‘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.

4 thoughts on “‘Moonstruck’: Over the Moon

  1. Gregorio

    Love this the most “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.”

    VERY FINE prose. Deliciously Eloquent and precise.

    Reply
  2. Billo

    An exquisite love letter to a picture dripping con nettare d’amore.
    Two further observations: even dogs must be reminded to heed their antique instincts, and that by their Best Friend; and how fun-loving to juxtapose their howls to those (as many would have it, including a few of the film’s characters) man-made howls heard when the Great Gold Curtains part.

    Lest we forget the palindrome of Roma.

    Reply
  3. NADINE HARRIS

    I LOVED your article. I too am in awe of this flick, and I too only began to understand what a work of art it is after seeing it the second and third time . To me, the movie is a spoken old-fashioned opera, using the quaint Italian-structured English of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn to make it feel grandiloquent. Take a look at the scene when Ronnie and Loretta meet at the fountain in front of the Met. What Jewison (and Shanley) do here is to recreate the glorious love duet in Bohème, after Mimi and Rodolfo first meet: gesture for gesture, sentiment for sentiment — before they go off the meet his friends on the Left Bank. An opera fan can’t miss this, nor many other operatic signatures and “arias” Shanley writes (Ronnie’s famous overacted soliloquy in the bakery’s basement is a great example.)

    Reply
  4. J manno

    My all time fav! I just watched Moontstruck again (500 times?) and I really appriciated it more then ever!

    Reply

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