It is a pop culture rite of passage for entertainers of a certain age to become the subjects of documentaries that look straight ahead and back—films that serve as simultaneous retrospectives of their careers and candid accounts of their day-to-day living. Most of these authorized portraits are entertaining, many are good, but few extract new information that is in any way juicy or risky. Absolutely none of them have ever had a subject who claims to have been the “Queen of one night stands” or who muses with a more or less straight face that, “The day comes and you can’t take for granted a hard prick.”
None of them, that is, until Harry Mavromichalis’s feature-length portrait of Oscar-winning actor Olympia Dukakis. The simply titled Olympia, which premieres Sunday at New York’s DOC NYC documentary festival, deftly balances an account of Dukakis’s career (much of which has been devoted to hardcore theatrical work, which requires quite a bit of explaining so as to be accessible to a general audience that only knows her from film and TV) and a profile of a sharp-tongued, foul-mouthed octogenarian with no fucks left to give (if she ever had them in the first place). In terms of its frankness, it’s only matched by the crown jewel of this subgenre, Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s 2010 documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.
“I basically was in awe of her,” Mavromichalis told me by phone on Thursday. “I just could not believe there’s a person like that that’s alive. She was my inspiration of how I wanted to be with my husband, how I want to be with people. When she talks to you, you think there’s no one else who’s more important than you. You know, and then she forgets your name. Next time, I’m like, ‘It’s Harry!” ‘Harry?”
“I wanted to create a film that people could feel what I felt,” he added, raving that she’s one of the most intelligent people he’s ever known.
Mavromichalis met Dukakis some years ago, after he invited her to teach an acting workshop at his production company on the island of Cyprus. He said as a Greek man, he’d followed the career of the Greek American Dukakis all his life and considered her one of his idols. They stayed in touch and soon after their initial acquaintance, Mavromichalis watched 2011's Dori Berinstein-directed bio-doc Carol Channing: Larger Than Life. His husband convinced him to pitch a similar project to Dukakis.
Her reaction was a stiff no. Mavromichalis recalls her rationale being along the lines of: “Who gives a fuck about Olympia Dukakis? After I die, no one will even remember my name.” He told her that’s all the more reason to share her life on screen. Still no. Finally, after three months of persistence, Mavromichalis told her that she should do it if for no other reason than to spend time with him. She finally caved. Their first day of shooting happened on her 80th birthday.
Filming occurred sporadically over the next three years (post-production, including the firing of the first editor, whose vision did not align with that of Mavromichalis, took up the larger part of the four between wrapping and now). Olympia contains brief footage of the unveiling of her star on Hollywood Boulevard, a San Francisco gay pride parade in which Dukakis served as celebrity grand marshal (“Some people don’t know who the fuck I am,” Dukakis intones while waving at the crowd from the back of a convertible), and a TIFF Cinematheque retrospective of the work of Norman Jewison, during which Moonstruck, the film for which Dukakis won the 1988 Best Supporting Actress Oscar, was screened. Her early struggles with breaking into acting—a field where she was considered “too ethnic”—and subsequent founding of the Whole Theater Company in Montclair, New Jersey, which allowed her to give herself roles she wasn’t getting elsewhere.
Some of the most poignant moments, though, are the quiet ones at home and in hotel rooms, where Dukakis’s musings range from the egalitarian nature of matrilineal society (and its misogynist suppression) to her fears about death. “If Olympia didn’t want to answer something, I chose a different day to ask it,” said Mavromichalis. “I didn’t want it to be fluffy and cute. So many times with role models or big personalities it’s all about the image. But we all struggle in life.”
The effect of Mavromichalis’s process can be stunning, with Dukakis almost offhandedly discussing a suicide attempt and her two-year addiction to painkillers. “We think about killing ourselves or doing too many drugs,” said Mavromichalis. “But if you don’t hear it from other people, then you think you’re alone. You think you’re the weird one. I wanted people to hear this from someone like Olympia. That Oscar didn’t come easy.”
In another scene, she talks about finding out she was pregnant with her first child, Christina, and having to flag down her husband Louis Zorich, whose attention at the time was being taken up by another woman. Dukakis, alluding to something that sounds like an open arrangement, recalls that Zorich’s affair was the least of her worries. “I met her eventually,” she says. “I liked her. She thought we were odd.”
The scenes of what appears to be an easy, loving relationship with Zorich are even more moving in light of his death at 94, which occurred in January. They had been married for 55 years.
The film ends on a trip back to Mycenae, Greece, where Dukakis’s mother eventually left for America. “It was something matrilineal for my daughter and my granddaughters to come to my mother’s village and see and feel a presence of my mother and her mother,” explains Dukakis on camera. During the final reel, Dukakis has a conversation in Greek with a number of local women, some of whom remember her from her last trip there, decades ago.
“She could have been one of those women, sitting with them,” said Mavromichalis. “This is this awkward, beautiful moment of her realizing that, ‘If my parents didn’t leave, I would have been here sitting next to them, having kids and never leaving this village.’ I felt it was so powerful without anything really happening.”
Mavromichalis said he showed Dukakis an early, 140-minute cut of the film at NYU. He said his ever-opinionated subject regularly raised her hand, turning her fingers into scissors to suggest cutting scenes she thought were too boring or went on too long. He recently showed her the slimmed down, 103-minute cut, which he says she approved of (she likes it enough, at any rate, to support it by participating in a Q&A after its DOC NYC premiere on Sunday).
“She kept yelling,” said Mavromichalis of the more recent private screening. “We did it at her house and she kept yelling, ‘Harry! Harry! This is wonderful. Harry, this is about me and even I’m interested in seeing it.’”