Moonstruck (Norman Jewison, 1987)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Moonstruck.

In this award-winning, romantic comedy, Cher stars as Loretta, a widowed bookkeeper in Brooklyn who agrees to marry a mild-mannered man (Danny Aiello) even though she does not love him. Unlucky in love, she promptly falls for his estranged brother (Nicolas Cage), sparking a torrid affair with the moody, young man while her fiancé is absent at his mother’s deathbed. With wonderfully stylized dialogue by playwright John Patrick Shanley and a brilliant ensemble of supporting performances from Olympia Dukakis, Vincent Gardenia, John Mahoney, Julie Bovasso, Louis Guss, and Feodor Chaliapin Jr., Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck is a modern screwball classic and an operatic fable full of moonlit enchantment and the sweet charm of sugar cubes dissolved in champagne.

Disc Features:

  • New 4K digital restoration, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • New interviews with director Norman Jewison, writer John Patrick Shanley, and actors Cher, Nicolas Cage, Olympia Dukakis, and Danny Aiello
  • Audio Commentary featuring Cher, Norman Jewison, and writer John Patrick Shanley
  • A Night at the Opera, musicologist Marcia Citron on opera, La bohème, and Moonstruck
  • Remarriage Italian Style, scholar William Day on Moonstruck and the comedy of remarriage
  • Moonstruck: At the Heart of an Italian Family, a featurette on the making of the film
  • Music of Moonstruck, a featurette on the film’s score
  • Trailer and TV spots
  • PLUS: An essay by scholar Mary Ann McDonald Carolan

Once Upon a Time in Brooklyn Heights…

… there was a sleeping a princess whose heart hid dormant after tragically losing her true love, a beautiful woman who toiled in self-imposed obscurity and neglect, a bride without a head who aimed to assuage her fears by marrying without love.

A classic rom-com of the 1980s, Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck (1987) offers a hilariously touching portrait of romantic love at middle-age and older. At its centre is the lightning-in-a-bottle attraction of Loretta Castorini and Ronny Cammareri. Cher is triumphant as Loretta, a 37 year-old Italian-American widow living with her parents and whiling away her time with various bookkeeping jobs and a limp courtship with her uninspiring fiancé Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello). Ronny (Nicolas Cage) is Johnny’s estranged and embittered brother who toils away shoveling coal into a bread oven and nurturing his pain with opera, particularly Puccini’s La bohème. After proposing, Johnny rushes back to Italy to be at the bedside of his dying mother and tasks Loretta with convincing his brother to attend their wedding. Ronny begrudges Johnny for distracting him and losing his hand in a bread slicer, for which Ronny lost his fiancé and was left with a wooden hand as a glaring reminder (“I want my hand! I want my bride! Johnny has his hand! Johnny has his bride!”). Ronny and Loretta see each other for whom they are – “a bride without a head” and “a wolf without a foot” – and the two very quickly fall into Ronny’s bed. A trip to the opera designed as a final goodbye between the two leads them to realize that while the moon and the stars (and the opera) are perfect, they are not and have no choice but to let love ruin them. Orbiting Loretta and Ronny’s intense and unpredictable entanglement is an affair between Loretta’s father Cosmo (Vincent Gardenia) and his fawning girlfriend Mona (Anita Gillette), a chance dinner between Loretta’s mother Rose (Olympia Dukakis) and a womanizing professor (John Mahoney), and a loving marriage between Rose’s brother Raymond and his wife Rita (Louis Guss and Julie Bovasso), all under a perfect, spellbinding full moon.

Moonstruck is easily embraced as a celebration of a loudly loving and blissfully bickering family of Italian-New Yorkers, something that could be a burlesque were the film not such a cult favourite among Italian-Americans themselves. Ahead of the hallmarks of busy kitchens, food, and opera, the movie defines itself culturally by its histrionics, namely its loud voices and gesticulations. Moonstruck‘s passionate characters recall Eric Bentley’s definition of melodrama not as a schmaltzy manipulation of emotion but as a presentation of a heightened and embellished reality in keeping with the scale of human emotion unrepressed by societal pressures to conform and censure. For Bentley, melodrama becomes “more natural than Naturalism” because it gives voice to the unrestrained soul. It is a “magical phase” comparable to that of a child, where “thoughts seems omnipotent, when the distinction between I want to and I can is not clearly made.” The Italianism of Moonstruck and its demonstrative combativeness neatly fits with Bentley’s notion of honestly unfettered emotion, however Bentley’s vision of melodrama is also accompanied by themes of melancholy and fragility, of “outrageous coincidence” and “irrational fear.” The effect can be otherworldly in its sensibility, opposing authenticity with fantasy and blurring caricature with archetype. Moonstruck revels in this mode by explicitly centring its romantic comedy in the realm of fable and leaving no doubt as to its melodramatic sophistication.

