“I always played older,” Olympia Dukakis once told the New York Times. “I think it was the voice.”

From 40 years old, Dukakis was playing mothers of grown children and elder stateswomen – and setting a new standard for those parts. Not many actresses get the chance to bite into the role that will make them a household name at 56, and win an Oscar doing so. As Rose Castorini, Dukakis was just 15 years older than Moonstruck’s lead, Cher, but two technically middle-aged women held the heart of that film in their hands, and took the Academy with them. Cher’s soulful glamour was one thing, but Dukakis brought something else: a mix of melancholy and steel that drained the patronising sympathy out of the put-upon housewife trope. I watched Moonstruck with my mother, over and over, and we talked about making those eggs; when I celebrated my own 41st birthday this year, I started the day with them (and, of course, had steak for dinner). 

00Dukakis Olympia1 MobileMasterAt3x (2)

Courtesy of: MGM

I was only 7 when Moonstruck came out, but I’ve never really been very young. By the time I was 9 and Steel Magnolias happened, I was 100% more invested in Truvy, M’Lynn, Ouiser and Clairee than I would ever be in Annelle or Shelby. The dynamics of women past their late 30s – women who had been there, were still doing that, weathering disappointments and finding humour in it – had a small renaissance on TV at the time: from The Golden Girls and Kate & Allie to Cagney & Lacey. But films with an ensemble cast of older women are still a rare treasure, and it’s impossible to imagine Steel Magnolias’ cast of heavyweights without Dukakis’ presence. 

The irrepressible Clairee Belcher’s sisterly bond with Shirley MacLaine’s curmudgeonly Ouiser Boudreaux – “Ouiser, you know I love you more than my luggage” – is as rich a love story as any other on screen. Dukakis standing calmly in a locker room full of half-naked men, describing uniforms as “grape or aubergine?” while MacLaine heckles her is a masterclass in the kind of unflappability older women feel the world is looking to them for – and which can only really be unsettled by another woman we care about. When she beckons southern belle Truvy over, saying “if you can’t say anything nice about anybody, come sit by me”, it’s a rallying cry to women who have absolutely lost their patience with other people’s nonsense. And finally, when the usually laconic Clairee builds up steam and yells at bereaved M’Lynn to take out her sadness on Ouiser’s face, Dukakis becomes the pin that punctures the audience’s bubble of grief – and shows us the still bubbling life, joy, passion and humour under perfectly coiffed white hair.

In these two roles alone, Dukakis left women an indelible legacy. For me personally, there was also the wonder of an immigrant Greek, with her obvious, unchanged Greek name, standing her ground. Who else did we have in the ‘80s? We were 20 years out from Zorba the Greek, and he was played by a Mexican-Irish American anyway. You could only go so far with Kojak. Then came this woman narrowing her eyes and cracking jokes in a rasping rumble, and her cousin was running for President! That year, with my Greek relatives in Florida, there was jubilation. He might have lost the election, but the excitement of marking a box next to a name they recognised couldn’t be erased. 

Olympia Dukakis Cher Moonstruck

Courtesy of: MGM

Olympia certainly suffered more bullying than I did for her unfamiliar name and her parents’ accents; they were also more strict and suffocating. But she told The Guardian that she “was an outsider and that I never quite fit in – both in relation to Greek culture and mainstream US culture. Growing up, I was always kind of torn between those two worlds, never quite according enough respect to either one. But that’s OK.” She reflected that another Rose, from a Martin Sherman monologue, says “maybe freedom is not belonging”, and that was a comforting idea to her. That speaks to me deeply as a person with a foot in two camps, but it also reveals where she found the depth of her understanding and the truth of her acting. 

To age out of society’s interest is to feel permanently disconnected from culture – the one that says women should look, think, and act a certain way to be attractive and have their stories told. For those of us who have practiced that disconnect since childhood, for whatever reason, the layers of performance, of anger, of sadness, of wry humour that Dukakis poured into her roles feel like coming home to ourselves. The rawness under the polish: that’s what we’ll remember. And that’s what we’ll miss.