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Nicolas Cage romanced Cher in one of the weirdest rom-coms ever made

Moonstruck (Screenshot)
Moonstruck (Screenshot)
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The first scene of Moonstruck takes place in a funeral home and the final scene takes place around a crowded kitchen table. That’s the film in a nutshell—a romantic comedy where life and death are intertwined, where sorrow makes joy sweeter and the other way around. Or, as Nicolas Cage bellows at Cher while trying to seduce her, “Love don’t make things nice, it ruins everything. It breaks your heart, it makes things a mess. We aren’t here to make things perfect… We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and die.”

Moonstruck is absolutely obsessed with death. Cher plays Loretta Castorini, a 37-year-old Italian American widow whose husband was killed by a bus just two years into their marriage. Having loved and lost in such a dramatic way, Loretta has settled into a comfortable but passionless relationship with Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello), who proposes before flying to Sicily to be with his dying mother. As Loretta watches Johnny’s plane taxi down the runway, a cronelike old woman warns her that she’s cursed the plane to punish her sister. “I don’t believe in curses,” Loretta shoots back, even though we’ve already seen the lengths she’ll go to in order to change her bad luck. “Neither do I,” the old woman admits. Loretta looks nervous anyway. The curse is never mentioned again.

Moonstruck is a weird movie. More romantic comedies should be this weird. Hell, more movies should be this weird—this willing to throw out structural rules and play around with tone. Moonstruck is part working-class Italian American love story and part larger-than-life operatic melodrama, with just a touch of magical realism thrown in. It sits somewhere between the kitschy exuberance of Dean Martin’s “That’s Amore” and the tragic poignancy of Puccini’s La Bohème, both of which feature heavily in the score.

As Roger Ebert observed in his glowing review of the 1987 film, “The most enchanting quality about Moonstruck is the hardest to describe, and that is the movie’s tone. Reviews of the movie tend to make it sound like a madcap ethnic comedy, and that it is. But there is something more here, a certain bittersweet yearning that comes across as ineffably romantic, and a certain magical quality that is reflected in the film’s title.” If bad luck and curses are real, maybe magical moons and love at first sight are, too.

Released the same week as both Overboard and Broadcast News, Moonstruck was part of a wave of late-1980s romantic comedies that paved the way for the rom-com renaissance of the following decade. Overboard was a flop (at least at the time of its release), but Broadcast News and Moonstruck enjoyed major critical and commercial success. Broadcast News earned seven Oscars nominations, while Moonstruck earned six and took home three wins—Best Original Screenplay for John Patrick Shanley, Best Supporting Actress for Olympia Dukakis, and Best Actress for Cher. In fact, Cher’s win over Holly Hunter’s turn in Broadcast News remains one of the most hotly contested Oscar matchups ever. (In another bit of 1987 trivia, earlier in the year, Cage and Hunter had themselves played an oddball couple in Raising Arizona.)

Despite their successes, however, those 1987 romances aren’t generally credited with kicking off the rom-com renaissance themselves because they’re just a bit more eclectic than the one-two punch of 1989’s When Harry Met Sally and 1990’s Pretty Woman. Overboard is a goofy farce, Broadcast News is a workplace dramedy, and Moonstruck introduces its romantic leading man like this:

Nowhere is Moonstruck’s weirdness more apparent than in Cage’s performance as Ronny Cammareri, Johnny’s tortured younger brother. Opera-loving Ronny moves through the world as if he’s a tragic hero in one of Puccini’s tales. He’s introduced in melodramatic fashion in front of the blazing coal-fired ovens of his family’s bakery. (Moonstruck filmed at a real, working bakery and though the owner has a cameo, he refused to actually shut down the place for filming because he had 5,000 loaves to bake daily.) As Mike D’Angelo explains in his Scenic Routes column, it’s Cage at his fearless high-wire best, playing a romantic leading man who “feels like a visitor from another era, if not another planet.” Ronny blames Johnny for a bread slicer accident that caused him to lose both his hand and his fiancée. He articulates that injustice by shouting, “I lost my hand! I lost my bride! Johnny has his hand! Johnny has his bride!”

On the surface, it’s a kooky performance from a 21-year-old actor who was longing to make experimental New Wave films, not romantic comedies. (Because Ronny is described as a wolf, Cage’s initial instinct was to give him a growling voice inspired by Jean Marais in Beauty And The Beast. That idea was quickly nipped in the bud.) But the over-the-top theatrics of Ronny’s pain provide an effective foil for the quiet, almost deadpan way Loretta moves through the world. They’ve developed polar opposite coping mechanisms in the years since their tragic losses, and they’re a perfect fit because they balance each other out; he reignites her passion, and she tempers his ferocity. It’s a dynamic Cher and Cage effortlessly lock into, both in their chemistry-filled spats and their individual performances. Cage finds the tenderness beneath Ronny’s rage; Cher finds the fortitude beneath Loretta’s reserve.

