Review: ‘The Vigil’ (2021), starring Dave Davis, Malky Goldman, Menashe Lustig, Fred Melamed and Lynn Cohen

April 3, 2021

by Carla Hay

Dave Davis in “The Vigil” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films/IFC Midnight)

“The Vigil” (2021)

Directed by Keith Thomas

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the horror film “The Vigil” features an all-white cast of characters representing a middle-class Jewish American community.

Culture Clash: A man has ghostly encounters when he’s recruited to keep vigil over a recently deceased man’s body, as part of a Jewish religious custom. 

Culture Audience: “The Vigil” will appeal primarily to people who like uncomplicated but spooky ghost stories.

Lynn Cohen in “The Vigil” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films/IFC Midnight)

Many horror stories try to be overly complex with plot twists galore or convoluted backstories for the characters. However, “The Vigil” (written and directed by Keith Thomas) takes an effective “less is more” approach by keeping the story simple while still delivering on some genuinely creepy scares. It’s the type of movie that does a lot with its modest budget.

“The Vigil” begins with a written on-screen intro that sets up what’s about to happen in the story: “For thousands of years, religious Jews have practiced the ritual of ‘the vigil.’ When a member of the community dies, the body is watched over ’round the clock in shifts by a shomer, or watchman, who recites the Psalms to comfort the deceased soul’s and protect it from unseen evil. This watchman is typically a family member or friend. Shomers are hired to sit the vigil when no on else can.”

The movie’s opening scene is of a SS Nazi officer (played by Hunter Menken) forcing a young man to shoot a woman while they are the woods. Meanwhile, a sinister shadowy creature approaches them from behind. A shotgun is heard, and then the movie’s next scene takes place in the present day. What happened in this World War II-era scene is later revealed in the story. At some point in the movie, it’s pretty easy to figure out who the young man is, but that doesn’t take away from how “The Vigil” succeeds at building a lot of horror suspense.

The majority of the film takes place in New York City’s Brooklyn borough, where a group of Israeli Jewish immigrants, who are in their late 20s to mid-30s, have gathered for a house party dinner. There are four men and two women in attendance at this dinner. And based on the conversation, almost all of them have recently moved to New York City.

The leader of the group is named Lane (played by Nati Rabinowitz), who has lived in New York the longest and has been acting as an advisor to the rest of the immigrants. The dinner conversation is mostly casual but serious. A woman named Adinah (played by Lea Kalisch) remarks that men in the U.S. are more sexually forward than men in Israel.

A man named Yakov Ronen (played by Dave Davis), who’s one of the older people in the group, is unemployed and mentions that he recently didn’t get a job that he wanted. Yakov also says that he’s financially struggling and that he’s had to choose between paying for medication or paying for meals. It’s never really made clear in the movie what type of career Yakov wants, but he gives the impression that he’s desperate for any type of job at this point.

Lane gives some words of comfort by saying, “This is a journey. And being here struggling the way you are is only one stop on that journey. If we get bogged down and see this as a destination, we lose hope.” Is this a dinner party or a support group meeting? It seems to be both.

The other woman at the table is named Sarah (played by Malky Goldman), who begins flirting with Yakov. Eventually, she asks him out for a coffee date, and he says yes, so they exchange phone numbers. Yakov fumbles a little with his phone, and says it’s because his phone is new and he’s still getting used to you it. You know what that means in a horror story when it comes time to use a phone in an emergency.

After the dinner, a man named Reb Shulem (played by Menashe Lustig), who’s dressed as an Orthodox Jew and who’s been lurking outside the building, approaches Yakov and Lane as they walk outside. Lane scolds Reb and tells him not to harass members of this group. After Lane leaves, Reb begins talking to Yakov and asks him how Yakov likes his new lifestyle. Yakov cryptically says, “I have my reasons for leaving.”

Reb tells Yakov that a family whose patriarch has died needs a shomer to sit for a vigil at night until the following morning. The job will take approximately five hours. According to Reb, this sudden need came about because the shomer who was originally scheduled to do the vigil abruptly left and is no longer available.

