On Cloud Nine

Rachel Cook
Gay News Network

Academy award winner Olympia Dukakis has been a queer icon since her portrayal of trans character Anna Madrigal in Tales of the City. Rachel Cook spoke to her about that role, her recent queer film Cloudburst, and politics.

In the early 90s you were lucky to find any gay and lesbian characters on television let alone any trans* characters. So when Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City books were adapted for the small screen and the character Anna Madrigal first appeared, it was a revelation.

Anna Madrigal, known as Mrs Madrigal to the mostly younger queer characters, was at the heart of this seminal television series. She was the pot-smoking, matriarchal landlady who oozed charisma and warmth, and, she had a secret. That secret being she had been born male.

The role which could have been compromised in less capable hands was delivered with an intelligence and subtlety that has made Mrs Madrigal one of queer television’s most loved characters. It also made Dukakis something of a gay icon and she says she is still approached by people who fell in love with that character and what she represented.

“I loved doing that part. I did so much research, and let me tell you at that time there wasn’t a hell of a lot out there, so I said to the producers I’ve got to meet and talk with a transsexual, I’ve got to understand and know more.”

Dukakis ended up meeting with a woman who she said gave her the insight she needed to take on the role.

“She was six foot three and she had these huge basketball player’s hands and this very soft voice.

“I said I’ve read so much about it, I know how difficult and painful the operations are, I know the psychological conflicts that you must have come up against but tell me, what is it that matters most to you, and this is what she said to me: ‘All my life I have yearned for the friendship of women’. And that really got me.

“I really understood that there was something in her that had been silenced and that needed to be spoken and lived and I know what that is – I have that, you have that.”

Decades later Dukakis finds herself in another queer role. This time playing one of the butchest old lesbians ever to grace the silver screen, Stella in Cloudburst.

The film, which has screened in various cinemas and events in Sydney and Melbourne over the past two years, and is about to be released on DVD, is about elderly couple Stella and her partner of 31 years, Dot (played by academy award winner Brenda Fricker). Dot’s prudish granddaughter enters their life and insists that Dot enter a nursing home. The threat of being separated means Dot and Stella must take action. And they do, in the form of a road trip to Canada where they can be legally married.

Director Thom Fitzgerald wrote the role of Stella with Dukakis in mind.

“She is rebellious and I have that in me too,” Dukakis says. “I thanked him after I saw it as he really pushed me to the point where I didn’t recognise myself. He was so aware of my movements and my tone, I saw it and I thought, that’s a man!”

Dukakis credits her tough upbringing to helping her shape the role of Stella. 1931, in Lowell, Massachusetts, where Dukakis was born to Greek parents, was not the most congenial place for Greek immigrants and Dukakis remembers the conflicts between the “more established immigrants” and the newcomers.

“The Greeks who came to Lowell to work in the mills were working cheaper than the Irish and the French who had come down from Canada. It got to the point where the Greek women who were working at the mills had to be surrounded by men because they were pelting them with stones.”

It seems the situation was not much different on the streets where by the age of 12, Dukakis had taken to arming herself.

“I started fighting in the streets when I was nine and by the time I was 12 I had my own knife. Thank god I never used it, but people had to know you had a knife – you had to go that far to defend yourself. I think that was where I first learned to play a part like the one in Cloudburst,” she laughs.

Dukakis has also had a long history as a political activist. After she won the academy award for Moonstruck in 1988 she worked on her cousin Michael Dukakis’ 1988 presidential campaign when he ran against George H. W. Bush. Since then she has remained outspoken about her political beliefs. When the conversation turns to the political situation in Australia, she is well versed on the issues of sexism that surround Julia Gillard’s time as prime minister.

“I did a film in Australia in the 90s and the sexism was very tangible on the set, it was very obvious to me that it was a man’s world there.

“It’s clear they were desperately looking for ways to diminish Gillard, to undermine her,” Dukakis says.

And if Hilary Clinton became president would the same treatment happen to her?

“Oh yes! Oh my lord yes – they would go in for the kill.

“This idea that women are going to move in and take over really shakes the ground under a lot of peoples’ feet. The boys want to keep control.”

This year Dukakis was honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I asked her if she thought at the age of 81 it was about time. She laughed and said: “No, I had never given it a thought! It was a fun thing, but mostly for my grandchildren. But, you know, don’t misunderstand me – it’s always gratifying to have your work acknowledged. It’s nice for that work to be appreciated.”

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