirley MacLaine on the set of Steel Magnolias (“but we got to be very good friends afterwards”), and called director Sarah Polley, who helmed the 2006 movie Away from Her, in which Dukakis had a role, “something of a genius.”
A less happy experience was found during filming The Cemetery Club, with Diane Ladd and Ellen Burstyn. The latter two did not get on well, Dukakis said, to the point that “Diane told me she had a dream where she saw the devil, and when he turned around he had Ellen’s face.”
During a Q&A with members of the audience, Dukakis was asked if she had any life lessons or philosophies to share. “First, take care of your family,” said the actress. And then, “I try to do things I believe in and want to do. I haven’t always succeeded; sometimes I’ve done things for the money or the attention. But I’ve tried.”
The Sarasota Film Festival continues through Sunday; for information on upcoming films, stars and events, go to sarasotafilmfestival.com.