There's a scene in Thom Fitzgerald's 2003 film, The Event, where a 30-something man (Don McKellar) tells his mother (Olympia Dukakis) that he's gay. "I know," she says. "I've known for a long time...The last girl you brought back was a prom date, and you did her makeup."
In these few lines of dialogue, Dukakis manages to communicate humour, acceptance, pride and pure love. A little later in the scene, McKellar reveals that he's sick. In this moment, Dukakis shows her true genius—the range of emotions that plays across her face is amazing. In seconds, she conveys the realization that "sick" means "AIDS." With a sharp intake of breath, a creasing of her brow and a narrowing of her eyes, she shows denial transforming to utter anguish. When she cries, "No! No! No Matty! No!" it seems almost possible that the strength of her love will be enough to save her son.
For more than 40 years, this ability to create fearless portrayals of empowered women in difficult situations has been a hallmark of Dukakis's career. She won the Best Supporting actress Oscar in 1988 for just such a role, playing Rose Castorini, the wife of a man in the throes of a late-life crisis in Norman Jewison's Moonstruck. Her quietly assured delivery of the line "I know who I am," as she rebuffs a younger man's advances, resonated with women everywhere.
Dukakis is bringing her amazing ability —as well as another strong character named Rose—to Halifax this week in a one-person show during the Jewish cultural festival, Chutzpah!. Rose, by critically acclaimed American playwright Martin Sherman, is a story of love, loss and survival told by an 80-year-old Jewish woman. But the play is about more than just one woman's life, says Dukakis on the phone from New York.
"This play was written to commemorate the millennium," says the 75-year-old. "And though it covers events from the 20th century, it is timely and political today."
It was because of Rose that Dukakis ended up working with director Thom Fitzgerald on The Event. "I met Olympia the night I saw Rose on Broadway," he says. "It was a set-up meeting, but I sat there watching her perform and thought, "I MUST direct this woman in The Event.' It was the purest reason I wanted to do the film, imagining her in the role of Lila."
The two recently worked together on 3 Needles, an internationally set drama that looks at the worldwide AIDS crisis. Dukakis plays a Catholic nun caring for people infected with HIV in South Africa. She remains connected to the experience; she recently presented awards to 50 activists from around the world at the AIDS Conference in Toronto. Fitzgerald, who also attended, says, "It was the highlight of the night, watching the hardest working heroes from every corner of the world lauded, and they were so excited by Olympia. They'd all seen her in Moonstruck."
Age does not seem to be slowing Dukakis down. She is slated to begin work with Shirley MacLaine on a movie called Poor Things, about two women who murder homeless men for the insurance money. Dukakis laughs when asked how she chooses what parts to play. "At my age, I take what's given to me," she says. "But I have been very fortunate with Canadian directors—Norman Jewison, Thom Fitzgerald and Sarah Polley. Maybe I'm Canadian at heart."
Though technically not Canadian—he was born and raised in New York—Fitzgerald agrees. "Olympia embraces characters who are good people but are conflicted and full of contradictions," he says. "That does seem somehow Canadian."
Fitzgerald, as co-director of Chutzpah!, is partly to thank for bringing Dukakis and Rose to Halifax. He says it will be a memorable evening. "Olympia brings awesome talent and very impressive commitment to the parts she plays," he says. "She is the most prepared actor I've ever worked with."
Rose, March 31 at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium, 6101 University, 8pm, $68-$103, 494-3820.