Friday 3 February 2023

Moonstruck (1987)

Director: Norman Newison
Writer: John Patrick Shanley
Stars: Cher, Nicolas Cage, Vincent Gardenia, Olympia Dukakis and Danny Aiello

Index: The First Thirty.

I’ve not only seen Moonstruck, I’ve reviewed it at Apocalypse Later, albeit a long time ago in 2007, but I found that my reaction to it in 2022 was very similar.

The older I get, the less tolerance I find that I have for characters who bicker at each other for no reason but to bicker, that comfortable space where they can unload the frustrations of their lives onto loved ones who aren’t going to punch them back. And, given that this film is about Italian Americans in New York, that’s all it is for a while and it annoyed the crap out of me. That the actors tasked with doing this are very good at it is beside the point.

Our focus is on Loretta Castorini, a frumpy bookkeeper played by Cher, who won an Oscar for her work, and she starts out the picture by accepting a proposal of marriage from Johnny Cammareri, played by reliable Danny Aiello. She doesn’t love him but she’s ready to train him, so much so that she politely talks him all the way through the proposal, needed at every step. When he gets it right, everyone in the restaurant cheers and they’re all set.

Well, Mr. Johnny—everyone calls him that, including Loretta—has one thing to do before the wedding: visit his dying mother in Sicily. At the airport, he gives her a card and asks her to call the number on it. Ask for Ronny. Invite him to the wedding. It’s his younger brother, they haven’t spoken for five years and it’s too long for bad blood.

Because she’s utterly reliable, Loretta takes care of that awkward task and we’re really off and running because, even though the script muses on love through a slew of characters in an ensemble fashion, the central strand is all about Loretta and Ronny. And, as unlikely as it might seem, Cher’s love interest is played by Nicolas Cage. It’s a big leap from Valley Girl.

Back in 2007, I wasn’t sold at all on Cage’s performance here. What’s hilarious is that he’s actually of New York Italian stock, but it feels like he’s playing a role, whereas Cher has what feels like every other ancestry in the book but feels natural here. He was experienced at this point and he’d done good work, most overtly in his previous picture, Raising Arizona, but he overplays this part massively and that makes him stand out in ways I didn’t appreciate.

What I’m starting to realise is that this was very deliberate indeed. He’s supposed to stand out and for a very good reason.

Everyone in this film has a similar mindset. They’re all playing a time-honoured role that’s decreed by heritage and they’re completely consistent. Ronny is apart from all of that, not because of the rift with his brother or because it explains his artificial hand, but because he’s an opera buff and opera is all about overblown passion. The rest of the cast are characters in a romantic drama. Cage plays Ronny like he has no right to be in a romantic drama because he should be in an opera. And, once I got there, it all felt very different.

His initial scene is awful if we compare what he does to everyone else around him. He’s at his bakery and everyone there is grounded in our reality. He rages, threatens to kill himself in front of everyone, waves his wooden hand around. Everything is a grand gesture. Loretta quietly puts up with him.

Then she cooks him a steak in his apartment and tells him that he’s going to eat it and she explains her theory about him, that he’s a wolf who cut off his own hand in order to get out of a relationship. Of course, it soon becomes an argument and he kisses her and she kisses him and suddenly they’re in bed together.

Cher and Cage are one relationship here and they’re a fascinating one, once I realised what Cage was doing. She transforms, initially for a date with him at the Metropolitan Opera and then again there, during a performance of La bohème when her emotions flood out over her face. He turns quiet and watches her, because he’s the real Ronny at that point and not the character he plays in life.

The reason that the screenplay also won an Oscar is because John Patrick Shanley wove a whole slew of relationships into this story and they all reach a crucial point in a memorable final scene.

The third Oscar went to Olympia Dukakis as Loretta’s mother, Rose. She’s quieter than any of the other New York Italians here but she’s just as acerbic. She has some great scenes with her husband Cosmo—Vincent Gardenia lost to Sean Connery for The Untouchables—but even better ones with an aging professor played by John Mahoney of Frasier fame who has a string of bad luck dating his young students.

Gardenia has great scenes with a girlfriend that he doesn’t think his wife knows about. It comes out eventually, of course, after Loretta bumps into them together at the opera. Julie Bovasso and Louis Guss also have great scenes together as the Cappomagis, Rita and Raymond, who is Rose’s brother. That leaves Grandpa Castorini, who doesn’t have anyone to have great scenes with, so steals quite a few anyway with his army of dogs.

I can’t say that I connected to any of these characters, but I believed in them and, initial frustrations at the constant bickering aside, I connected to their connections in general. It’s fair to say that love is the leading character in all the many aspects the script explores, and I connected to that too.

And that’s why this is a brilliant film. It isn’t my sort of film for quite a few reasons, and the way it starts out means that it has even more hurdles to overcome to win me over, but win me over it does, just as it did fifteen years ago when I was far less well versed in the breadth of cinema than I am today.

Back then, Cage was the worst aspect of the film, because I didn’t understand what he was doing. Now, while it’s unmistakably still Cher’s movie over any else’s, I realise how much Cage contributed to its success. Had he not taken a wildly different approach to every actor in the film, I wonder if I’d have enjoyed it anywhere near as much.

I’m realising through this runthrough of his First Thirty that I don’t always appreciate the strange choices he makes when approaching a role, but I’m really starting to appreciate that he looks at acting that way.

No comments: