Less interesting subjects than Olympia Dukakis have been profiled in more compelling documentaries than Harry Mavromichalis’ “Olympia,” a fervently admiring but scattered and sometimes scatty portrait of a woman who is anything but. Although peppered with tantalizingly salty-mouthed anecdotes and wry observations on aging, sexuality, outsider status and the art of performance, the film is hampered by its overly fannish tone, too dazzled by the self-described “octogenarian motherf—er” to be able to meet her own forthright, iconoclastic, penetrating gaze without looking quickly away again.
A striking, blue-tinged extreme-shallow-focus closeup on Dukakis’ fantastic face, that brings out both the age lines and the luminosity of her skin, teases a much more intimate and impressionistic approach than is taken. Soon John Ryan Johnson and Federico Cesca’s photography settles into a more familiar and anonymous handheld vérité style, as we follow Dukakis from home to hotel room to car, from the unveiling ceremony for her Hollywood Walk of Fame Star, to her stint as Grand Marshal of the San Francisco Pride parade, to her trip to her family’s ancestral hometown on the Greek island of Lesbos.
Dukakis has lived such a storied life — interior as well as exterior — that the challenge here was always going to be corralling it all into a coherent narrative. She is a first-generation Greek immigrant who set up her own theater company in New Jersey rather than be sidelined and stereotyped by the East Coast theater establishment due to her ethnicity. Who was, for a good period before meeting her husband Louis Zorich, the “queen of the one-night-stand” and who retains still a healthily irreverent attitude toward sex (“You take a hard pr— for granted,” she says wistfully, “but then the day comes and you can’t take for granted a hard pr—”). Who won an Oscar for “Moonstruck” the same year her cousin Michael became the Democratic nominee for U.S. President. And who went on to earn LGBTQ icon status playing the matriarch of the epochal 1993 miniseries “Tales of the City,” embodying one of the first transgender television characters to make an impression on mainstream American consciousness.
“Olympia” cannot but sporadically entertain, touching as it does on all these events, sometimes in interview and sometimes in home movie or archive footage, such as Dukakis getting made up for Oscar night and wondering if Faye Dunaway, staying in the same hotel, might be able to lend her some eyelash glue. But for every insightful, witty or spiky little detail there’s an unnecessarily banal inclusion, such as Dukakis getting frustrated with Siri, politely posing for pictures in the supermarket, or, in an ironically unilluminating sequence, negotiating lighting cues during an onstage soliloquy.
A clutch of celebrity interviewees — including Laura Linney, Whoopi Goldberg, Lynn Cohen and Diane Ladd — are also largely wasted, whittled down to adulatory but oddly impersonal soundbites in tribute to Dukakis’ professionalism and talent. Most of the participants tend to be much more revealing about their relationship to Dukakis in candid moments than they are in the interviews conducted for the film. And sometimes the questions put directly to Dukakis herself feel awkward: “Were you very sexual?” an off-camera Mavromichalis asks. “Was Louis very sexual? Was he more sexual than you? Does it ever stop, being sexual?” After a while such queries sound less like frank conversation and more like prurience.
Not that Dukakis herself is not game. She has a lovely thoughtful response to Mavromichalis’ “fear of death” question, and is always ready with a disarmingly dirty observation about sex. But a more skillful interviewer would have got to these moments organically, and once there, would push beyond the first punchline. Sometimes we teeter on the edge of breakthrough, such as when she talks about motherhood, or past drug use or suicidal tendencies, only for the scene to switch before we get to close that circle. It’s only during the finale, as Dukakis returns to Greece amid a sort of spiritual reawakening that we get a glimpse at the richer, more meaningful, if also perhaps more difficult profile this could have been.
Timing, too, is an issue. “Olympia” was largely shot during the Obama administration, when Dukakis was in her early 80s (she is now 89), and indeed the film premiered nearly two years ago, in late 2018. And so many of the specific challenges she faced so fearlessly — sexist double standards, bias against immigrants, being regarded as “too ethnic”, trans representation, ageism — have come to the center of the cultural conversation in the years since the film wrapped, and it’s frustrating that we don’t get her outspoken, sailor-blushingly profane take on them now. But trapped in the amber of a recent past that also feels like a century ago, and uncertain whether its purpose is to mythologize or de-mythologize its sharp, steely subject, “Olympia” for all its fondness, is just too cursory a portrait of a complex woman: depth presented as a series of glinting surfaces.