Yakov is very reluctant at first, but he needs the money. It’s implied throughout the story that Yakov has lost his faith in religion. The movie later reveals why. Yakov offers $200 for the vigil job, but Yakov is able to negotiate it up to $500 because it’s a job that’s on short notice.

The deceased man whom Yakov has to watch over is named Rubin Litvak (played by Ronald Cohen), and all Yakov knows about him is from what Reb has told him: Rubin was a Holocaust survivor and his children are estranged from him. Reb says that when Rubin was alive, “he was a good man” but “a little weird” and he lived as a recluse with his wife. She goes by the name of Mrs. Litvak (played by Lynn Cohen), and her first name is not revealed in the film, but Reb tells Yakov that she has Alzheimer’s disease.

The Cohens’ house is in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood. And as soon as they arrive, there’s some discord, because Mrs. Cohen, for whatever reason, doesn’t approve of Yakov. She tells Reb in a dismissive tone of voice what her thoughts are on Yakov, “He won’t work. He needs to leave now.”

Reb tells Mrs. Litvak that she has no choice because no one else is going to be available to be the shomer on short notice. And so, Mrs. Litvak agrees to let Yakov stay, but she isn’t very friendly to him. The house remains darkly lit for most of the story, to add to the creepy atmosphere.

Mr. Litvak’s body is covered in a white sheet in the living room. And Yakov begins his vigil by sitting nearby, he goes on his phone and does an online search for articles about how to talk to women. It isn’t long before things start to get weird, beginning with lamps that flicker for no reason.

“The Vigil” is definitely a “things that go bump in the night” movie, because the movie’s sound design and Michael Yezerski’s chilling music score go a long way in ramping up the horror and the tension in the story. Yakov also starts to see things and wonders if they’re real or not. Mrs. Litvak also lurks around and suddenly appears in “jump scare” moments.

One of the reasons why “The Vigil” is a good mystery is because it’s revealed later in the story that Yakov has had some mental-health issues. And so, viewers are left to wonder how much of what’s happening might just all be in his head, or if there really is a supernatural force in the house. At one point, Yakov calls his psychiatrist Dr. Marvin Kohlberg (played by Fred Melamed), which might or might nor help the situation.

Does Yakov try to leave? Of course he does. But something happens that reveals why Yakov became disillusioned with religion and possibly had a nervous breakdown. When he tries to leave the house, it’s a metaphor for him trying to run away from disturbing things from his past.

In his memorable portrayal of Yakov, whose scenes are in about 90% of the movie, Davis does an admirable job of conveying all the complexities and nuances of someone who has been struggling to find happiness, only to face a terror that he didn’t expect. Whether or not the horror is real or all in his head, the movies takes viewers on the same journey as Yakov and will make people feel his discomfort and pain. Lynn Cohen (who passed away in 2020) also gives an affective performance in “The Vigil,” which was one of her final appearances in a feature film.

“The Vigil” is a horror movie that isn’t particularly original, because there have been so many films about people trapped somewhere with frightening spirits. However, “The Vigil” stands out because of how it creatively blends ancient Jewish religious traditions in a setting of a modern Jewish American society. It’s definitely the type of movie that will have the biggest impact if it’s seen in a dark room on the biggest screen possible. And some viewers might feel like they have to sleep with the light on after seeing this haunting thriller.

IFC Films/IFC Midnight released “The Vigil” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on February 26, 2021.

Review: ‘Lingua Franca,’ starring Isabel Sandoval, Eamon Farren and Lynn Cohen

September 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

Isabel Sandoval in “Lingua Franca” (Photo courtesy of Array)

“Lingua Franca”

Directed by Isabel Sandoval

Some language in Tagalog and Cebuano with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the dramatic film “Lingua Franca” features a racially diverse cast (white people and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A transgender woman, who is a caregiver and an undocumented immigrant from the Philippines, has a fear being deported, so she decides to find a willing U.S. citizen to marry, and begins a romantic relationship with her employer’s adult grandson.

