Monthly Archives: August 2013

12 Angry Hams: Cheaper by the Dozen

Original poster.

Original poster. Except for Fonda’s, I find all the portraits hilarious. Look at all of that steamology . . . ! Several of the portraits aren’t even close: Robert Webber looks like Chris Noth.

“12 Angry Men” (United Artists, 1957) . . . wow. I really must buy a copy of that picture — it probably costs about six cents. YouTube has several copies of the full movie, but it’s better to have a good DVD and see it properly. Every time — and I mean every time — it’s on TCM I get hooked. It’s compulsively watchable. I’m not sure why I keep putting off buying a copy. Perhaps I’m afraid that if I have it in the apartment, I’ll never do anything else.

Recently, a friend told me that he is trying to understand the difference between great acting and hamming, and more particularly, between great hamming and lousy acting. He was totally confused when I commented in the piece I did about “Murder on the Orient Express” that Sidney Lumet was famously a great director of actors. But how could that be, he asked, when Lumet directed all those bad performances in “12 Angry Men” . . . ? Bad performances?!  They’re great for that rotten material! Good acting would kill that picture. What that lousy dialogue needs is some serious baloney bending — and a director who knows how to get those massive egos and eccentrics to work together for the greater (ahem) good. A lousy ham, I told him, pulls his broad, terrible stunts without regard to the story at hand; a great ham like Lee Cobb nearly always has the right idea — then he takes it to excess, especially if the script (or, in the case of “4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” André Previn’s huge orchestral underscoring) will support it. As great as George Scott was in the Showtime remake, he was really too smart for that bum material. Takes a moron like Cobb — all angst, passion and no brains — to sweat the material into the lather it needs to be.

Rogues gallery. Clockwise from top: Balsam (standing),

Rogues’ gallery. Clockwise from top: Juror #1 Balsam (standing), #2 Fiedler, #3 Cobb, #4 Marshall, #5 Klugman, #6 Binns, #7 Warden, #8 Fonda, #9 Sweeney, #10 Begley, #11 Voskovec, #12 Webber

Cobb was most at home playing over-the-top characters. When he has to keep a lid on his volcanic temper, he can be funny, but he doesn’t come into his money notes until he starts tearing a passion to tatters. “12 Angry Men” gives him that opportunity and he takes full advantage. Mind you, I doubt that Cobb ever looked at a script as a whole in order to determine where his character fitted into the story and what sort of performance would best serve the picture.  I make no doubt that most of his biggest moments were entirely self-serving. Nevertheless, with a director like Lumet to guide him into those big steamed up explosions, Cobb was able to serve both his ego and the screenwriter. Can you imagine “12 Angry Men” without the Cobber? Where would that corn be without that Cobb? Any decent likeable guy can play Juror Eight (Fonda’s role) but Juror Three demands a big, noisy ham like Cobb. George Scott, as I mentioned earlier, was really too good for the part: Scott made him human, which rather queers the pitch, since everyone in the show is cartoonish . . . they’re completely artificial; only a few of them are sufficiently lifelike even to pass for stereotypes. These guys don’t have characteristics: they don’t have character — what they have is tics.

Juror One (Martin Balsam): The Thinskinned Nonentity
Juror Two (John Fiedler): The Petulant Pipsqueak
Juror Three (Lee Cobb): The Bawling Devil
Juror Four (E.G. Marshall): The Wall Street WASP
Juror Five (Jack Klugman): The Timid Prole
Juror Six (Ed Binns): The Blue Collar Dope
Juror Seven (Jack Warden): The Bumptious Sales Jerk
Juror Eight (Henry Fonda): The Pasty-Faced Peace-Creep
Juror Nine (Joe Sweeney): The Sagacious Coot
Juror Ten (Ed Begley): The Honked-Off Racist
Juror Eleven (George Voskovec): The Mannerly Mensch
Juror Twelve (Robert Webber): The Madison Avenue Pinhead

Ed Binns makes the least impression — he’s hardly there. E.G. Marshall, though quiet and buttoned-down, finds a way to be just exasperating enough to be memorable. Balsam, the Klugger and Voskovec are the most human (though Voskovec’s Mannerly Mensch is most definitely a stereotype). Lee Cobb owns the picture — he’s the best reason to see it. When he starts blowing the tubes, he’s riotously funny, but after you’ve seen the picture a few times, you may find his warm-up even funnier than his fireworks.

