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Remembering Olympia Dukakis, the Smartest Grande Dame in the Room

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Variety
Variety
 2021-05-03
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Olympia Dukakis, who died on May 1 at 89, had a face like no one else’s. Stern but perpetually amused, with a warm leer of a grin that could light up a scene, she looked like the comedy and tragedy masks fused together. That’s a fitting reference, since Dukakis was of Greek heritage and, in a stage career that stretched back to 1961, appeared in classics from “Electra” to “Titus Andronicus” to “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” Yet even when she was carving out her place in movies and TV, often cast as the Grande Dame Who’s Smarter Than Anyone in the Room (it’s telling that she took on that role as far back as the 1969 Dustin Hoffman/Mia Farrow trifle “John and Mary,” when she was just 38), the Dukakis face, part cherub and part statue, made it seem that whatever reality she was confronting, she saw the absurdity of it, and the heartbreak as well. She hopscotched from one ethnicity to the next: Italian in “Moonstruck,” Southern aristocrat in “Steel Magnolias,” Jewish in films like “The Cemetery Club.” But that was because of the universal language of which Dukakis was the grandmaster. In role after role, she spoke mom: imperious, testy, kind, haughty and, in the end, always looking out for you.

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