Culture Audience: “Lingua Franca” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in an emotionally authentic “character study” story of a transgender woman who is living a quietly desperate life. 

Isabel Sandoval and Eamon Farren in “Lingua Franca” (Photo courtesy of Array)

It’s no secret that a lot of undocumented immigrants in the United States pay U.S. citizens to marry them in order for the immigrants to get resident alien status and a “green card” that allows the immigrants to legally work in the United States. While this illegal marriage arrangement has been depicted in several TV shows and movies, the dramatic film “Lingua Franca” is unique because it’s told from the perspective of an undocumented immigrant who is a transgender woman. Isabel Sandoval, who is a transgender woman in real life, is the writer, director, producer, editor and star of “Lingua Franca,” which is a realistic and low-key character study rather than a movie packed with contrived melodrama.

The term “lingua franca” means “something that is like a common language,” according to Webster’s New World College Dictionary. In the movie “Lingua Franca,” viewers can have their own opinions on what the “common language” is in the story. But it’s clear that the two lovers at the center of the story are both looking for love and acceptance in each other because they feel like “outsiders” in their own worlds.

The movie takes place in New York City during the first year or two of Donald Trump’s presidency, because news reports seen and heard in the movie talk about the Trump administration’s order for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to increase detentions and deportations of undocumented immigrants. There are racial overtones to these immigration crackdowns, since the vast majority of the undocumented immigrants being targeted for arrests, detentions and deportations are people of color, while the vast majority of ICE officials are white.

Sandoval plays Olivia, a transgender woman and undocumented immigrant from the Philippines. It’s not revealed in the movie how long Olivia has been living in the United States. Olivia has a Filipino accent, which suggests that she came to the U.S. as an adult.

Olivia is in her late 30s, and she currently lives in New York City’s Brooklyn borough, where she works as a responsible caregiver for an elderly American widow named Olga (played by Lynn Cohen), who is showing signs of dementia. Because of the rise in ICE arrests of undocumented immigrants, Olivia has become more paranoid about her immigration status being exposed.

Complicating matters is the fact that Olivia cannot change her gender and her name on her Philippines passport because of a law in the Philippines that does not allow transgender people to change their genders on government-issued identification. Therefore, she’s stuck in a complicated immigration limbo where she’s living her life as a woman in the United States, but the Philippines government officially classifies her as a man.

Olivia has a very quiet life that revolves around her job, since she has no family members in the area and she have very few friends. Olivia stays overnight in Olga’s home during the days of the week when Olivia works. Olga’s dementia has reached a point where she forgets that she’s in her own home. Olga sometimes calls on a house phone to ask Olivia to take her home, when Olga is already at home. Olivia patiently has to remind Olga to look at her surroundings in order to jog Olga’s memories and help Olga understand where she is.

Olivia’s closest friend is Katrina “Trixie” De La Fuente (played by Ivory Aquino), who’s also an undocumented immigrant from the Philippines. In one of the early scenes in the movie, Trixie gets married to a U.S. citizen named Daniel Cutler (played by Jake Soister), but it’s a legitimate marriage because they seem to be in love with each other. The wedding is a small ceremony (less than 50 people are in attendance) at a local courthouse.

Olivia’s date for the wedding is Matthew (played by Leif Steinert), who is also a U.S. citizen. It’s revealed later in the story that Olivia has been paying Matthew in installments, and once he has been paid in full, he has agreed to marry Olivia so that she can get her green card. But based on Matthew’s uncomfortable body language when he’s with Olivia at Trixie and Daniel’s wedding, Matthew is not feeling any close emotional connection with Olivia. What happens to Matthew and Olivia’s arrangement will come as no surprise to observant viewers.