Lee Cobb as Juror Three: 'Excitable?! You bet I'm excitable!'

Lee Cobb as Juror Three: ‘Excitable?! You bet I’m excitable!’

Begley — with that harsh staccato voice of his, that great big nose, flyaway hair and those roadkill eyebrows — seems like an alien being, which makes his racist tirades hilarious: what’s this fucking Martian got against Puerto Ricans, anyway? (Sidney Lumet’s staging of Juror Ten’s final harangue is so idiotic, I burst into laughter whenever it crosses my mind.) Fiedler’s light-bulb head and helium voice make him, too, seem not of this planet — I like him best when he blows his puny little stack. Robert Webber has a few funny moments — I particularly like his fantastically incompetent sketch of a box of cereal. (He shows it to Voskovec and says, ” ‘Rice Pops: the breakfast with the built-in bounce!’ I wrote that line!” Voskovec, ever the gentleman, replies dubiously: “Very catchy.”) Another Webber moment I like: he’s on the verge of changing his vote; Lumet gives him a big close-up . . . and he looks exactly like Jerry Lewis in the last hour of his telethon.

'Rice Pops: The breakfast with the built-in bounce!'

‘Rice Pops: The breakfast with the built-in bounce!’

Warden drives too hard at being obnoxious, and succeeds in being obnoxious without being as amusing as he ought to be.

Fonda is the most maddening. This is not to say he isn’t good: he is very good — that’s what makes him so maddening. Juror Eight is intended to be the hero every pointy-headed liberal aspires to be, but he’s paternalistic, condescending, arrogant and utterly humorless. Worst of all, he’s a bully. He beats brows as persistently as Three and Ten do, but Eight presumably has right on his side and, unlike Three and Ten, his motives are not vicious: his rectitude, we’re supposed to understand, gives him the right to badger, insult and embarrass Three, the final holdout, till he brings him to the verge of apoplexy, whereupon Three chokes out the words, “Not guilddy . . . nodd . . . guilddy!” in floods of tears and (it seems to me) against his will and better judgment. Reginald Rose’s screenplay makes it clear that Eight’s moral authority makes his methods acceptable, even commendable: I suppose it does, but I can’t help remembering Portia’s refusal, in “The Merchant of Venice,” “To do a great right, do a little wrong.” She argues “It must not be . . . /’Twill be recorded for a precedent,/And many an error by the same example/Will rush into the state. It cannot be.” I feel I should point out that I’m well aware my opinion is entirely contrarian; unlike Eight, however, I have no wish to badger, hector, coerce or even persuade anyone to change his opinion — but like Three, “I’m enDIEDdled to my oBINion!”

I also want to make it clear that I love “12 Angry Men”: I just don’t make the mistake of taking any of it seriously. To take it seriously is to miss what makes the picture so madly entertaining. If you begin to take it seriously, all sorts of unavoidable questions arise. For instance, about that “switch knife” that Eight picks up at a pawnshop and brings into the jury room. (Imagine what might have happened if Three had done the same thing!) Eight breaks the law by purchasing it, which he gladly (and rather smugly) concedes, and breaks the law again by coming into the courthouse carrying a concealed weapon. The law has no bearing on him, since he’s in the right and is therefore willing to break the law in order to uphold it. (The mind reels at the arrogance.) Then he says nothing at all about it till he leads the discussion to a fever pitch about the supposed uniqueness of the blade that was found in the victim’s chest . . . and then he produces his illegal, concealed weapon when he knows it will have the maximum effect. In other words, he knew in advance what he was going to do, yet pretends to be a cautious, bemused innocent who wants to be convinced by the others — and all the while his mind is already made up, because he knows he’s in the right. He lies to the other jurors about this because it won’t help the argument he intends to make. Again, since he has right on his side, we’re supposed to accept his disingenuousness, because, after all, the guys he has to persuade are a bunch of boobs: Eight’s roundabout way of arguing his case suggests that he has already determined that his fellow jurors are too contemptible to be persuaded by reason — a few parlor tricks, therefore, are necessary to pry open the shutters of their ignorance that he may shine his moral lantern into the cavernous night of their consciences. (We learn that he’s an architect: I’ll bet his buildings are hideous.)

Henry Fonda as Juror Eight: 'That's right: I broke the law!'

Henry Fonda as Juror Eight: ‘That’s right: I broke the law!’

And Joe Sweeney . . . is the weirdest. At the beginning, he’s in the bathroom for what seems like an eternity. I sure don’t like to think what took him so long . . . I sat on a jury once, and every time I had to use the jurors’ bathroom, I thought of creepy old Joe Sweeney’s long sojourn in the can and couldn’t stop snickering. Every single one of Sweeney’s line readings is berserk. He, too, is an alien presence — not from Mars, but from some planet where the inhabitants are all oddballs.

So that puts the count at six or seven angry cartoon characters, two or three choleric stereotypes and three pissed off aliens . . . And not a man in sight.

Joe Sweeney as Juror Nine: Attend the tale of Sweeney Odd.

Joe Sweeney as Juror Nine: Attend the tale of Sweeney Odd.

There’s not much music in the picture, but what there is is terrible. The score is by Kenyon Hopkins. “12 Angry Men” was originally produced for television as an episode of Westinghouse’s “Studio One.” I’ve never seen that version (horrible Bob Cummings — neither decent nor likeable — played Eight: the only two to repeat their roles were Sweeney and Voskovec). In the movie, the music comes in exactly where you’d expect to have commercial breaks — for Rice Pops, I hope: the breakfast with the built-in bounce.

The drama of Justice (and particularly American jurisprudence) in action is not the engine that drives this picture. It’s the ham acting that makes it work. For it’s the hamming that transforms the crummy dialogue and the preposterous twists and turns of the creaky plot into virtues. Sidney Lumet conducted an arduous two-week rehearsal period and then shot the picture in twenty-one days, an astonishing speed. His pacing of the action is brilliant: he knows exactly how long to let Cobb simmer and when to bring him to the boil; he knows how long he can let the action become static and becalmed and when to start the actors moving about. He keeps things moving along smartly, but he keeps the sense of heat and languor constant so that there’s no sense that anything is rushed. He intensifies the claustrophobia as the story proceeds, but wisely avoids it until the picture is well underway (he did this by changing to a different type of camera lens halfway through). There are three hundred and sixty-five takes — one for each day of the year. Even the misstep I mentioned earlier — the overtly theatrical blocking of Ten’s last harangue after which he falls silent for the rest of the picture — is so artificial and kooky that it is in its own way right: it fits in with the stupendous hamming we’ve been watching. When people talk about “12 Angry Men” as an example of realism and an excellent meditation on Justice, I shake my head in bewilderment. To me, it is clearly a love letter to mid-20th century ham acting. That’s what makes it such crazy fun. No revival has ever been nearly as entertaining because they always approach the material with reverence, as if it were great art. It isn’t. It’s trash, and it needs ham acting to get the creaky machinery moving.

For the record, the winner of the “12 Angry Men” tontine was Five — the Klugger — who died on Christmas Eve, 2012. I find this very surprising. Poor old Jack Klugman! I never thought he’d last so long. Back when Tony Randall ran the National Actors Theatre, to bolster poor audience attendance, he hired his old friend to appear with him in a revival of “Three Men on a Horse.” (The median age of the cast was so advanced that wags around town referred to the production as “Three Men on a Hearse” — unkind, but not unjust. In John Simon’s review, he wrote that Randall had suddenly become so haggard that, were he to lie down on an ash heap, he would disappear.) For the 1993 season, T. Randall’s productions were staged at one of the smallest houses on Broadway, the Lyceum Theatre, and Randall made a big to-do about how no artificial amplification was ever used in his productions: the actors all had to project as they did in the Good Old Days. Unfortunately, the Klugger, who barely survived his second bout of throat cancer in 1989 (the first was in the mid-70s), had, in the process, lost of one his vocal cords to the surgeon’s knife. His character, Patsy, didn’t appear in the first half hour of the show, during which time the audience got used to hearing natural, unamplified voices. Then on he came, looking like a very, very ancient Shemp, and received a huge, extremely poignant ovation — audiences loved the guy. (So did I.) When the applause subsided, he spoke his first line . . . and out came this horrifying squawk — a cross between a police dispatcher and a death-rattle — and it emanated not from his mouth, but from the solitary loud speaker behind the lattice-work in the center of the proscenium arch. The inhuman gasping croak was not only disembodied, but stationary as well. No matter where he went on stage, that metallic rasp came crackling out from high above the actors’ aged heads. It was ghastly, heartrending. In the middle of this empty-headed, featherweight romp, there was the constant presence of this devastating memento mori. I couldn’t stop laughing. I suppose I should add that my laughter was most definitely not at Klugman’s distress, but rather at the awe-inspiring ways Life finds to be cruel. For an actor to lose his voice and then soldier on in spite of everything is, in itself, wonderfully inspiring: it’s a testament to man’s ability to rise above the gravest calamities. But when this fabulous bravery manifests itself, as Klugman’s did, in a seedy, on-the-cheap revival of a third-rate farce, the irony becomes really so diabolical that laughter is not only appropriate, but quite unavoidable.