A Fairy Tale of New York

“La bella luna! The moon brings the woman to the man.”

Sitting in Ronny’s kitchen during their first meeting, Ronny, enamoured with Loretta, accuses her of being a “bride without a head,” choosing a marriage without love with Johnny. Loretta claims to see the true Ronny, a “wolf without a foot” that subconsciously chose to lose his hand and sabotage his marriage, preferring impairment and freedom over subjugation. She is a sleeping princess who shouts her refusal to wake. He is a prince cursed to be a beast rather than marry the wrong woman. If it all vaguely resembles Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s Beauty and the Beast and Charles Perrault’s version of Cinderella, recall that writer John Patrick Shanley originally titled his script The Bride and the Wolf, that Loretta gets her pre-opera makeover at the Cinderella Beauty Salon, and that Nicolas Cage originally modeled his vocal performance on Jean Marais in Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946). Moonstruck consistently evokes a fairy tale framework throughout and its fabulous air spreads not merely in its various references to a magical moon casting a romantic spell on its characters, but also by its presentation of the Castorini home as a castle under siege, looking like a dungeon in its early post-proposal scenes and depicting father Cosmo as isolated from his queen and seduced by his own power in plumbing sales and a comely, sweater-wearing courtesan. By its conclusion, Moonstruck resembles a fairy tale of a kingdom restored and of a curse (or two) broken by true love.

Marcia Citron describes the film as “a wacky marriage between Italian-American ethnic comedy and romantic idealism tethered to the magic of the moon” and asserts that its originality arrives by its mockery intensifying its “overblown romanticism” rather than destroying it. While noting the moon-centric spell cast by the film’s opening song, Dean Martin’s performance of “That’s Amore” (as in “When the moon hits your eye …”), and in the unsung lyrics to “Moonglow” (“It must have been moonglow/Way up in the blue/It must have been moonglow/That led me to you”), Citron observes the recurring appearance of La bohème as Moonstruck‘s sympathetic mirror pointing to its Italian heritage and its bombastic expression. Kordula Knaus remarks that Moonstruck‘s romantic musical cues are completely occupied by excerpts from Puccini’s opera. Even more, Jewison directly connects the opera’s lyrics, whether present or not in the film, with onscreen action, such as during Loretta and Ronny’s attendance at the Met where Ronny takes Loretta’s hand at the sung words “If you want, I’ll take your hand” and kisses her hand on the word “love.” As William Day notes, when Johnny beckons Loretta out of the cold and into his apartment, he offers her his hand and the score replaces the previously feminine performance with a masculine aria whose unheard lyrics seem to speak directly from Johnny’s heart, declaring “What frozen little hand,/let me give it back its warmth./What’s the use of looking?/In the dark we’ll find nothing./But by good luck/it’s a moonlit night/and here the moon/is a near neighbour.” Jewison originally opened Moonstruck with music and song from La bohème, but test audiences hated it, unsure whether the film they were watching was the uproarious comedy they expected. “That’s Amore” corrected the confusion in tone, but Puccini’s opera remained as Moonstruck‘s musical foundation, adding weight, sincerity, and grandeur to its eccentric characters and their passions.

Happily Ever After

“Anch’io ti amo.”

For William Day, Moonstruck evokes Stanley Cavell’s comedies of remarriage, films like It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934), The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey, 1937), The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940), His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940), and The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941). These screwball comedies from the 1930s and ’40s toy with Production Code taboos like adultery and sexuality while resolving their conflicts in marriages founded first in mutual love. Cavell maintains that this recoupling, usually told with an emphasis on the heroine over the hero, requires crossing convention and conversation. As described by Day, this means:

a willingness (typically the woman’s) to be instructed, a willingness (typically the man’s) to be seen as a fool, a willingness to exchange active and passive roles, the ability to yield to another without betraying yourself, the ability to make a claim on another without demanding acquiescence.