Olivia has also been sending money to her mother in the Philippines. Her mother is heard, but not seen, in the movie by frequent phone conversations. (Helen Kwong is the voice of Olivia’s mother.) When Olivia’s mother calls her, it’s usually to find out when Olivia will be sending her money and to worry about Olivia’s immigration status in the United States. Her mother has heard about the increase in the number of ICE raids and arrests, so she tells tells Olivia to be careful.

Meanwhile, Olga’s grandson Alex (played by Eamon Farren), who’s in his late 20s, has returned to Brooklyn, where the rest of his immediate family lives. Alex was living on a farm in Ohio, but for whatever reason, he’s now back in Brooklyn. It’s not long before it’s revealed that Alex is an alcoholic and the “black sheep” of the family. He has an arrest record for driving under the influence: Before he moved to Ohio, Alex crashed his car into a bodega, and his family had to bail him out of jail for $5,000. It’s not stated how long ago this arrest happened, but it’s caused enough shame in his family that they consider his trustworthiness to be questionable.

Alex’s history of irresponsible behavior is one of the reasons why Alex’s uncle Murray (played by Lev Gorn) has reluctantly hired Alex to work as a trainee in the slaughterhouse where Murray is a supervisor to numerous employees, including Alex. Murray tells Alex that he only hired him as a favor to Alex’s mother, who is Murray’s sister. Murray warns Alex that Alex’s job is on a probation basis until Alex can prove that he’s a responsible and hard worker. He also tells Alex not to call him “uncle” when he’s on the job, because he doesn’t want the other workers to think that Alex is getting special treatment. Like an impish kid, Alex defies Murray’s request and calls him “uncle” anyway.

Alex and Olivia cross paths because now that Alex is living in Brooklyn again, members of his family (which includes his parents, his older brother and his brother’s wife) have asked him to help take care of his grandmother Olga during Olivia’s time off from the job. Olivia shows Olga’s schedule to Alex and the instructions on what to do. Olivia also tells Alex that she will still be the one to give Olga baths, but Alex will be in charge of almost everything else when Olivia isn’t there.

Olivia can see that Alex is nervous about having all of this responsibility because he admits to her up front that the schedule is a lot of him to handle. She calmly assures him that he can follow the schedule and that he’ll eventually get used to it. Meanwhile, although Alex and Olivia don’t flirt with each other when they first meet, it’s clear there might be some mutual attraction between them. For now, Olivia is trying to keep things professional with Alex.

Alex reconnects with some Brooklyn friends and finds himself falling back into his old drinking habits. At a scene in a local bar, Alex declines to drink alcohol at first because he says he’s in a recovery program for addiction. But then, a male friend eggs him on until Alex gives in and orders some vodka. It’s not shown what happens in the bar after that, but not surprisingly, Alex wakes up the next day with a hangover. And because he overslept, he’s late for the schedule he was supposed to keep for his grandmother Olga. Olivia finds out and gets irritated with Alex, but he is so charming to her that she ends up forgiving him.

It seems that Alex is leading an aimless life because there’s no indication that he has any goals or is ready to “grow up.” When he hangs out with his male friends, they play video games. The talk about sex with women, and one of the guys says that he suspects he might have dated a transgender woman because she would only give him oral sex and wouldn’t let him see her private parts. The guy who tells this story uses a derogatory term to describe this alleged transgender woman, so viewers know that Alex has at least one friend who’s bigoted against the LGBTQ community.

Olivia and Alex begin to spend more time together, because he has a car and a driver’s license, so he sometimes gives her rides to where she needs to go. Even though Olivia and Alex have opposite personalities (Olivia is introverted, Alex is extroverted), they start to become more attracted to each other. Alex incorrectly assumes that Matthew is Olivia’s boyfriend, and that’s when she confides in Alex that Matthew has been someone she’s been paying to eventually marry her so that she can get a green card.