‘Moonstruck’: Over the Moon

Original poster.

Original poster.

It’s hard to believe, but it turns out that “Moonstruck” (Metro, 1987) is not for everybody. I have a few friends whose taste I trust and respect, who absolutely loathe it. They dislike Cher and Nicolas Cage so passionately that they cannot rise above their antipathy. As a rule, I don’t like him and I’m on the fence about her, but I think both are wonderful in “Moonstruck.” Pauline Kael said something shrewd about Cage’s performance as Ronny Cammareri: “He’s a wonderful clown: he can look stupefied while he smolders.” Bingo. Her review is entirely positive; she understands and likes “Moonstruck” in precisely the same way and for the same reasons that I do. It’s really a spoken opera buffa — it takes a while for all the comic predicaments to get cranked up and set a-work, but every moment of “Moonstruck” is wonderfully entertaining, even before the comic complications begin to multiply . . . It’s a movie full of sweet little surprises and payoffs.

When I first saw it, I enjoyed it as a perfectly nice, modest romantic comedy. In the years since, the excellence of the acting, directing and especially the writing — plus the views of Manhattan from Brooklyn Heights in the late 80s — have added incredible lustre to it. At least, for me: those two friends I mentioned continue to hate it. There’s just about no other picture I’d rather see than “Moonstruck.” It also has a tremendous score. I say tremendous, but one of its most salient virtues is that on first viewing, you may be almost unaware of it. The whole picture centers upon “La Bohème“; the brilliant composer, Dick Hyman, uses themes from that opera throughout — the few tunes that are not directly from “La Bohème” are either Italian tarantellas or they’re Dean Martin’s “That’s Amore” or, very amusingly, Vicki Carr’s “It Must Be Him.” The original cut that was shown to preview audiences opened not with “That’s Amore” (a song that Norman Jewison hates), but with music from “La Bohème.” It was a disaster. Audiences were put off by the grand, serious singing and the whole tone of the picture was thrown off. Lou Lombardo, the film editor, told Jewison: “I told ya we shoulda used Dean Martin singin’ ‘That’s Amore.’ ” According to Jewison, the opening shots were not altered in any way; the only change was Dino in place of Puccini, and that made all the difference: audiences relaxed and the picture was a huge hit. But themes from “La Bohème” — especially Musetta’s Waltz — are used as underscoring throughout the picture; the music is the glue that holds all the wacky plotlines and all the eccentric characters together. “Moonstruck” is one of the few popular entertainments in which opera is not presented as a cracking bore: in “Moonstruck” opera is, as Ronny puts it, “The best thing there is.” Halfway through the story, Loretta Castorini (Cher) visits the Cinderella Beauty Salon and undergoes a transformation worthy of the salon’s name. In this modern version of that fairy tale, the palace she arrives at is the Metropolitan Opera House, and the Prince’s Ball she attends is the famous Zeffirelli production of “La Bohème” — and the movie makes it clear that it’s the most magical night of her life. She isn’t immediately won over by what she sees and hears, however; at the intermission, she tells her date, “I like parts of it, but I don’t . . . really get it.” By the third act, she’s in tears, completely under the spell of the music. That may not be how life is, but it’s how life ought to be.

Nicolas Cage, Cher: Cinderella goes to the ball.

Nicolas Cage, Cher: Cinderella goes to the ball.

