Dir. Norman Jewison; Cher, Nicolas Cage, Olympia Dukakis
[3.5 out of 4 stars]
My father is a rather intense Dean Martin fan. Generally speaking, he enjoys that whole class of Italian crooners, and over time he succeeded in passing the feeling down to me. Everyone in the “Rat Pack” graced us with voices to swoon over, but there is something particularly buttery and beguiling about Martin’s way of singing. The ease with which he slid through a vocal range chameleonic enough to cover the realms of both a tenor and a bass translates to a feeling of warmth, as if you know you’re in good hands from the opening notes. I bring this up because Moonstruck (1987), Norman Jewison’s decorated rom-com, opens with Martin’s signature song “That’s Amore,” and I can not think of a more fitting mood setter. Listening to Martin croon over shots of New York with a glass of wine beside me put me in a state closest to that glowing moment when you get in the bath and the water is exactly how you hoped it would be, and the movie that followed only deepened the feeling.
Moonstruck centers on 37-year-old widowed Loretta Castorini (Cher) who is newly engaged to her boyfriend Johnny Cammerari (Danny Aiello), much to the disappointment of Loretta’s parents Rose (Olympia Dukakis) and Cosmo Castorini (Vincent Gardenia), who think he is a lukewarm example of a man on his best of days. It’s a sentiment I agree with, but more on that later. Shortly after proposing, Johnny rushes off to Sicily to be with his dying mother, but not before leaving Loretta with the task of finding his estranged brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage) to invite to the wedding. Loretta tracks Ronny down and discovers the estrangement is the result of an accident that left Ronny without a hand, and more than a little unstable, two things that he blames Johnny for. He also loves opera, drinking, and, it turns out, Loretta. What spirals out from there is the loony yet sublime story of how Ronny and Loretta struggle with the fact that the two of them may be better suited for one another than Johnny and Loretta.
While you would be forgiven for wanting to desperately hear more about Loretta and Ronny, and there will be plenty in this review about them, one of the remarkable parts of this movie is how full the supporting characters feel outside of our two leads. Leading this charge is Olympia Dukakis as Rose, a performance that was rewarded with one of the three Oscars this movie won. She projects a world-weariness that is poignant, and sometimes quite funny. But she is also at the cross-section of the ‘second couple’ of the movie, a Shakespearean trope that has remained de rigueur for rom coms, because it so happens that her husband Cosmo is cheating on her with a bubblier and younger woman. Rose senses this, but is somewhat at a loss for what to do. How she navigates those feelings is a masterful display of acting as Dukakis modulates between somber and defiant, best captured at an impromptu dinner with a scene-stealing John Mahoney, who is an older professor who is himself quite consumed with chasing women. The two sit and talk while they eat, and Dukakis somehow embodies the situation of a woman who might at one time have turned this dinner into an affair, but who now knows that she will flirt with it but not carry through as the end of the dinner displays. They walk home, and she leaves him to go to his apartment alone. It is this woman that understandably responds “that’s too bad” when her daughter tells her she loves Ronny. In a movie about love, it is moving to show a woman who experiences it as a labor, but one that she is committed to because she knows herself and sees that it is where she wants to be.
Dukakis’ performance is buoyed by the reality that her storyline is not the only secondary bout of love or loss that we see, and the sum total of those is a kaleidoscopic charting of romance. We see so much of Cosmo and his mistress Mona (Anita Gillette) that while we disapprove of their affair knowing Rose’s pain, it’s also hard to deny that they are charming together. In one scene they eat lunch and Cosmo brags about the deal he just made selling copper pipes to a couple, and Mona seems genuinely interested to hear about it. Elsewhere, Castorini family friends Raymond (Louis Guss) and Rita Cappomaggi (Julie Bovasso) provide a vignette of lifetime love that has flourished and sustained. They are old, and have been together for nearly their whole lives, and in an unexpected move we are treated to one of the tenderest moments in the film through the lens of their relationship. Raymond wakes up in the middle of the night to stare out at the window at the full moon bathing the city in light, and Rita awakens to see him. He looks at the moon with wonder, and she looks at him with the same emotion until he turns and matches her gaze before climbing back into bed.