She also tells Alex that she’s terrified by the possibility that she will be arrested by ICE. While Olivia and Alex are hanging out together outside one day, they see an undocumented immigrant being detained by ICE agents, who arrested the immigrant right on the street in front of the immigrant’s family members. It’s a sight that causes Olivia to become upset and more paranoid. Alex knows how much Olivia’s undocumented immigration status bothers her, and he tries to comfort Olivia.

Over time, Alex and Olivia’s conversations become more flirtatious until it’s pretty obvious that they’re going to become lovers. If it isn’t made clear enough that Olivia has sexual needs, there’s a scene of Olivia in her bedroom with a copy of D.H. Lawrence’s novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” on the dresser, and she takes out her vibrator to clean it.

Olivia and Alex eventually become lovers, but she hasn’t told him that she’s transgender. The sex scenes don’t really show what happens underneath the bed covers, but it’s implied that it’s possible that Olivia could have hidden her genital area from Alex. Olivia’s female breasts are seen in an upper-body nude scene, so it’s obvious she’s taken hormones, which probably made other parts of her body look more feminine too.

Will Alex find out that Olivia is transgender? Will Olivia marry Matthew or Alex to get a green card? And could she be arrested by ICE before any of that happens? The movie answers those questions, but not in an overdramatic “TV movie of the week” way, but in more of an atmospheric and introspective way that has lingering shots of the Brooklyn skyline and scenery, as Olivia and Alex’s love story develops.

“Lingua Franca” was released in the same week as the dramatic film “The Garden Left Behind,” which is about a transgender woman who’s an undocumented Mexican immigrant living in New York City. Even though the immigration status of these two women are the same, both of the movies and their central transgender characters are very different. In “The Garden Left Behind,” the transgender protagonist (who is named Tina) is a Dreamer in her 20s, and she becomes a political activist. Tina has a Latino American boyfriend who knows she’s transgender, but Tina isn’t at a stage in her life where she’s thinking about getting married, even if it’s to get legal immigration status.

In “Lingua Franca,” the transgender protagonist doesn’t want to do anything to call attention to herself and she definitely does not tell a potential boyfriend up front that she is transgender. And because Olivia is very introverted and passive, she doesn’t really have the type of personality to be a political activist. Olivia is someone who is okay with being as invisible as possible in American society, if it means it decreases her chances of being detained and deported.

Both movies have good acting, solid direction and well-written screenplays that realistically depict conversations, situations and events experienced by the characters. Olivia in “Lingua Franca” is a lot more emotionally isolated than Tina in “The Garden Left Behind.” Olivia doesn’t have any biological family members who live close to her (by contrast, Tina lives with her grandmother), and Olivia doesn’t have a support group of other people in the LGBTQ community.

Even if Olivia told potential husbands that she’s transgender, she’s at an age where a potential husband in an immigration arrangement might be more inclined to want a younger “trophy wife.” There’s some small acknowledgement of the “spinster” issue when, shortly after Olivia’s friend Trixie gets married, Olivia tells Trixie in a dejected tone that she’s “always the bridesmaid,” while Trixie tries to cheer up Olivia and tell her that she will eventually find someone to marry.

“Lingua Franca” has a lot of “slice of life” scenes that aren’t necessarily about moving the plot forward but they’re in the movie to give viewers a more vivid personality portraits of Olivia and Alex. It’s obvious that he’s not very stable, but will Olivia think he’s her best chance of getting legal immigration status? Olivia didn’t tell Alex that she’s transgender before they became lovers, but he knows how desperate she is to get her green card. There are a few scenes in the movie where he uses that desperation to emotionally manipulate Olivia.

“Lingua Franca” is Sandoval’s third feature film and the first feature where she has the name Isabel. For her previous two feature films—2011’s “Señorita and 2012’s “Apparition”—she wrote and directed under the name Vincent Sandoval. “Lingua Franca” might be a fictional film, but it accurately shows situations and feelings experienced by an untold number of transgender undocumented immigrants. And because Sandoval is also a transgender, there is a level of authenticity to this entire movie that would be difficult to achieve if the story had been told by all-cisgender group of filmmakers.

