When I was a young man, fresh out of college in the late ’80s, my life revolved around politics — because that was my job — and booze, because that’s what all the young aides did on Capitol Hill in their off hours, so there was little time left for anything else.
When he was running for president in 1988, then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis made a stop on Capitol Hill, and I vividly recall meeting him and being a bit surprised at how short he was. Later that day, in one of the watering holes on the Hill, one of my friends told me that a first cousin to Dukakis, Olympia, was an Oscar-winner for Moonstruck.
I had heard of neither the film or the actress, but I do remember being impressed with the fact that Gov. Dukakis had a cousin who won an Oscar, which compensated, in my mind, for his small stature. Years later, I saw the film, and kept thinking about Olympia’s cousin, the failed presidential candidate.
And because I was obsessed with maintaining my masculinity back in the late ’80s, I was never going to watch an all “girls” movie like Steel Magnolias that conspicuously, and then overtly, had a huge gay following.
We wrote in 2012 about the all-Black reboot and validated the original film as a gay touchstone by writing, “In the decades since quoting biting dialogue such as ‘You know what they say: If you don’t have anything nice to say about anybody, come sit by me!’ [the film] has become something of a national gay pastime, and it’s frequently shown on loop in video bars.”
It wasn’t until the mid-1990s, after I had moved to New York City, that I had the opportunity to meet the director of the film, Herbert Ross, and I think he was less than impressed with me when I didn’t know anything about Steel Magnolias. He brusquely told me something to the effect that the film’s cast was the best ensemble of women in movie history. I think he was right. I let go of my masculinity and made a point to watch the film, and there she was again, Olympia Dukakis, along with all those fabulous women.
As I’ve matured, I came to understand just how much of an ally Dukakis was to the LGBTQ+ community. In an interview she gave to The Guardian in 2012, she was asked about her side gig as a gay icon. “I appreciate that my work is seen and understood and feels relevant to people. And I'm lucky enough to have friends of all different sexual persuasions, some of which are utterly inexplicable to me. So it's all good. Last year I was grand marshal at the San Francisco gay parade, and that was good too. You get to ride around in a car and wave at people: that's about it. My arm got so tired from the waving that my brother had to hold it up for me.”
Well, she held up well for us for most of her life, right up until the end. During the last couple of years, I watched all the renditions of the iconic gay series Tales of the City, based on the novels by Armistead Maupin, where Dukakis played Anna Madrigal, a transgender woman, and thus became one of the first actresses to portray a trans character on American television when the original Tales premiered on PBS in January 1994.
In the ensuing years, when the series continued on Showtime, and most recently on Netflix, there were suggestions that a trans actress should play the role of Madrigal instead of Dukakis. And that was quickly put to rest by the Netflix series’ executive producer Alan Poul, who told Vanity Fair, “Olympia is clearly grandfathered in and paid her dues” because of her “very bold” decision to play a trans character in the 1990s.
The fourth installment of the series was one of the last projects Dukakis worked on before she died this past weekend at the age of 89. And in the Netflix series, which won the GLAAD award for Outstanding Limited Series last July, Dukakis was paired with a pseudo-love interest/friend/fellow book enthusiast Sam Garland, played wonderfully by out actor Victor Garber. The tandem of Madrigal and Garland was quite eclectic and eccentric, to say the least. If you’ve seen the series, you know what I mean, and if you haven’t, I won’t spoil it here.
I caught up with Garber to discuss the life and work of his former costar and told him how much I enjoyed the chemistry between his character and Dukakis’s Madrigal.
“Yes, they were quite a pair,” Garber recalled. “My first reaction to the news of her passing was of course sadness, but she had quite a life, and she sure made the most of it. I think to all of us, she’s always been a renegade and forged ahead in her own unique way. She was determined to do what she wanted to do, and as a result she had such a wonderful career.”
I asked Garber what he’ll remember most about working with Dukakis. “Well, I’ve always admired her, so it was just a thrill to be able to work alongside her for all of our scenes. Because of her age, she was compromised to an extent, but she never failed to really impress me. When she would finally get on the set and got into the scene, she really got there, and her determination left an indelible impression.”
“It was kind of like watching a violet bloom. She took her time and honestly, she was mesmerizing Yet, at the same time it was infuriating,” Garber said with a laugh.
Garber said that Dukakis was the queen on the set, and everyone was in deference to her. “And it was the just the right thing to do for her since she earned her status.”
To Garber, Dukakis’s talents and contributions are what will be missed most. “We should just be grateful that we had her for as long as we did, and I’m personally grateful that I had the wonderful opportunity to work with her. And her tremendous body of work will live on so that we and future generations can continue to enjoy all her terrific performances. She was one of a kind.”
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.