The Hollywood legend is given a warts-and-all portrait that highlights her tremendous power and the foibles of “no bullshit” Method acting.
It’s easy for filmmaker Charalambos “Harry” Mavromichalis to find the mythic qualities in Olympia Dukakis. Throughout the bio-doc Olympia, the acclaimed actress is oracle, sibyl, and muse in all her glory and terror. Together, Mavromichalis and Dukakis elegantly write the epic story of second-wave feminism into her life story.
Olympia recounts Dukakis’ career and life, starting from when the future Oscar winner first began to make theaters tremor in the early 1960s, building her own (The Whole Theatre) from the ground up. Filled with heartwarming archival footage, charming insights from colleagues, and poignant moments with her husband, actor Louis Zorich, Olympia is informative and engaging in all the ways you hope for as a tribute to the Hollywood legend.
Mavromichalis, a Greek filmmaker himself, places Dukakis’ Greekness central to her identity. Dukakis was tackling the modern Western canon at a time when Greeks were still in the process of being acclimated into broadening definitions of whiteness. She remains both lauded and feared as the wild ethic near-other, capable of profound displays of disquietude and tragedy. When she returns to her ancestral village with her grandchildren and stands in an old amphitheater, it feels as though centuries of theatrical history has circled back on itself, touching briefly, before spiraling on.
Dukakis’ own historical moment in the theater was one of “no bullshit,” a kind of post-Method feminism that flexed its power on “true representation” and “authenticity.” Mavromichalis and Dukakis allow us a glimpse at how deeply she embodies these pursuits of the second-wave feminist movement, for better and worse. For much of the documentary, Dukakis has no makeup on. She’s crass and explosive. She drinks; she smokes weed; everything she says sounds like Tennessee Williams misquoting Chekov. To be privy to such a rawness is awe-inspiring. Mavromichalis often positions us beneath her, making us feel like we are sitting at the feet of an immortal Greek philosopher.
But such openness is revealing, and Olympia reminds us of the kinds of behaviors one gets away with once you have carte blanche to “tell it like it is”. In one souring scene, as Dukakis and her colleague sit on her porch talking about Dukakis’ reputation as a thunderous and demanding teacher, the contours of this “authenticity” are drawn in bold. In this scene, Dukakis, explaining her frustration with an unnamed former black female student, proudly recounts the day she approached the woman mid-scene and ripped her wig off, as a “lesson” on stripping away “artifice.” The pair erupt in congratulatory laughter.
To be privy to such a rawness is awe-inspiring.
This is not to say Dukakis or Olympia should be cancelled. Rather, both Dukakis and her biography reflect the promises and problems of second wave feminism and should be approached as such. Dukakis’ going without makeup for a documentary or role is not the same as a Black woman going without a wig. This moment reminds us of the racist base structures supporting white feminism in which ‘the real’ and ‘the authentic’ are redefined, but still within a white bourgeois worldview and often against the intersectional realities of BIPOC. As legendary as Dukakis is, the realities of 2020 give us the opportunity to look back at the outrageous behaviors of assertive actors at the time and reevaluate how they fit within established power structures.
Though it may not present anything new for the genre, and reveals the truths and ugliness in its subject’s central ideology, Olympia is a must-see for fans of the actress, and the form of old-school Method performance she embodies. It’s a film of teachable moments about the triumphs of the immigrant experience, the vagaries of theater, and the will of the Homeric heroine at its center.
Olympia is currently available on digital and VOD.