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Road to the Oscars: Olympia Dukakis

BU alum recalls her win for Moonstruck

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Actress Olympia Dukakis in a question-and-answer session with students at Boston University's College of Fine Arts in 2000. Photo by Vernon Doucette

To mark next Sunday’s Academy Awards presentation, BU Today is featuring interviews each day this week with alumni who have their own Oscar histories. We begin with Olympia Dukakis, best supporting actress for 1987’s Moonstruck.

Olympia Dukakis was unknown to most filmgoers in 1987, when the romantic comedy Moonstruck opened. The film, starring Cher as a young widow who falls in love with a Brooklyn baker, played by Nicolas Cage, was a huge box office hit. Dukakis played Cher’s world-weary, no-nonsense mother, and she uttered the memorable line, “Loretta, you’ve got a love bite on your neck…and you’re life’s goin’ down the toilet.”

Growing up in Lowell, Mass., the daughter of Greek immigrants, Dukakis (SAR’54, CFA’57, Hon.’00) caught an early love of acting from her father, who performed with an amateur theater company, but in her young adulthood, film stardom hardly seemed likely. She studied physical therapy as an undergraduate and reportedly supported herself between early acting jobs as a physical therapist. She returned to BU to earn an MFA, and spent the next 30 years working primarily as a stage actress and director.

Prior to Moonstruck, Dukakis was known chiefly to off Broadway audiences for her work in Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage, and countless other plays.

A small part in the Broadway comedy Social Security brought Dukakis to the attention of Moonstruck director Norman Jewison.

Dukakis was 56 when she made Moonstruck, an age when many actresses struggle to find work. Her performance in the film not only netted her an Oscar and a slew of other awards, but launched a new chapter in her career. She became highly sought-after as both a film and television actress, appearing in the feature films like Steel Magnolias, Look Who’s Talking, and Mr. Holland’s Opus and as the transgendered landlady in the acclaimed television version of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City and its sequels. Accepting her Academy Award, Dukakis gave a shout-out to her cousin Michael Dukakis, the former Massachusetts governor then seeking the Democratic party’s nomination for president. As she left the stage, Dukakis exhorted, “OK, Michael, let’s go!”

Today, at 79, the actress remains more in demand than ever. She was recently seen in an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, has roles in four upcoming films, and is currently starring in a revival of Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore at the Roundabout Theatre off Broadway.

BU Today caught up with Dukakis during the play’s rehearsals and asked her to reminisce about her Oscar-winning performance.

BU Today: When you were shooting Moonstruck, did you ever imagine you would be nominated for an Academy Award?
Dukakis: No.

Why do you think the film was so popular?
I used to think I knew, but now I’ve decided that I really don’t know why the movie was/is so popular. I know that Italians love it for being authentic, and women love it. The movie hits a nerve.

What was your reaction when you learned you had been nominated for best supporting actress?
Norman Jewison, the director, had told me that I would be nominated and that I would win, so I actually wasn’t surprised when it happened.

Take us back to the night of the Oscars in 1988. What went through your mind when you heard your name called?
I was wishing that my father was there to see it all. I kissed my husband, Louis Zorich, and thought of my father.

Did you think you would win?
Actually, yes, I thought I would win because all the oddsmakers in Vegas had me way ahead!

Actors dream of winning an Oscar. Did you have an acceptance speech prepared?
I didn’t have a speech prepared, but I did have certain ideas, such as urging my cousin Michael forward as he campaigned for president.

What do you remember most about that evening?
I remember most the happiness that I shared with my family—my husband, my brother and sister-in-law.

What impact did winning the Oscar have on your career?
I stopped having financial worries.

Any predictions on who you think might/should win an Oscar this Sunday?
Predictions? I think Michelle Williams will win best actress for Blue Valentine, Melissa Leo will win best supporting actress for The Fighter, and The Social Network will win for best picture.

See Olympia Dukakis’ Academy Award acceptance speech here.

John O’Rourke can be reached at orourkej@bu.edu.

Next up in our series “Road to the Oscars,” we chat with Michael Williams (COM’79), who won an Academy Award for his documentary The Fog of War in 2004.

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