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The Landlady With A Carefully Guarded Secret

January 09, 1994|BART MILLS

Shhhh! Don't tell the secret! As in "The Crying Game," there's a secret at the center of "Tales of the City," and Olympia Dukakis is guarding it carefully. As Anna Madrigal, the wise and tolerant landlady of the San Francisco boardinghouse where most of the characters live, Dukakis constantly wears an air of mystery and a Mona Lisa smile.

"Everyone in the story has a secret that finally emerges," says Dukakis, who is wrapped in a long, flowing garment that on closer examination turns out to be more like harem pants than a dress. "Because of the secrets, the story has a continual air of suspense. It's like a Brueghel painting. It's like life--funny, stupid, sad, horrific all at once."

Dukakis, 62, has cornered the market in worldly wise middle-aged women since winning an Oscar for "Moonstruck" in 1987 and starring in "Steel Magnolias" in 1989. She gets to say a line in "Tales of the City" that many women of a certain age feel has long needed saying. When her lover compliments Anna on being so good-looking despite her age, she says, "But this is how a woman my age is supposed to look!"

Presiding benignly over her recherche building, gardening in her best finery and laughing over joints after dinner, "Anna Madrigal is like an angel," Dukakis says. "She's someone hanging around watching, someone who's there to provide comfort, so people don't feel alone. One of her tenants asks if she objects to pets and she says, 'I don't object to anything.'

"Anna has an understanding and a tolerance that are born of real struggle. She grew up an outsider, thinking there was no one in the world like her. Everyone feels that to a degree. She survived those feelings of shame and guilt. She's survived herself."

As many actors do, Dukakis feels she was destined to play this part, but she has a particular reason: "In the last of Armistead Maupin's books about Anna Madrigal and her friends, which came out in 1988, she visits the Greek island of Lesbos, which is the ancestral home of the Dukakises. Was I meant to play this part or what?"

Thanks to the British, Dukakis gets her chance. The material was rejected by Hollywood because of "fear of the sexual canvas," in her view. "Relationships don't travel like action. The Americans weren't interested because they didn't think they could make money off it. The British think they can."

Can a depiction of gays and straights interacting happily together fly in American living rooms? " 'Tales of the City' can raise awareness," Dukakis says. "It can't change attitudes. Attitudes change millimeter by millimeter. If movies could change attitudes, the first war movie would have stopped war. This story can perhaps increase understanding and tolerance a little."

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