Still from 1987's "Moonstruck."

Moonstruck September 18, 2017        

DIRECTED BY

Norman Jewison

 

STARRING

Cher

Nicolas Cage

Vincent Gardenia

Olympia Dukakis

Danny Aiello

Julie Bovasso

Louis Guss

John Mahoney

 

RATED

PG

 

RELEASED IN

1987

 

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 42 Mins.

I

n 1987’s Moonstruck, Cher’s star power reminds me of Barbra Streisand’s in her debut, Funny Girl (1968). In Funny Girl, Streisand, then a 26-year-old newcomer, practically blew everyone surrounding her off the screen. When she sung, the high heavens opened. When she did comedy, she was sharp and nimble. When she did drama, we sympathized with her pains and sometimes even wanted to cry with her. We were infatuated. From the moment she

appeared on the screen, we decided we were in the presence of a star. 

 

By the time Moonstruck was released, though, Cher, unlike Streisand in ’68, had already proven herself a great actress. Performances in 1983’s Silkwood and 1985’s Mask saw the glamorous singer and television personality bravely ridding herself of her famously gaudy makeup and clothes and turning in naked, emotionally sober acting performances. In those films, however, Cher was noticeably playing humble women of the everyday — women without a hint of Cher’s commanding offscreen persona.

 

So in many ways, Moonstruck feels like Cher’s true-blue debut as an onscreen performer. Not just because the movie helped bind her standing as a singer-turned-actress to be taken seriously (she won an Oscar for her portrayal), but also because so much of what makes Cher a force of nature pours into her performance. In her previous cinematic projects, she was still in the midst of proving herself, always underplaying. But in Moonstruck, she’s an asteroid smashing into the earth on a hot summer night, all fire and brass. In every scene centering around her, she glows. She’s dynamic, and, like Streisand in Funny Girl, we feel like we’re seeing an actress arrive.

 

But in a departure from Funny Girl, our leading actress is not the only good thing about the movie housing her. The 1968 musical was so lumbering and weighty that everything except Streisand lacked character and grace. By contrast, this 1987 comedy, which also worked as a comeback for lauded filmmaker Norman Jewison, is terrific in and of itself. Cher’s turn is but the cherry atop the cinematic sundae that it is. It's a warm, atypical dysfunctional family comedy that grows in its poignancy and depth as it travels along. Essentially, Moonstruck revolves around an Italian-American woman named Loretta (Cher) who unexpectedly falls for the younger brother (Nicolas Cage) of the man to whom she’s engaged (Danny Aiello). But broadly, the film is about finding (or redefining) love in the most unthinkable of places. It develops such an idea through four storylines, one of which includes Loretta’s unexpected predicament.

 

Hers is the most interesting of the quartet, mostly because it surprises us as much as it does her. In Moonstruck’s first few moments, we discover that Loretta used to be married — pretty happily, as it turns out — until a tragic car crash killed her husband. In the years since, she’s barely dated, worried that her next romance will be doomed too. Her engagement to this new guy, Johnny, has nothing to do with love; we figure a couple of dates went decently, and Loretta and Johnny are both so disillusioned with trying to discover passion again that this will have to do. When he asks for her hand in marriage, she says yes, but it’s hardly one followed by an exclamation point and a kiss.

 

Before they can really celebrate their engagement, though, Johnny takes off for Sicily to visit his dying mother, presumably so he can ask for her blessing before she croaks. So Johnny sheepishly asks that Loretta try to invite his estranged younger brother, Ronny, to the wedding while he’s away. (He’s afraid a reappearance will only thicken the bad blood.)

 

Upon her inviting herself to his workplace for a chat, Loretta discovers that Ronny is indeed uninterested in rebuilding a relationship with his older sibling. Initially, this makes her sort of relieved — Ronny is prone to angry outbursts and generally seems unbalanced. But she also finds that she’s attracted to him. His lunacy eventually calms, revealing him to be more of a passionate eccentric than a nut, and Loretta additionally discovers that she and Ronny have plenty in common: not only are they closer in age than she and Johnny, but they are also both brutally frank, romantics at heart, and, best yet, prone to going to opera fairly regularly. Tucking her inhibitions away, Loretta all but ignores the rules of monogamy, sleeping with Ronny and going on a couple memorable dates while Johnny obliviously dawdles in Sicily. At first, Loretta is certain this dalliance is going to be a temporary thing she’ll try her best to forget. But the more time she spends away from her fiancé, the more she realizes how much she doesn’t love the latter and how much more appealing continuing her courtship with Ronny sounds.

 

The resolution is almost too easy, but John Patrick Shanley’s Academy Award-winning screenplay is not fundamentally concerned with how facile we consider its plot points. Characters, and their reevaluations of themselves, are Moonstruck’s most preeminent draw. Loretta’s falling for Ronny might seem bizarre at first, but as we get into the headspace of a woman who hasn’t felt any sort of romantic excitement (or real physical attraction) for years, it starts increasingly making sense.

 

Moonstruck is built on these slightly cockeyed relationships, and part of its charm is how persuasively rendered they are. In addition to Loretta and Ronny’s unconventional romance, we also are introduced to the complicated relationship between her parents (her father Cosmo, played by the Oscar-nominated Vincent Gardenia, is seeing a woman on the side, and her mother Rose, played by the Oscar-winning Olympia Dukakis, knows about it), and the still-thriving romance between her aunt and uncle, Rita and Raymond (Julie Bovasso and Louis Guss). 

 

In scenes orbiting around Cosmo and his mistress, we see a man so bored by and so oblivious to his marital fortune we reason that he takes his wife for granted accidentally. In scenes that find Rose alone, pondering what happened to the happy days of her marriage, we’re crushed — and when a man (John Mahoney) also having romantic woes temporarily takes interest in her, we almost root for infidelity. 

 

We relish the brief scenes, then, that spotlight Rita and Raymond’s dedication to each other. While everyone else is trying to figure things out, they continue to quietly adore one another. How moved we are, for instance, when Rita sees her husband standing in the moonlight one evening and lovingly remarks that he, in that lighting and with that particular facial expression, looks 25. That these characters are so lovable and familiar, even when they’re being piggish or thoughtless, is a testament to Shanley’s mastery: This is a better family dramedy than it is a romantic comedy, and Shanley knows it. Loretta and Ronny’s affair is, while still engaging, more aptly used as a connective device to bring all these delightful people together.

 

Miraculously, Shanley allows us to understand these individuals, to feel for them. We’ve certainly met people like them before — and maybe we even have members of our own families who bear similarities — and that recognition complements our appreciation of how nuanced Shanley’s writing is, and how note-perfect these performances are. The movie is undoubtedly a great comedy, but one of the things I like best about it is how so much of its humor resembles the sort we come across during a family gathering: often accidental, sometimes infused with melancholy, and frequently in reference to an outlandish story.

 

But it is still Cher we treasure the most in Moonstruck. Loretta perhaps could be dubbed a mess before we even get to know her: she’s living with her parents and is planning on marrying a man she doesn’t love. (Rightfully so — he doesn’t even have a ring when he proposes and frets about kneeling because he doesn’t want to ruin his suit.) But we love her anyway. Habitually passing along misguided, quick-witted advice and forever prone to listening to her heart rather than her head, she’s fully defined almost as soon as we hear her name for the first time. Cher puts (at least what we perceive to be) so much of herself into the portrayal, as it so often goes with cinema’s best performances. What a travesty it is that acting was something in which she only dabbled. Moonstruck is one of the best movies of the 1980s, and how refreshing it is that it can be such and remain so emotionally detailed and intimate. A