In her review of “Moonstruck,” Pauline Kael points out that when the plot is fully underway, “it can make you feel almost deliriously happy.” Oh, man, is she ever right about that. Even if the enchantment of “La Bohème” weren’t at the very center, even if its melodies didn’t underscore the story as it unfolds, I’d still find it hard to dislike any picture that features an old man whose dogs are so stupid, he has to teach them to bay at the comically over-sized, concupiscent moon.

Fyodor Chaliapin and dogs: 'Why do you make me wait? Howl! Howl! Ah-ooooo!'

Fyodor Chaliapin and his dogs: ‘Why do you make me wait? Howl! Howl! Ah-ooooo!’

I also like this little inside joke during the opening credits. Throughout the credits, we see scenery trucks pull up to the Metropolitan Opera House’s loading docks and a worker install a new billboard announcing an upcoming performance of “La Bohème.”

Inside joke: credit where credit is due.

Inside joke: credit where credit is due.

Check out the names on the poster: they are all members of “Moonstruck” ‘s production team. Roger Paradiso: Unit Production Manager, New York; Lewis Gould: First Assistant Director; Philip Rosenberg: Production Designer; Theoni Aldredge: Costumes; David Watkins: Cinematographer; Gregory Palmer: Second Assistant Director. It’s a lovely, organic tribute to the people who helped make “Moonstruck” such a first class production.

Isn’t it strange how seldom this sort of good-natured, modest romantic comedy ever actually works? After all, since everyone falls in love at one time or another, and since there are so many millions of amusing stories about how people fall in love with the wrong people and how “the course of true love never did run smooth,” it’s only reasonable to suppose that pleasing romantic comedies should be as numerous as, say, tense film noirs and exciting Westerns . . . But almost no romantic comedy has ever worked well enough to satisfy me. And this one satisfies me despite my dislike of Cage and my ambivalence about Cher, because John Patrick Shanley’s script is so excellent and Norman Jewison’s direction is so ideally suited to the material. The chemistry between the two leads and among all the other supporting cast is quite extraordinary. “Moonstruck” is easily the best romantic comedy I ever saw, and it’s one of the most likeable pictures ever made. Such charges as my friends have made against it I accept, but don’t give a damn. The picture is too much fun, too delightful, too emotionally satisfying to quibble about its niggling transgressions against sense and credibility. It’s the cinematic equivalent of osso buco . . . what’s not to like? Tutti a tavola a mangiare!

Final scene, as the all the complications resolve themselves. Vincent Gardenia: What'sa matter, Pop? Fyodor Chaliapin: I'm confused . . . !

Fyodor Chaliapin, Vincent Gardenia: Final scene, after the all the complications have resolved themselves.
Gardenia: What’sa matter, Pop?
Chaliapin: I’m confused . . . !

As much as I enjoyed “Moonstruck” when I saw it in its first run, it took several years for me to realize what an extraordinarily skillful and enchanting picture it is. It’s not a good picture, it’s a great one. Its wonderfulness sneaked up on me little by little until one day I realized that I had developed an almost overwhelming feeling of gratitude for its very existence. It is marvellous and admirable in so many ways that I’m unequal to the challenge of getting to the heart of what is so miraculously RIGHT about it. Until now, this reverence has made me reluctant to write about it. But at last I’ve decided not to worry about doing it justice. Instead, I’ll nibble around the edges and mention a few aspects that give me particular pleasure. And perhaps these particulars will convey a reasonable sense of the whole.

How many pictures set in the modern world feature an honest to God crone? Well, “Broadway Danny Rose,” “Radio Days” and “Moonstruck” all do — and in all three she’s played by the same wonderful actress: Gina DeAngeles (in the Woody Allen pictures, her last name is spelled DeAngelis). In fact, in “Moonstruck” ‘s end credits list her character as “Old Crone.”

