June 20, 1931 – Olympia Dukakis:
“I just want you to know that no matter what you do, you’re still gonna die.”Rose Castorini (Olympia Dukakis) in Moonstruck
She is very dear to LGBTQ because of her work on Armistead Maupin’s Tales Of The City which premiered in June 2019, on Netflix, based on the much-loved Tales Of The City novels by Armistead Maupin. Dukakis reprises her role as transgendered Anna Madrigal from the previous television incarnations of Maupin’s books: the original Tales Of The City in 1993, and the sequels More Tales Of The City (1998) and Further Tales Of The City (2001). The 2019 series was Dukakis’ final role.
Romantic comedies are not a top film genre for me. It’s a genre that, for the most part, always seems to get by with a very basic template that is very predictable, and therefore rather dull. That doesn’t mean that there haven’t been rom-coms that have managed to work even in the confines of the usual beats of the familiar framework. One such film is Norman Jewison‘s lovely, bittersweet, Moonstruck. Admired and celebrated upon its release in 1987, the film has continued to resonate with audiences ever since.
Moonstruck is about the Castorini family of Brooklyn, focusing on Loretta (Cher) and her parents, Cosmo (Vincent Gardenia) and Rose (Dukakis). As the movie begins, Loretta becomes engaged to her boyfriend Johnny (Danny Aiello) right before he goes to Italy to visit his sick mother. Before he leaves, he asks Loretta to contact his brother, Ronny (Nicolas Cage), to invite him to the wedding, because he cannot do it himself due to a dispute between them). When Loretta and Ronny meet, they quickly fall in love. Meanwhile, Cosmo and Rose find themselves going through different experiences of their own, ultimately producing a tangled web of relationships for all the Castorinis.
Moonstruck might seem to be just another one of those typical rom-coms where a couple falls in love, complications ensue, and then everything works out anyway, and while you could say that the film does follow that basic formula, it ends up being about a lot more. The film presents an intriguing portrait of where these characters are in their life and what they want or need to do to find happiness, or at least contentment.
Loretta believes that she’s been cursed with bad luck since her first marriage. It was a somewhat rushed and scarce affair: no proper proposal, married at City Hall with strangers as witnesses, no reception, and concluding with her husband being killed when he got hit by a bus. When Johnny proposes, she makes sure everything goes right, from him being down on his knees with a ring to planning a proper wedding. However, she openly admits to her mother that she doesn’t really love him, but she does like him, which is completely undone when she meets Johnny’s brother Ronny. This is a man she truly loves, which leads to obvious complications.
With Cosmo, his reason for having an affair is never made clear, or even openly discussed, but it seems that he felt he was missing something in his life, or he just wanted one more little thrill. The focus on Rose is even more interesting, for her change of heart occurs late in the film, and the viewer is already aware that she knows about Cosmo’s extracurricular activities. When it does occur, we are left to wonder whether it’s for a kind of revenge, or perhaps for the very same reason as Cosmo. For all we know, it may be a mix of the two, though it would seem to fit the theme of the film more to believe that she also feels that something is missing. These characters all want some sort of satisfaction in life, and their entangled relationships make it all the more intriguing as they go about trying to find it.
All the performances are career-best by the cast, but the greatest accomplishment of this film is the original screenplay by John Patrick Shanley, whose characters give us more than your typically forgettable rom-coms. The film won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, plus Oscars for Cher and Dukakis, and it received nominations for Best Picture, Best Director (Jewison), and Best Supporting Actor (Gardenia).
Moonstruck is a rather delightful and engrossing film, populated with fascinating characters that make you feel for them. It remains in my Top 10 Films of All Time, and it is now considered by most film fans to be an important contemporary film; it continues to impress audiences three and a half decades later.
Moonstruck was released in January 1988 to critical and commercial success. Reviewers praised its screenplay, direction and performances of the cast, particularly of Cher and Dukakis, and the film grossed $81 million on a $15 million budget, becoming the fifth highest-grossing film of 1988.
According to casting director Howard Feuer, both Anne Bancroft and Maureen Stapleton had been approached to play the role of Rose, but they were too expensive for the production budget. Feuer remembered Dukakis, a character actor known for her years of work on stage. She read for director Jewison and he hired her on the spot.
Between takes, Cher mentioned to Dukakis that the film was going to be a big stinker. She thought that she was giving a bad performance.
She performed in more than 130 stage productions, 63 films and in 50 television series. A strong advocate for women’s rights and LGBTQ rights, Dukakis embraced her roles of the trans landlady in Tales Of The City, and a butch lesbian in Cloudburst (2011). On the lecture circuit, she talked about women living with chronic illness, life in the theatre, the environment, and feminism. Dukakis:
“I recognize that the real pulse of life is transformation, yet I work in a world dominated by men and the things men value, where transformation is not the coinage. It’s not even the language!”
Tidbits: Dukakis was only 15 years older than her on-screen daughter. Amazingly, Dukakis, Aiello, and costar John Mahoney all share a birthday on June 20. Gardenia and Dukakis previously worked together in Death Wish (1974). Gardenia plays the main detective investigating some murders, while Dukakis plays a police officer.