Screenwriter John Patrick Shanley knows that Loretta and Ronny may be the centerpiece, but the care with which he addresses each of the other romances is, well, loving. So rarely do we see this wide an array of love in a film. Specifically, how many rom-coms can you name where every single one of the couples on screen is over the age of 35 for the entirety of the story? We often get the long-term story, When Harry Met Sally (1989) style that follows a developing romance over a number of years, but most efforts in the genre zero in on an attractive young couple played by movie stars. Part of the magic of Moonstruck is that each of these background couples, and the Ronny and Loretta centerpiece I’ll get to in a moment, display love and loss across a lifetime. Cosmo and Rose are decades into their union, and through them we see the pain of a falling in and out of love, while Raymona and Rita, together for the same long-haul, are just as committed to one another. Rom-coms often treat love as a monolith that carries on in perpetuity after the closing credits, but Moonstruck is confident enough to give us one story of lovers finding one another while reminding us that the story doesn’t end at the coming together. There is a life to to live, and by including love or the lack of it in its later years it offers up a more complete consideration of romance than most of its genre peers.
And so, we come to Ronny and Loretta. I attribute much of the success of their storyline to the work that Cage and Cher put in. Even after seeing Leaving Las Vegas (1995), I’ve never held Cage in my mind as a romantic lead, but Ronny is a character that plays nicely to Cage’s, how to put it, excessive tendencies. When Loretta first finds him in the bakery kitchen, he carries on about Johnny and their estrangement with the aplomb of someone living in their own personal melodrama. Loretta tries to cut it down, but Ronny rails onwards, and Cage’s talent for physicality sells just enough crazy in the eyes and posture so you buy this over-the-top persona. Here is a man with a wooden hand who loves opera, specifically “La bohème,” more than anything in the world, and who holds onto an admittedly unhealthy level of anger toward his brother, and Cage turns him into an off-kilter romantic lead. There are moments when it gets away from him, and there’s a touch too much over-acting in the air, such as when he and Loretta walk home after a night at the opera, and his big romantic speech feels marginally more aggressive than tender, but he does mange to bring it back in by the end of the scene. The overall tone is effective, and he is lights out in the final scenes of the movie when we get arguably the greatest wrap-up sequence any rom-com has ever pulled off.
Yet, for all of Cage’s talent, this movie does not exist without Cher at the center of it, and she delivers a tour-de-force performance that is more than worthy of the Oscar she won for it. Her scenes with Aiello’s Johnny carry all the weight of a woman who is resigned to a union that will not excite or enliven her, but that will bring her a level of comfort and stability. When she tells Rose that Johnny proposed, she admits she doesn’t love him, but she “likes him a lot.” Her first husband’s death weighs on her, and she speaks at a number of moments about feeling cursed, as if because she didn’t do the wedding and relationship right the first time she is destined to be alone, and Cosmo doesn’t help by supporting this theory. It is all of this that leads her to Ronny, and even in that first bakery scene you can see the draw that she has to him. Cher plays it close to the chest, but the physical way she reacts to Ronny talking there and then up in his apartment when she makes him some lunch is just charged enough that it is distinguishable from the passivity of her time with Johnny. Even when Cage gets over-the-top, Cher is steady and matches him in pitch and intensity, balancing out the movie’s tone and mood no matter where it goes. When he asks her why she won’t wait for the right man this time now that he’s come along, she searingly states “you were late,” and it is a statement loaded with layers of heartbreak, yearning, and frustration that she conveys in three short words. This movie may topically be about the formation of the couple, but it is primarily the story of a woman coming to terms with her past and realizing that a history of heartbreak and sadness does not mean she must be in such a state for the rest of her life. So rarely do we get a rom-com where a woman’s self-actualization is the point, but Moonstruck delivers it, and Cher gives it every bit of emotion necessary.
I could truly go on and on about this movie, but instead of detailing each masterstroke of the score and Norman Jewison’s directorial approach, I ask you, dear reader, to instead go watch it. Earlier this month we here at PFR each gave you a list of suggestions to watch during this trying time, and I consider this review an addendum to that list, and a fervent one at that. Moonstruck is a towering example of what can be achieved in a genre that is often brushed aside when all involved with the production treat it with tenderness and artistry. I’ve written mostly about the performances in this movie simply because they stand out, but that is only one facet of the joy and poignancy that you discover in the composition and execution of this superb film. It seems almost laughable today that a rom-com could be nominated for Best Picture, but this movie was, and over three decades later, that is a choice from the Academy that I can stand by. So, please, pour a glass of wine or your choice imbibement, sit down with a blanket and maybe someone to cuddle up with, and slip into the warm embrace of Dean Martin, Cher, and Moonstruck.