That’s her entire part. But what more is there to know about this spiteful old bitch? I think it was at the first sight of Gina DeAngeles at the airport, eleven and a half minutes into the picture, when I realized that I was seeing a comedy quite unlike any other I’d ever seen before. Or rather, unlike any American comedy I’d ever seen. In tone and atmosphere, “Moonstruck” is astonishingly similar to the romantic comedies of Eduardo De Filippo, the great Neapolitan playwright, who wrote “Filumena Marturano” and “Sabato, domenica e lunedì” (“Saturday, Sunday and Monday”), among many others. De Filippo is not better known to English speaking audiences because his plays are so thoroughly Neapolitan that they are nearly impossible to translate. Shanley has miraculously found a Brooklyn equivalent of De Filippo’s voice. (Indeed, when Jewison had trouble persuading the producers to let him cast Vincent Gardenia as Cher’s father, Jewison told Gardenia to audition for the part in Italian. The lines translated so beautifully and naturally into Italian that the producers were convinced at once. That’s how Gardenia got the part.)

“Moonstruck” is full of lovely, isolated moments that give bit players a chance to do wonderfully interesting, funny and touching things. Take this brief encounter, when Loretta is on her way home to tell her mother and father that she has just gotten engaged.

David S. Howard is the husband; the wife is Helen Hanft, who died on May 30 of this year. She was known as the Queen of Off-Off Broadway, and was celebrated by audiences and critics alike for her zestful portrayals of campy bawds, psychopaths and assorted other steamed-up grotesques. Bette Midler happily acknowledges that she stole liberally from Hanft in her creation of the Divine Miss M. If you like Hanft in this scene, she plays a larger, almost identical part in her first picture, “Next Stop, Greenwich Village” (20th Century-Fox, 1976).

Loretta goes home with her split of Mumm’s to find her father, Cosmo Castorini (Vincent Gardenia) sitting alone in the living room, listening to an old Vicki Carr record. “Pop, I got news.” “All right. Let’s go into the kitchen.” When she tells him that she’s engaged to be married, he says “Again?” and then gives her an argument: her first husband was killed when a bus hit him. “Don’t get married, Loretta: it don’t work out for you.” But his daughter is as stubborn as he. Finally, he says, “Let’s go tell your mother,” and bangs his hands on the kitchen table as he rises. She does the same thing. Like father, like daughter. Now we meet Cosmo’s wife, the amazing Rose Castorini, who is played to perfection by the equally amazing Olympia Dukakis. Dukakis gives a career-making performance in “Moonstruck.” She won an Oscar for it. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if the vote was unanimous.

Here’s another example of an isolated, quite unforgettable little moment. The next morning, Loretta goes to Cammareri’s Bakery, owned and operated by her fiancé’s brother, Ronny, to invite him to their wedding. But Ronny surprises her by launching into an explosive tirade: he blames his brother for the accident that five years ago took off his left hand and subsequently lost him his girlfriend. Emotionally spent by his outburst, he staggers from the room in silence. This is the moment that follows. The actress is Nada Despotovich; she plays Chrissie, who runs the cash register at Cammareri’s Bakery. After this brief scene, we don’t see her again, but just try to forget her . . .

Here’s Anita Gillette, who plays Mona, the mistress of Loretta’s father. We’ll see her in a later scene, but this is the only time she has much to say. I marvel at how complete a characterization she gives in so short a time — and what pathos!

I was fortunate to see Anita Gillette give a knock-out star performance in the original cast of Neil Simon’s autobiographical “Chapter Two” on Broadway. She made the psychobabble muck (which became excellent comic fodder on an episode of “Seinfeld”) sound like the Wisdom of the Ages. (Marsha Mason, Simon’s wife at the time, on whom the role was based, played the part in the picture. Only then did I realize what rubbish Simon had written for her.) Gillette’s turn in “Moonstruck” is very brief, but she’s perfection — a beautifully piteous combination of sweetness, vulgarity and desperation. Cosmo Castorini is too old for her; besides, he is married and will never leave his wife — and Mona, who loves him, knows it.

Two other performers I like a lot, Julie Bovasso and Louis Guss, play Rita and Raymond Cappomaggi, Loretta’s aunt and uncle. They run an Italian deli (at the beginning of the clip, you’ll see their name is misspelled on their shop window); Loretta does their books. The night before this scene, a huge full moon inspired half of the characters in the movie to behave like romantic lunatics — Nessun dorma. No matter how often I see this, when Julie Bovasso gives her look of randy pleasure, I laugh out loud. (The tone-deaf Uncle Raymond is a joke straight out of De Filippo’s “Filumena Marturano,” in which the male lead, at a climactic moment, cries in exasperation, “I cannot believe it! Three fine, young Neapolitan men, and not one of them can carry a tune!”)