The weirdest thing about Moonstruck is that—other than Cage’s performance—it’s kind of hard to describe exactly what gives the film its perpetually off-kilter energy. Unlike the amnesiac shenanigans of Overboard, there’s nothing in the plot that feels fundamentally unrealistic. But there’s a theatricality to its language that makes it unique in the rom-com canon. The characters are in deep denial about their own hang-ups, but blunt about analyzing one another. “I’m telling you your life,” Loretta says to Ronny after describing him as a wolf who chewed off his own foot to escape a relationship his conscious mind couldn’t admit wasn’t right for him.

“I think when you look around the world it’s teeming with realities, different realities, and you must select the one which appeals to you at the moment,” screenwriter John Patrick Shanley explained in a 1988 interview. In pulling from the most heightened elements of reality without ever crossing over into full-on fantasy, Moonstruck remains charmingly buoyant without entirely floating away.

Neither Shanley nor director Norman Jewison are part of the Italian American community the film so loving centers around, though Shanley did grow up in an Irish American family in The Bronx, which perhaps gave him his own insight into New York City subcultures. (For her part, Cher took inspiration from Sonny Bono’s big Italian family.) But both Jewison and Shanley had eclectic, genre-hopping careers that served them well in making such an eclectic, genre-hopping romantic comedy. Jewison had previously helmed films ranging from Fiddler On The Roof and Jesus Christ Superstar to In The Heat Of The Night and The Thomas Crown Affair. Shanley, meanwhile, would go on to write and direct the 1990 Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan romantic vehicle Joe Versus The Volcano as well as the 2008 Catholic Church abuse drama Doubt—an adaptation of his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

Structurally and tonally, Shanley and Jewison achieve a delicate balancing act of ensemble storytelling in Moonstruck. The sweet, lighthearted comedy of Loretta’s grandfather and her aunt and uncle balances out moments like the quiet tragedy of a coworker who’s in deep unrequited love with Ronny—a grace note the film acknowledges but doesn’t try to weave into its own subplot. Death is once again central to the story of Loretta’s parents. Her father, Cosmo, (Vincent Gardenia) can’t sleep because “It’s too much like death.” He’s also having an affair, which his wife, Rose (Olympia Dukakis), deduces is another desperate attempt to prevent the inevitable. As she bluntly tells him, “Cosmo, I just want you to know, no matter what you do, you’re gonna die just like everybody else.”

While Loretta and Cosmo step out to the opera with people they aren’t supposed to be seeing, Rose spends her own unexpected evening with John Mahoney’s NYU professor, Perry—a caddish, patronizing, but not entirely unlikable man who carries out affairs with students as his own way of staving off the inevitability of aging. For as heightened as Moonstruck gets in its hilariously comedic moments, there’s plaintive realism to the Rose/Perry subplot. Mahoney’s small but memorable turn helped launch his career to a new level, paving the way for a similarly complex role in Say Anything a few years later.

But it’s Rose who emerges as the heart Moonstruck. She’s the film’s most tragic character, yet its most dignified one, too. She warns Loretta that it’s better to marry someone you like, but don’t love, if only to protect yourself from their ability to hurt you—something she knows about firsthand. On some level, however, Rose seems to agree with Ronny that we’re here to ruin ourselves and break our hearts and love the wrong people and die. Maybe the best we can do is not lose our sense of self in the process.

Moonstruck probably deserves more credit than it’s usually given for its influence on the romantic comedy genre. You can see hints of its DNA in everything from Pretty Woman and Sleepless In Seattle to While You Were Sleeping and My Big Fat Greek Wedding. And the ways in which Moonstruck isn’t afraid to be its own strange romantic concoction could also stand to be an inspiration for more rom-coms, too. It’s simultaneously an epic romantic fairy tale and a poignantly realistic portrait of love and aging—whether that’s aging into your late 30s or beyond. Its stakes are small, yet monumental. It’s issues thorny, yet easily resolved in a hilarious kitchen-set climax where love conquers all. It can be hard to put into words exactly what makes Moonstruck so enchanting, but all these years later it still casts a spell you don’t want to snap out of.

Next time: (500) Days Of Summer (10) years later.