Day observes that Moonstruck collapses Ronny into the position of Loretta’s first husband. When Ronny asks why Loretta didn’t wait for the right man like she did with her first marriage and Loretta replies, “Because he didn’t come,” Ronny responds with “I’m here!” When Loretta observes “You’re late,” she concedes to have been waiting for Johnny as she did her first husband and intimates a shared history between them. And while Cavell conceives of specific roles for the heroine’s mother and father in these comedies of remarriage, a comparable reunion might be observed between Rose and Cosmo, albeit one more muted given the greater weight of their history together.

Thomas Schatz once suggested that all film genres “involve the promise of utopia.” Richard Dyer went so far as to state that the central thrust of all entertainment is “utopianism,” contained not in practical models but in “the feelings it embodies.” With Ralph Waldo Emerson as his reference point, Day asserts that Moonstruck operates as a demonstration of self-trust by its characters and an engine for inspiration to its viewers, one that occurs in the moment of abandonment where one gives themselves over to their individual aspirations. For Day, the world of the cinema is always separate from us and always unattainable; it is defined by its otherness. The point of the cinema is not to misunderstand the separateness “between ourselves and our viewing.” Rather, good film inspires self-reflection, to prepare us for a personal revelation. Day points out that Cher’s filmic beauty is unreachable but seeing her transformation in Moonstruck is an invitation to consider a transformation in ourselves. To this end, Moonstruck presents the same process in Loretta and Ronny following their attendance at the Met. Ronny, moved by La bohème and unable to carry out him promise to never see Loretta again, lays out the inspiration Day supposes of great film, stating:

Loretta, I love you. Not like they told you love is. And I didn’t know this either, but love don’t make things nice — it ruins everything. It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess. We aren’t here to make things perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. Not us! We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and to love the wrong people and die. The storybooks are bullshit. Now I want you to come upstairs with me and get in my bed.

The utopianism of Moonstruck and of romantic comedies is not that of perfection, but of abandonment; not of security, but of liberation. La bohème instructs Loretta and Ronny and Moonstruck instructs us. And if Ronny and Loretta, Cosmo and Rose, and Raymond and Rita live happily ever after, it is to hope that we might try to as well, heartbreak or not.

The Criterion Collection has recently gone into the Norman Jewison business with the release of In the Heat of the Night (1967), and with the label increasingly approaching ’80s and ’90s commercial films for addition to its library, this critically acclaimed, extremely popular, and multiple award-winning title seems like a natural fit to Criterion and easy entry point for those unfamiliar with the Collection. This post has given short shrift to much of what makes Moonstruck popular: its highly quotable dialogue (“Snap out of it!”), its star-making performances (particularly for Oscar and Golden Globe winners Cher and Olympia Dukakis), its irascible and sardonic tone, and its magical New York setting. Brooklyn is preternaturally empty in Moonstruck, a wintry collection of moonlit streets made into a personal stage for love and confusion and misunderstandings. The Collection certainly doesn’t deny it loves its New York stories and Moonstruck would get it one closer to eight million. We’re particularly fond of the film’s concluding portrait and we were happy to discover that it doubled as a poster for the movie, so we’ll suggest it as a cover treatment. For a wacky “C” on Moonstruck, we’d say grazie infinite.

Credits: This imagined Criterion release includes the audio commentary, the making-of documentary, and the music featurette that appears on the existing Blu-ray edition and leaves out the wholly unnecessary and entirely aggravating featurette on cooking and food. We added a piece by Marcia Citron on the film’s relationship with opera based on Citron’s various studies of the topic including her close reading of the film’s music cues in her essay, “An Honest Contrivance: Opera and Desire in Moonstruck.” We’ve also included a piece by William Day on Moonstruck as an example of the comedy of remarriage further to his essay, “Moonstruck, or How to Ruin Everything.” Mary Ann McDonald Carolan was tapped for an essay given her work on Italian literature and cinema, particularly her essay “Italian American Women as Comic Foils: Exploding the Stereotype in ‘Moonstruck,’ ‘My Cousin Vinny,’ and ‘Married to the Mob.'”

This post also owes debts to Roger Ebert’s reviews of the film and Kordula Knaus’s “Emotions Unveiled: Romance at the Opera in Moonstruck (1987), Pretty Woman (1990), and Little Women (1994).” Most importantly, this post is due to my lovely wife who introduced me to Moonstruck, who loves the film (particularly Rose’s line, “Feed one more bite of my food to your dogs, old man, and I’ll kick you to death!”), and who, thankfully, loves me too.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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