(Bovasso, who played Travolta’s mother in “Saturday Night Fever” was also the dialect coach for “Moonstruck.” If you want to hear the quintessential old-style Brooklyn accent, go no further than Julie Bovasso.)

Norman Jewison made a point of having three full weeks of rehearsal before shooting began — almost an unheard-of luxury. The decision paid off beautifully. The married couples look and act as if they’ve been married for decades, and the families look and act like families. Throughout the entire picture, you can see similarities in body language, vocal inflections and facial expressions. Jewison’s attention to detail is wonderful.

I mentioned at the beginning that the picture is full of surprises and payoffs. Here is an example of what I mean. In the opening minutes of the picture, Loretta and and Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello) have dinner at the Grand Ticino. (By the way, Bobo (the waiter) is played by a terrific character actor named Robert Weil. He’s in a lot of pictures set in New York during the 1970s and ’80s; I like him as the auctioneer in “The French Connection.”) Here’s what happens.

Halfway through the picture, Loretta’s mother, Rose, dines alone at Grand Ticino. Here’s what happens.

The obvious payoff is what happens to John Mahoney in both scenes. The less obvious payoff is the way that both mother and daughter arrive at the identical conclusion: the angry girl’s just too young for him. A subtler payoff still is that we learn that Mahoney is a communications professor at NYU: his tactlessness gives credence to the adage, “Those who can’t do, teach.”

A few words about the writing, which is exceptionally fine. Many cast members found the script presented a formidable acting challenge: it was a terrifying balancing act to achieve the right tone to make the eccentric language work, to make it sound natural, without being entirely realistic — and they succeeded brilliantly. But until you’ve heard Shanley’s dialogue go wrong, you may not realize just how bad it can be. For when John Patrick Shanley gets it wrong — or his actors do — oh wow, it’s un disastro. It’s hard to think of a worse script than Shanley’s execrable screenplay for “The January Man” (unless it’s his excruciating “Joe Versus the Volcano,” which he also directed). Shanley’s language is as ornate and fanciful as Clifford Odets’ exotic slum poetry; like Odets’ tenement fustian, it’s highly stylized, extravagant and bristling with non sequuntur. Unlike Odets, the characters in “Moonstruck” are not remotely interested in politics or the class struggle; they’re obsessed with Death: the picture opens in a mortuary and closes on a framed photograph of long-dead relatives. In between these bookends, the subject of Death is never far from anyone’s mind; they talk about it constantly. Every day, when the grandfather (Fyodor Chaliapin) takes his dogs out for a walk, he brings them to the local graveyard, where the dogs disarrange the flowers and defecate on the dead. (Incidentally, Chaliaplin was so old and frail when this picture was made, he was uninsurable. I’m happy to report that, ancient as he was, il signor Chaliapin had with him at all times a beautiful female assistant in her early twenties, with whom he never stopped flirting — though always in the most courtly manner. Everybody in the cast and crew adored him.)

The central argument of the story is that it’s a sucker bet to be ruled by your head, and to live encumbered by the fetters of reason. Be ruled by your Heart, the story argues: no other way makes sense. Since all roads lead to Death, follow the Heart’s scenic route with all its messy detours; stay away from Reason’s well-paved express lanes, for they’ll only get you to the Final End faster. This moral is expressed in one way or another throughout the picture, but most explicitly in the following exchange, in the penultimate scene.

Rose: Cosmo . . .
Cosmo [impatiently]: What?
Rose [flatly]: I just want you to know, no matter what you do, you’re gonna die, just like everybody else.
Cosmo: Thank you, Rose.
Rose: You’re welcome.

Olympia Dukakis as Rose Castorini: 'I just want you to know, no matter what you do, you're gonna die, just like everybody else.'

Olympia Dukakis as Rose Castorini: ‘I just want you to know, no matter what you do, you’re gonna die, just like everybody else.’

What makes all this obsession with Death so interesting is that the tone of the picture is not at all morbid or gloomy: Death is inevitable, so you might as well live it up, as these people do.

An afterthought: Some enterprising fan of the picture uploaded a video to YouTube that shows many of the locations used in “Moonstruck” in a Then-and-Now arrangement. I’m always moved by the marvellous ways people find to express their affection and gratitude for their favorite works of art.