An Ally's LGBTQ+ Legacy Remembered: Olympia Dukakis Fought For the Distribution of This 2011 Lesbian Film

Jason A. Michael

The legendary stage and screen actress Olympia Dukakis, much beloved in the LGBTQ+ community for her portrayal of Anna Madrigal in "Tales of the City," died Saturday, May 1. She was 89. Dukakis appeared in 130 stage productions in her life, as well on 50 television series and over 60 films. Her role as Cher's mother in the 1987 film "Moonstruck" won her an Oscar.

But Dukakis's little-known lesbian role, as Stella, in the 2011 film "Cloudburst" demonstrated just how much of a staunch LGBTQ+ ally she was — not because she was in the film, but because she fought for its distribution.

Though the indie about an elderly lesbian couple who leaves their assisted living facility and makes a break for Canada to get married made its film fest rounds, Dukakis expressed her frustrations at finding proper distribution for "Cloudburst" when promoting the film in a 2013 interview with Pride Source. When asked by Pride Source's Chris Azzopardi about the state of LGBTQ+ rights and marriage equality, which was not yet law, the actress lamented about the struggles of getting "Cloudburst" to moviegoers.

"[Marriage] I feel good about," she said. "I can see it changing. But I'll tell you what I don't feel good about: This film cannot get distribution in this country. Yeah, sit with that for a little bit. Sit with that! Don't get too rosy in your view of things. You can't get this distributed in this country."

Dukakis said at the time that taking on the role of Stella was, for her, a political statement.

"I have some gay friends," she said. "I sent (the script) to lesbians and they were very moved by it. I wanted to make sure that there was nothing that they found offensive. I didn't, but I wanted to make sure that they didn't. They were very moved by it and so eager for me to do it. And they were so happy that it was being done, because these two women are in their 70s, and of course their lives as two lesbians is very different from the lives of two lesbian partners who are 20 and 30 today. Their families rejected them, they had to hide, they had to pretend, and they had to do a lot of different things."

Dukakis's Stella was, of course, not the first time the actress had played an LGBTQ+ character. Dukakis iconically portrayed the wise Anna Madrigal, the transgender landlady, in the four "Tales of the City" mini-series based on Armistead Maupin's books of the same name. The Netflix revival of the series in 2019 was Dukakis's final TV role before her death.

"I started to get letters thanking me and people coming up to me on the street crying and wanting to tell me how much it meant to them," she told Pride Source in 2013 of playing Madrigal. "And I still get that, actually."

Though not an LGBTQ+ role, Dukakis was a gay favorite in 1989's "Steel Magnolias," in which she played Clairee Belcher, small-town socialite and wife of the town's late mayor.

"If you can't say anything nice about anybody, come sit by me" was only of one of Dukakis's many zingers in the film.