“Lingua Franca” poignantly shows how undocumented immigrants have to act “invisible,” for fear of being deported. That diminishment in society is further complicated when the immigrant is transgender. Thanks to Sandoval’s unique creative vision, “Lingua Franca” is an admirable spotlight that is not about pity but about respect and dignity.

Array released “Lingua Franca” in select U.S. cinemas on August 26, 2020, the same date that the movie premiered on Netflix.

Review: ‘Olympia,’ starring Olympia Dukakis

July 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

Olympia Dukakis in “Olympia” (Photo courtesy of Abramorama)

“Olympia”

Directed by Harry Mavromichalis

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States, Greece and briefly in Canada and Cyprus, the documentary “Olympia” interviews an almost all-white group of people talking about Oscar-winning actress Olympia Dukakis, including entertainers, other colleagues, family members and Dukakis herself.

Culture Clash: Dukakis battled against sexist stereotypes and ethnicity biases by founding a theater company and not limiting herself to one type of outlet for acting.

Culture Audience: Besides the obvious target audience of Olympia Dukakis fans, “Olympia” will appeal primarily to people who like biographies about entertainers who refuse to be pigeonholed.

Louis Zorich (far left) and Olympia Dukakis (third from right) in “Olympia” (Photo courtesy of Abramorama)

The documentary “Olympia” is a lot like the Oscar-winning actress Olympia Dukakis herself—opinionated, funny, candid, foul-mouthed, sometimes rambling, but never boring. Directed by Harry Mavromichalis (in his feature-film debut), this up-close and personal biography of Dukakis will delight her fans as an updated companion piece to her 2003 memoir “Ask Me Again: A Life in Progress.” People who didn’t read the book might discover many things about Dukakis that they didn’t know but will probably end up liking.

This movie clearly was not a rushed job, since a lot of the “new” footage is obviously several years old. The movie begins with Dukakis in California to get her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame—an event that happened in 2013. There’s some other footage of Dukakis (who was born in 1931) celebrating her 81st birthday in 2012. And in one of the movie’s funniest segments, she’s in San Francisco, as a grand marshal for the 2011 San Francisco Pride Parade. As she’s perched in an open car and waves to the parade crowd, she chuckles and makes this self-deprecating comment through her smile, “Some people don’t know who the fuck I am.”

The documentary will give viewers a pretty clear of idea of who Dukakis is because it’s fairly comprehensive in the access that director Mavromichalis had to Dukakis, her family, friends and colleagues, as well as her personal archives, such as photos and videos. She’s perhaps best known to the general public for her Oscar-winning role in 1987’s “Moonstruck,”  but Dukakis is also a longtime theater star and has several other roles in movies and television, including the 1989 film “Steel Magnolias.”

While in San Francisco for Gay Pride Weekend, Dukakis was honored for her memorable role as transgender woman Anna Madrigal in the 1993 PBS miniseries “Tales of the City,” based on the book series by Armistead Maupin. “Olympic knew she was part of something historic,” Maupin says of Dukakis’ “Tales of the City” role. “And she knew that what she was saying through that character had not been said before [on TV], not with such affection and clarity.”

“Tales of the City” executive producer director Alan Poul says of Dukakis as the Anna Madrigal characters: “It was a fearless and groundbreaking portrayal at a time when that kind of imagery in entertainment media didn’t exist.” The documentary also includes some hilarious footage of Dukakis having dinner with Maupin in a hotel room with some other friends. What’s in the movie makes people wish they could’ve been a fly on the wall to hear the entire dinner conversation.

Most people familiar with Dukakis already know that she was never an overnight sensation and had to pay her dues for decades. She says in the documentary that from an early age, she was “rebellious,” “independent” and resistant to conform to the strict gender roles that were expected of people in her generation.

