November 18, 2017

Classic Eighties film review: Moonstruck–a wonderfully whole work of art

As a lifelong movie enthusiast—and more particularly as someone who writes about film—this is one of those before which I am humbled. Moonstruck (1987) is that very rare film in which each element of production synthesizes so beautifully with every other that a unique and wonderfully whole work of art takes life. Norman Jewison’s direction is robust, elegant, and assured; the screenwriter, John Patrick Shanley, has an ear for language that is specific, resonant, and true; the entire ensemble of actors give unerring performances; the photography, scenic design, and scoring are rich and accurate. This film has both unabashed melodramatic movement and scope and precise emotional intimacy. It involves us in comedy that is at times almost madcap farce but, like the characters in the film and as the title suggests, we become every bit as much enchanted by its human reality and its sweet, yearning romance. What gives Moonstruck such vitality and such powers of captivation is what is most difficult to describe, and that is the integrity of its vision and of its tone. The combined artistic effort here seems effortless, the unity so remarkable, so delightful and moving, it feels more like inevitability—or magic.

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Enhancing the intoxication is the New York setting. It is immediately clear that this is one of those films which could not possibly exist anywhere else, and it seems likewise impossible after seeing it ever to think of New York without at least traces of some vestigial imagery from the film. Though a few exteriors were shot on the Lower East Side and one segment in and around Lincoln Center, the story is largely set in Brooklyn and there are eidetic shots of Brooklyn Heights and The Promenade.

And when there’s a full moon over Brooklyn apparently anything can happen, including pop-culture icon Cher turning in an unquestionably well-earned Best Actress Oscar and Golden Globe performance. Her Loretta Castorini is an Italian-American widowed bookkeeper of 37, and she is not the only one in the film who becomes moonstruck. Her wise, slightly world-weary mother Rose (Olympia Dukakis), dismayed by her husband Cosmo (Vincent Gardenia)’s recent behavior, meets a middle-age university professor (John Mahoney) who specializes in seducing his young students, but who finds in this mature woman a distinctive allure. And there is the furtive and yet somehow sweet affair that Cosmo has been conducting with a gentle, disillusioned mistress (Anita Gillette). In a conscious effort at being practical Loretta agrees to marry a man she does not love, Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello). Before the wedding can take place, Cammareri must visit his dying mother in Sicily. In his absence, Loretta is tasked with patching up the “bad blood” estrangement between Johnny and his brother whom she has never met, bakery operator Ronny Cammareri (Nicolas Cage), but when Loretta goes to issue him the personal invitation, she and Ronny fall immediately head over heels into bed. “I don’t care. I don’t care. I don’t care,” she surrenders, but by sun-up she regrets the fling. Ronny promises to take their secret to his grave if only she will grant him one wish—be his date for a performance that evening at The Met of “La Boheme.” When Puccini’s impassioned final scene swells the air with the sound of love itself we feel their fate seal. Every character in the story experiences some significant change, but the question of whether or how Loretta’s love for her fiance’s brother will develop becomes the essence of Moonstruck’s irresistible momentum.

If you have never seen the film and have wondered how multi-genre performer and pop-culture empress Cher can possibly be taken seriously as an actor you are only cheating yourself. It’s worth remembering that, in good material and in the hands of good directors, Cher had acquitted herself quite well in a couple of roles preceding this: she garnered critical acclaim as Meryl Streep’s housemate in Mike Nichols’ 1983 Silkwood and was nominated for both Best Supporting Actress Oscar and BAFTA, and in Peter Bogdanovich’s Mask (1985) she played a mother whose highly intelligent teenage son (Eric Stoltz) has a skull deformity—both were nominated for Golden Globes and Cher took the Best Actress award at the Cannes Festival. Similarly, if you are among those who think that in some of Nic Cage’s later films nervous tics carry the day and little scenery is left unchewed, don’t let that deter you here. Jewsion evokes what is arguably Cage’s most attractive performance, shaping and focusing all that is best in the actor’s sometimes wild energy and quirky edginess into an appealingly integrated characterization—Ronnie Cammareri is part Dostoyevsky, part opera buffa.

Shanley’s Moonstruck script won the Oscar and the Writers Guild Award for best original screenplay. (In 2005 he won the Pulitzer and Tony for his play “Doubt”.) His writing here is masterful in melding plain speech, poetry, high comedy, and philosophical argument. Early on Rose shares her thoughts on loving men with Loretta: “If you love them they’ll drive you crazy because they know they can.” And later when she asks Loretta if she loves Ronnie, her daughter replies, “Aw, Ma, I love him something awful.” “Oh, God,” sighs Rose, “that’s too bad.” Shanley evokes Ronnie’s passion as well as his working guy’s idiom when he tries in his big speech—an aria, really—to persuade Loretta to break up with Johnny: “Love don’t make things nice. It ruins your life. It ain’t perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. We’re here to love the wrong people and break our hearts…and die. The storybooks are bullshit! Now I want you to come upstairs with me and get in my bed!” Moonstruck’s sweet, gentle approach to love and family life is saved from sappiness by its tough-minded sense of humor—throughout, Jewison sustains a pitch-perfect tone that is ironic but not bitter, tender but not sentimental.

One of the shining assets of the film is that Shanley and director Jewison give us a true ensemble piece, and what a brilliantly cast ensemble piece it is. We come to know the entire Castorini family—three generations (including the sly and dignified Feodor Chaliapin, Jr. as Cosmo’s octogenarian father) and five adopted dogs all under one roof, along with the Cammareri brothers, and Rose’s sister and brother-in-law the Capomaggis, played superbly by the great stage actress Julie Bavasso and Louis Guss who makes memorable delight with his few scenes. Olympia Dukakis is sublime as Rose, a wife and mother beyond illusions, shrewdly intelligent, strong, wryly humorous, a survivor; she very deservedly won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar along with most other awards. Vincent Gardenia’s Cosmo (Oscar nominated) is a master class in droll, underplayed farce—a master of his house beset by his fears of aging, alternately cagy and equivocal, and so fully inhabited by his human frailties that he is at times deeply touching. All of the actors seem uncannily destined for their roles: they embrace them and grow in them like flowers bedded in good earth, moving and breathing with the perfect tone of the project—the exquisite balance of Jewison’s direction and Shanley’s writing—and they make of the unlikely mesh of undershirt-in-kitchen naturalism and urbane drawing-room comedy an extraordinary film. Even when a scene takes place literally near a kitchen sink the movie has an exuberant glamor, a lush lyricism.

Norman Jewison (who will be 90 in July) had been respected for decades as a skilled journeyman director with a well-informed social conscience; actors found him sensitive, intuitive, and intellectually adroit. With Moonstruck, at 61, he was acknowledged as a master. The project may have seemed an unlikely fit for the man who’d helmed In the Heat of the Night, A Soldier’s Story, and Agnes of God, but he made of this comic masterpiece much more than an infectious ethnic romance. At times hilarious, at times poignant, Moonstruck is a classic that transcends our usual notions of romantic comedy to become something more resonant, more joyous, more lasting—it’s an operatic ode to the constant unexpectedness of love.

– Hadley Hury

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