Birney Imes: Listening to Olympia tell stories in Brenda's parlor

September 12, 2009 9:02:00 PM

Birney Imes - [email protected]


Olympia Dukakis says she only saw her father cry three times. When she was a teenager she asked him if she could get a job at the Dairy Queen. "No," her father said, tears welling in his eyes. "Right now I want you to enjoy your youth. Don''t worry, you''ll work." 


And work she has, in all manner of jobs, all of which have enriched a long, distinguished and varied acting career that has included innumerable accolades, including one Academy Award. 


This weekend Dukakis played Columbus. Saturday evening, she performed a one-woman show as part of the Annual Tennessee Williams Festival. 


On the ride in from the airport earlier in the week, Dukakis told her host and festival organizer, Brenda Caradine, she was more interested in meeting with students than attending parties in her honor.  


Saturday afternoon in the parlor of Brenda''s antebellum home, Dukakis talked with 10 of Brook Hanemann''s Mississippi University for Women theater students about her life and career, answered questions and then quizzed her young audience about their plans.  


White hair contrasting with her black outfit, the 78-year-old grandmother held forth for a mesmerizing hour and a half.  


Growing up in Lowell, Mass., a rough-and-tumble ethnic melting pot, Dukakis found her place in the world through sports. She played tennis and basketball, ran track and competed in fencing. 


"I didn''t realize it at the time, but sports totally prepared me for show business," she told the students. "The competitive aspect of it, the stamina, the physical stamina, and the desire to go on stage and win for your character."  


To that add moxie and self-confidence. 


Years later a director ridiculed her for the way she said touché, saying he doubted she had ever had occasion to use the word. Dukakis stopped, walked up to the director and quietly told him she had probably said the word 5,000 times during the three years she was the New England fencing champion. 


As a child Dukakis had little exposure to the theater. Her mother loved reading, painting and the movies. Her father was a self-directed lifelong student. Dukakis studied to be a physical therapist. While on the road helping confront polio outbreaks in Texas and Minnesota, she saw plays. She credits that experience, talks with her mother on the way home from the movie theater as a child and being chosen to write and direct a high school play as factors that nudged her toward acting. 


Eventually Dukakis entered graduate school at Boston University where she studied directing. At a summer theater workshop in Maine she was thrust into the role of Stella in "A Streetcar Named Desire," when there weren''t enough actors. 


Thus began a career -- a bumpy road, as she characterizes it -- that led to New York by way of regional theater gigs in Boston and Martha''s Vineyard where she acted in a Mafia theater with a lesbian bar in the basement. Not surprisingly, that episode didn''t end smoothly and for advice she turned to her cousin, Michael Dukakis, an attorney and future presidential candidate. 


"Olympia, it''s time to go to New York," her cousin advised. Four months working in a chocolate factory provided her with a $78 grubstake for the move. In New York, she worked odd jobs and shared tiny apartments with friends as she literally walked the heels off of her shoes in search of work. 


In New York she attracted attention in small roles that led to larger roles.  


Her performance as Rose in an Olney, Md. production of "The Rose Tattoo" led to an audition with Tennessee Williams, who was staging a Broadway revival of the play. The presumed lead, Maureen Stapleton, had put herself in a treatment center. 


"I saw somebody very serious," she said about Williams. He didn''t want me to read. He just talked to me, asked me about my life, about the play, what scenes I thought worked, what scenes didn''t work." 


In all they had three interviews. Williams told Dukakis she brought a sexuality to the role Stapleton lacked. 


During their third interview, Williams excused himself to take a phone call. "That was Maureen," Williams said when he returned. "She''s back. She''s heard about the revival and I have to go with her." 


The playwright looked at Dukakis and said, "She''s my friend." 


Dukakis said she never felt angry or betrayed. "It''s probably because he treated it so professionally." 


A student asked Dukakis for a story about his mother''s favorite movie, "Steel Magnolias." 


Dukakis told how director Herbert Ross day after day humiliated Julia Roberts, who at that point had been in only one movie, "Mystic Pizza." 


"He was an incredibly skilled director, but not a nice human being. He started ridiculing her for her body, saying her arms were too heavy. She was in tears every day. 


Dukakis confronted Ross. If he continued to ridicule Roberts, she was going to walk off the set. "If I don''t, I feel complicit, that I''m letting you abuse another human being," she told him. 


"There is no better way to demoralize and disempower a woman than ridicule her body," Dukakis said. Ross cooled off for a week and a half; the ridicule, when it returned, was never as bad as it had been. 


Roberts, incidentally, was nominated for best supporting actress for her role in the film.  


Regardless what you end up doing, Dukakis told the students, studying theater is a great life experience.  


"What we really all want is to take some joy in our own aliveness, that you are alive and that you engage with other people in something you care about." 


When it was over, host Brenda Caradine presented Dukakis with a single spider lily from her yard. The actress looked at the flower quizzically, not quite knowing what to say or do. After a moment, she pulled her hair back, put the flower behind her ear and smiled.  




Write or phone Birney Imes at The Commercial Dispatch, 516 Main St., Columbus, MS 39701, 328-2424, or e-mail him at [email protected]

Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.