Dukakis (who was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, and went to Boston University) talks about clashing with her strict mother, Alexandra (nicknamed Alec), when Olympia was growing up. She describes her mother as a disciplinarian who used sticks and belts—behavior that would be considered abusive by today’s standards. Olympia says about her mother: “Her job was to to keep shame from the family,” and Olympia’s independent streak “scared” her mother.

One of the ways that Olympia defied stereotypes was by becoming a Junior New England Fencing Champion when she was a teenager. Her cousin Michael Dukakis (the 1988 Democratic nominee for U.S. president) says in the documentary: “How many Greek kids were fencing champions or even fenced?”

Joyce Katis Picard, one of Olympia’s former Boston University classmates, remembers that she and Olympia stood out for their non-Anglo ethnicities, in a student body that consisted primarily of people of Anglo Saxon descent. Katis Picard says of her college friendship with Olympia: “We bonded as a way of protection.” She adds that even in her college days, Olympia was a feminist and nonconformist: “She moved beyond the messages of the time.”

In the documentary, Olympia talks about going through a period of time when “I was the queen of the one-night stand,” and having casual flings was a way of life for her. But that all changed when she and actor Louis Zorich fell deeply in love with each other. They married in 1962, and stayed married until his death in 2018. They had three children together: Christina (who declined to be interviewed for the documentary), Peter and Stefan, who are both interviewed in the film.

Although Olympia ended up taking a traditional path of getting married and having kids, that doesn’t mean that she was a traditional mother. In the documentary, she expresses remorse over some of her parenting skills: “I regret that I wasn’t able to handle my children better. I didn’t create boundaries and discipline. I did the best I could.” She also says she’s horrified by the memory of forgetting to pick up her son Stefan from school one day. He had to wait 45 minutes at the school while all the other kids had already left.

Peter says of his childhood growing up with two busy actors as parents: “At the time, I kind of wished my parents were more normal. They weren’t doing any gender roles in their marriage. At 8 years old, I was doing my own laundry.”

Although Olympia and her husband were married for 56 years (a rarity in a showbiz marriage), that did mean that they didn’t have some rough patches. She mentions that Louis was having an affair when she was pregnant with her first child, Christina. He made the decision to end the affair and stay with Olympia, who co-starred with her husband in multiple off-Broadway plays, including 1963’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and 1980’s “The Cherry Orchard.”

In the documentary, Louis says that he didn’t expect to get married until he fell in love with Olympia. He remembers falling in love with her was the first time that he felt that way about anyone, even though he jokes that when he proposed to her, he couldn’t quite get the word “marry” out during the proposal. And he comments, “If someone says on my deathbed, ‘What do you remember about Olympia, it’s those two or three incredible [acting roles,” which he says include her starring role in the 2013 off-Broadway production of “Mother Courage,” which he says brought him to tears every time he watched her perform in the play.

“It’s one of my favorite relationships I’ve ever known,” actor Austin Pendleton says of the marriage of Olympia Dukakis and Louis Zorich. “They embrace each other in every sense of the word. They recognize each other on such a deep level.”

Olympia also opens up about a dark period in her life when she says she was addicted to “uppers and downers” for about two years. She decided she was going to quit one day when she looked in the bathroom mirror, and she heard a voice inside herself say, “You’re trying to kill yourself.” Olympia also mentions that there were other times in her life when she was suicidal, including an incident when she deliberately stepped in front of a truck, but a woman pushed her out of the way and saved her life.

In retrospect, Olympia says of her drug addiction: “A lot of these drugs were about trying to run ahead of everything.” Olympia also opens up about her thoughts on dying, by admitting that she’s afraid of death for this reason: “It’s a loss of what little part of myself is separate from everything else.”

She also admits to lifelong insecurities about not fitting in and being judged by her looks. “It never goes away, that thing of being ‘outside,’ that thing of being ‘different.'” She adds that at some point in her life, she found a way to fight the urge to fix herself and instead figured out how to accept herself for who she is instead of trying to change herself to please other people.

