Having just learned that the National Board of Review voted her best supporting actress of 1987 for her role as Cher's Italian mother in "Moonstruck," Olympia Dukakis dug into her vegetable curry with the same down-to-earth quality that made her character so memorable. (The actress hadn't found the time to eat that day, as she runs a theater in New Jersey when she's not delivering prize-winning performances.)
Director Norman Jewison cast her in "Moonstruck" after seeing her on Broadway in "Social Security," where she played Marlo Thomas' mother under Mike Nichols' direction. Jewison's instinct seems to have paid off for Dukakis has also picked up the L.A. Film Critics best supporting actress award. In her early 50s, Dukakis has brought to the part of Rose a sardonic cool that balances the histrionics of the film's other Brooklyn-Italian characters.
"Norman is a master craftsman," she said of the film maker, "a very smart man. He speaks simply. He watches you do something and comes up, saying, 'You know those two lines in the middle? Throw them away.' He didn't want to see any overreaching . . . he told me to get simpler, simpler, simpler."
Although the film's focus is the comically turbulent relationship between Loretta (Cher)--a widow engaged to an older mama's boy (Danny Aiello)--and Ronny (Nicolas Cage), the volatile young brother of her fiance, each of the secondary characters has a story. Rose's takes place primarily through a dinner shared with a stranger (John Mahoney) in a neighborhood restaurant.
Having observed a girl abandon Mahoney in a huff, Rose observes dryly, "she's too young for you" and--without the least bit of flirtation--invites him to eat at her table. Her unsentimental attitude was decided upon only after rehearsals when, as she recalled, "Norman excitedly says to me on the first day of shooting, 'The scenes we did with John Mahoney were all wrong! Rose is without sentiment--very realistic, practical.' "
Playing the scene in a low-key manner, Dukakis felt "how right and true it was," in her words. "It permitted complexity to bubble underneath. And one of the things I responded to was the fact that Rose finds out her husband is fooling around and she chooses to handle it without blowing up her life. I found that a worldly point of view. She doesn't permit her spontaneity to go before her good sense."
Considering that Dukakis is primarily a stage actress--and winner of two Obie awards, most recently for Christopher Durang's "The Marriage of Bette and Boo"--it might seem that this understated acting style is a departure from the broader strokes associated with theater.
"No, it's the same," she insisted. "It's got to be simple in theater, not manipulative. You have to trust the material. You have to be informed and then do it simply."
Dukakis sees the dialogue of John Patrick Shanley's script as emblematic of this practicality. "If you listen to the Brooklyn dialect, it's very unadorned--'Hey, where ya going?' 'Hey, come ova here!' It's sparse, to the point; it's in the language of the text. Only at the high points of the script do you have that bravura operatic stuff."
Learning this particular dialect posed a challenge to both Dukakis and Cher: "She and I were the least confident about the accent," Dukakis admitted. "Julie Bovasso (who plays Cher's aunt in addition to being credited as dialogue coach) listened to us and suggested certain things. Finally, it came down to two or three sounds that were difficult because of my Boston accent."
Dukakis' background is Greek, not Italian--"I'm first-generation American," she added. And she grew up not in Brooklyn, but Massachusetts. (Her first cousin, Michael Dukakis, is governor of the state.) The actress currently resides in New Jersey, where she is producing/artistic director of the Whole Theatre Company in Montclair.
Why does this veteran of more than 100 regional theater productions run such a company? "I wanted the opportunity to play parts I wouldn't get the chance to play, to use what I felt I understood about theater, to take responsibility and not always wait for 'the grown-ups' to decide. . . ."
She is about to star in "The Rose Tattoo" for the Whole Theatre, but must fulfill administrative duties at the same time. "You don't realize how deep the responsibility becomes. You end up committing yourself to people--to the audiences who support you, to the board of trustees who have faith in you, to the work of the theater artists and educators that you've involved with. At times, it feels great; other times, you ask yourself, 'How did I let this happen?' "
Dukakis sometimes gets to act with her husband, Louis Zorich--"he played Dustin Hoffman's brother in the white suit in "Death of a Salesman," she pointed out--and still finds time for her three children. What she has given up, however, is New York University, where she taught drama for 15 years.
"I learned a great deal from these students," she said. "The only difference between us was that I've been doing it longer. I learned that when you've been only with your peers, 'You're just another human being driving a truck of bananas,' as Tennessee Williams said."
Another person from whom she learned a lot is Jules Dassin, who directed her many years ago in "The Rehearsal," a political film that was never released in the United States "because it dealt with the Greek junta and the CIA," Dukakis said. She starred as a reporter who gets caught up in the events of the takeover. "I even played a scene with Arthur Miller! It was the first time I understood anything about doing films. He (Dassin) auditioned me for an entire day, and then told me my problem was that I didn't like the camera.
"I felt like he found me out," she said. "He proceeded to show me everything about the lights. He told me to do anything I wanted and he would move the camera around me. He let me know I had to value myself more than the camera."
When asked who among her peers has provided the greatest inspiration, she replied, "Jeanne Moreau--let's begin with the greats! Ingrid Thulin! Vanessa Redgrave, of course. Geraldine Page in 'Sweet Bird of Youth.' It's always great when someone shows you something to aspire to and you say, 'Right, that can happen'."
Nevertheless, she agreed that few good film roles are written for older actresses these days. "For the parts that are out there, I have not been competitive; I haven't been in that arena yet. I think 'Moonstruck' will be helpful in that way to me. It actually deals with older people and love."