Olympia Dukakis: a goddess among us?

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Tuesday December 10, 2013
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In Cloudburst (Wolfe), Stella (Olympia Dukakis), a foul-mouthed, old-school butch dyke, and her longtime partner Dottie (Brenda Fricker), a visually-impaired, doughy femme, are threatened with separation after Dottie takes a fall. Dottie's clueless granddaughter tricks her into signing a legal guardianship document, then moves her into a long-term care facility. But Stella will not be deterred, and busts Dottie out of the home. As the pair heads to Canada to get married so they can have some kind of legal rights, they pick up hitcher/hustler Prentice (Ryan Doucette) and embark on a series of adventures none of them had ever anticipated. Cloudburst is a sweet comedy with serious undertones in which the women actually talk and relate to each other the way longtime couples do. It's like Hannah Free with a real script and real actresses. Cloudburst, now on DVD, includes a behind-the-scenes featurette and cast interviews among its bonus features. I spoke with Olympia Dukakis about the movie and her LGBT following.

Gregg Shapiro: The character you play in Cloudburst, Stella, has, shall we say, a way with words.

Olympia Dukakis: And gestures!

Have you ever had the opportunity to play a character in possession of such a vast vocabulary of profanity?

No, I've never played anyone so openly rebellious! Unfortunately, it's a real part of my nature, so I kind of took to it like a fish to water!

Stella, who lives in Maine, is what I would describe as a classic Northern New Englander. As a New Englander yourself, have you ever encountered anyone like Stella?

I've encountered people who have insisted on their own lifestyle even against what might be considered the grain, what might be considered the acceptable. There is a kind of eccentricity that some people have in the New England area. They don't succumb to what's expected, but decide they're going to have the life they want. But the time when Stella came out and connected with her partner Dottie was a time when lesbians and gays �" it was not as it is today, where many insist on being open and honest about who they are and how they want to live. Stella took it on and was rebellious in that way. She was probably one of the few at the time, because she didn't live in a community of people who could be supportive of each other. In that first scene she jumps from that policeman's back, and she's yelling and carrying on. She starts off that way, and she changes and becomes much less rebellious by the end of the movie.

Stella is obsessed with k.d. lang and her music. How do you personally feel about k.d. lang?

Oh, I love her songs. I remember once I was in a restaurant, and k.d. was there with a younger woman, and I could see that there was kind of a thing between the two of them, they were very deep in conversation. I just went up and inserted myself and told her how much I enjoyed her music, and she was very sweet to me, and made it clear to me that she wanted me to fuck off! I didn't stay long, of course, but that was my only connection with her. I even remember the restaurant, the Ivy. The movie actually takes its title from one of her songs.

Stella and Dottie, her partner of more than 30 years, head to Canada so that they can get married. Where do you stand on the subject of same-sex marriage?

Stand on it? There's no stand, everyone should live and be the way they want!

Although it's full of humor, Cloudburst takes on the serious subject of aging queer people, and how there is the potential of their being separated in their twilight years.

Oh my god, it's a painful, painful thing, which is something that Stella just refuses to accept. That's why she abducts Dottie and takes her off.

You previously worked with writer/director Thom Fitzgerald on The Event. What do you like about working with him?

He's damn good, that's what I like about working with him. I like the stories he tells, I like the way he shoots. He makes beautiful films. Just to look at them, they're great. The stories are all varied and unique. I was in The Event, a story about a gay guy who wants to take himself out because he's going into the last phases of AIDS, and he has a party. The mother is the one who actually helps him die. That's an unusual story and a real heart-wrencher. And then 3 Needles . I would do anything in a movie with Thom Fitzgerald. I told him I'll play a small part, I don't care. In 3 Needles, I played this small part of a nun.

Before appearing in The Event, you had already made a considerable impression on the LGBT community with your wonderful portrayal of Anna Madrigal in the Tales of the City series. Were you aware of an LGBT following before that?

Steel Magnolias, to a certain degree, a lot of gay men enjoyed the things that my character said. They loved her humor, her honesty, and her phrasing. "If you've got nothing good to say about anybody, come sit by me." Things like that. I think they enjoyed a lot of it.

What does your LGBT audience mean to you?

It means that there is a large group of people who have enjoyed my films. They feel that somehow what I do is an honest representation. That's important to me. So many have spoken to me about Anna Madrigal, how much they appreciated that I didn't sensationalize it. I was really only interested in a human being and her efforts to survive herself, which I certainly understand and identify with. I have had my own efforts and journey to survive myself.