One of the obstacles she faced early in her career was being told that she was “too ethnic” for many roles. Instead of giving up, Olympia decided to create her own opportunities, by founding the Whole Theater Company in Montclair, New Jersey. Thomas Kean, who was governor of New Jersey from 1982 to 1990, comments in the documentary: “Olympia had high standards. Her feeling is, ‘Only the best.’ They [the Whole Theater Company] took chances.”

Carey Perloff, former artistic director of the American Conservatory Theater, has this to say about Whole Theater: “They did all kinds of crazy stuff … And they really talked to the audience,” in order to get their feedback.” Olympia is also seen in the documentary in rehearsals for Shakespeare and Company’s 2013 production of “The Tempest,” with Olympia in the role of Prospero.

And, of course, the documentary includes plenty of praise of Olympia from her colleagues and friends. Olympia’s “Tales of the City” co-star Laura Linney says of Olympia’s ability to move seamlessly between the worlds of theater, movies and television: “She was one of the first people to do that … [which was] very brave of her, because at the time, it was looked down on.”

Lynn Cohen, an actress who passed away in February 2020, affectionately describes Olympia as “generous,” “totally open” and “crazy.” Whoopi Goldberg adds, “She’s like a summer storm … Her range is frightening and wonderful to watch. It’s what every actor wants.”

Olympia’s longtime actress friend Diane Ladd says, “She’s a total professional. She doesn’t play diva or mademoiselle or goddess. She doesn’t pull any rank. She’s all heart. She’s a perfectionist. I like that.”

Other people interviewed in the documentary include Olympia’s actor brother Apollo Dukakis; Shakespeare and Company artistic director Tony Simotes; playwright Leslie Ayvazian; actress Lainie Kazan; former HBO executive Kary Antholis; and actor Rocco Sisto. The film has footage of Dukakis doing a Q&A of “Moonstruck” with director Norman Jewison, during a retrospective tribute to Jewison at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival.

There’s also some great behind-the-scenes footage of Olympia getting ready for the 1988 Academy Awards, where she won the prize of Best Supporting Actress for “Moonstruck.” There’s also video of her family members’ reactions to her winning the award, including her mother who burst into tears at this victorious moment.

The documentary has some slices of humor, such as showing Olympia fumbling with a Siri device (you can tell how old the footage is from the version of Siri that’s seen in the film); going grocery shopping and interacting with star-struck fans while she vacations in Cyprus; and dictating an email message to her personal assistant Brenda Low-Kamen to send to actress friend Brenda Fricker and going off on a humorous tangent in the message.

One of the highlights of the film is when Olympia goes back to her family’s original hometown in Greece. (Her daughter Christine and some of her grandchildren are also there for the trip.) It’s in this footage that Olympia is not treated as a famous actress, but as a nostalgic, almost wistful person who’s rediscovering and finding a new appreciation for her family’s history. After she talks with a quartet of female villagers in her age group who’ve been lifelong friends, Olympia is so emotionally moved by the experience that she breaks down and cries when she thinks about how her life could have turned out differently if her parents had stayed in Greece.

Is “Olympia” a perfect film? No. Some of the documentary’s production values, such as the cinematography and editing, probably would’ve been better with a more experienced director in charge. For example, some of the non-archival footage looks like shaky outtakes from home movies. And some of the interior scenes could’ve benefited from better camera lighting.

However, this unpolished look to some of the movie isn’t too much of a hindrance, considering Dukakis’ unpretentious nature. She certainly wouldn’t want a documentary about herself to look too slick or ostentatious. As for the “new” footage that’s several years old, that isn’t too much of a problem either, since Olympia’s personality probably hasn’t changed in the years since that footage was filmed. “Olympia” is a movie that understands that a documentary about a celebrity shouldn’t really be about just chronicling a lifestyle but instead should be more about opening up a window, however briefly, into someone’s soul.

Abramorama released “Olympia” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on July 10, 2020.

UPDATE: Olympia Dukakis died on May 1, 2021. She was 89. She had been in ill health for quite some time, according to a family statement about her death.