MOONSTRUCK (1987)

  • Director: Norman Jewison
  • Writer: John Patrick Shanley
  • Starring: Cher, Nicolas Cage, Vincent Gardenia, Olympia Dukakis, Danny Aiello, Louis Guss, Julia Bovasso, John Mahoney, Feodor Chaliapin, Jr., and Anita Gillette
  • Accolades: 3 Oscars (Best Actress – Cher, Best Supporting Actress – Olympia Dukakis, Best Original Screenplay), 3 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director – Norman Jewison, Best Supporting Actor – Vincent Gardenia)
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

The landslide winner of our vote for our Valentine’s Day featured movie turned out to be Moonstruck, with over 70% of the vote. Thank you to everyone who voted! Perhaps this victory can be attributed to the fact that it’s probably the most “romantic,” in the old, Byron-esque meaning of the word, of any of the choices. Its characters wax rhapsodical about the moon bringing men and women together. They kiss their fingers, point them at their significant others, and whisper, “te amo.” Or perhaps it can be attributed to the generally over the top presence of Nicolas Cage. He gets perhaps the greatest scene, for me, in any movie that might be classed as a “romantic comedy,” when Cher comes to find him the basement of the bakery by the bread ovens. It starts with him casually turning to another employee and saying, “Christy, over on the wall, bring me the big knife, I want to cut my throat,” and ends with him yelling: “I ain’t no freakin’ monument to justice! I lost my hand! I lost my bride! Johnny has his hand! Johnny has his bride! You want me to take my heartache, put it away and forget?”

Moonstruck, an extremely Sicilian romance set in contemporary Brooklyn, was among the surprise hits of 1987, winning multiple Oscars including acting trophies for both Cher and Olympia Dukakis. Despite the somewhat cheesy basic “ethnic” setting that feels just side of going to the Olive Garden, it has a very specific feel that remains popular to today. Even the most hardened anti-romantic will likely be, at least, amused by the romance between Cher’s Loretta Castorini and Cage’s Ronnie Cammareri, who she meets in order to invite him to a wedding between her and his sad sack brother (Danny Aiello). After that scene in the bakery, Loretta goes up to Ronnie’s apartment, where she argues that he is blaming his brother for his own “inner wolf.” He angrily throws over the kitchen table, plates, cups, and all, pulls her to her feet, and passionately kisses her. After a moment, he picks her up and carries her away. “Where are you taking me?” she asks. “To the bed!” he proclaims. “Fine, take me to the bed,” she says with an exaggerated sigh. “I don’t care anymore. Take me to the bed. I don’t care.”  They make love. Later, when her fiancé comes back from Sicily (where his dying mother has miraculously survived), he tells her (spoilers) that he can’t marry her because if he does his “mother will die.” Ronnie immediately proposes instead, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Mixed in with this story are Loretta’s parents (played by Dukakis and veteran actor Vincent Gardenia), who are going through their own marital crisis. He’s a plumber who wears a suit and tie to work and gives long speeches about copper piping. He takes a vaguely sleazy, silly woman named Mona (Anita Gillette) out on the town and showers her with gifts, seemingly because she tells him things like, “You’re so good at knowing things!” Meanwhile Dukakis’ character sits at home and goes alone to the very Italian restaurant (the guys at the next table say “capisce” multiple times) on the corner. After asking multiple other people, “why do men chase women?” she comes to the conclusion that it’s because “they fear death.” Sitting in the living room as her husband comes home, she tells him, “I just want you to know that no matter what you do, you’re gonna die, just like everybody else.” He considers this and replies, “Thank you, Rose.” This all works out, too.

On its face, Moonstruck does not exactly feel like high art, but… maybe it is? I think it’s less about telling a specific story that needed to be told and more about illuminating a specific vein of human existence. That it sets that illumination in a very specific ethnic context likely both contributed to the movie’s popularity and lends itself to the feeling that the whole thing is somehow insubstantial. Its writer, John Patrick Shanley (not Italian) is a Pulitzer-winning playwright whose other works include Doubt and Joe Versus the Volcano. Its director, Norman Jewison (also not Italian), has had a long career over several decades, ranging from In the Heat of the Night to Jesus Christ Superstar to Rollerball to Agnes of God. Nor are Cher (birth name Cherilyn Sharkisian) or Olympia Dukakis Italian. On the one hand, Moonstruck’s Italian-ness, complete with repeated playings of “That’s Amore” on the soundtrack, feels incredibly mass produced. It’s less a New York movie than a Las Vegas “New York New York Hotel & Casino” movie. Yet its charms have endured, somehow.

There is a scene in this movie where Loretta’s grandfather (Feodor Chaliapin, Jr.), who is never seen without his fleet of numerous dogs of all different sizes, exhorts his dogs to howl at the moon in Italian. They all stand on the Brooklyn waterfront and howl. The grandfather mostly speaks in Italian, but he is sort the heart of the movie. This is a movie with memorable lines, but it is built on emotion rather than story or logic. It is a rationalist’s nightmare, more like a painting. There’s a scene, as inessential to the story as the howling at the moon scene that it immediately follows, in which Loretta’s elderly uncle (Louis Guss) wakes up his wife (Julie Bovasso) and walks to the window, staring at the full moon in child-like wonder. “I wonder if Cosmo’s down there?” he asks, referring to Loretta’s father. “Why would he be down there?” his wife asks. “I don’t know,” the man replies defensively, as if this is a stupid question. She softens and says, “in that light, with that expression on your face, you look about twenty-five years old.” Moonstruck is a movie about love from the point of view of someone who usually feels tired and old, but when they look at their significant other, they feel young again. Happy’s Valentine’s Day.

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