Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Cher Shines in Modern Classic: ‘Moonstruck’ 1987

Cher and Nicolas Cage clean up nice for a night at the opera in "Moonstruck."

The fact that nobody involved—except director Norman Jewison—expected much from 1987’s Moonstruck may surprise today’s movie fans. At best, MGM hoped for the comedy to find an art house audience. The then-quirky romance, screenplay by playwright John Patrick Shanley, started to get good word of mouth. Moonstruck then went from sleeper hit to a smash award-winning movie.

"Moonstruck" was an important movie for the careers of Cher, Nicolas Cage, & Olympia Dukakis.

A testament to the charms of Moonstruck is that it’s remained a favorite over the decades, plus even greater popularity as a COVID era comfort film. I think that Moonstruck is a modern romantic comedy classic, a throwback to the smart comedies of the ‘30s and ‘40s.

Cher is a modern day Cinderella as a widow who goes to the opera in "Moonstruck."

Moonstruck is a current day Cinderella story. Loretta Castorini, widowed early in life, reluctantly agrees to marry Johnny Cammareri, long-time bachelor and mama’s boy. While he attends to his “dying” mother in Sicily, Loretta agrees to meet with his estranged younger brother, and invite him to the wedding. Brother Ronny is the total opposite of Johnny, a hot head who’s never gotten over losing his hand while working at the family bakery—and for some reason blames his brother. Despite the widow’s cautious nature, she is stirred by his passion and winds up in the baker’s bed. Meanwhile, Loretta’s father, Cosmo, is having a late mid-life crisis romance, and her mother Rose senses something’s up. Other characters are either happily in love, looking for love, or resolutely lonely. The romantic dilemmas all come to a head, revealed under a magical full moon.

The wolf without a paw meets the bride with bad luck! Big scene from "Moonstruck." 

Some were shocked that a comedy starring Cher won her an Oscar. Well, 40 years before, even more folks were shocked when another veteran glamour girl, Loretta Young, won an Oscar for a comedy, The Farmer’s Daughter. She also sported an accent! Like Loretta, Cher won from a handful of dramatic nominees. This was a great comeback for Cher, who was 41 when Moonstruck was released; the film is still strongly associated with the superstar, who turns 75 on May 20.

Disclaimer: I’ve been a Cher fan most of my life. Second disclaimer: I think the Oscars are meaningless. What ultimately matters is how well a film is remembered in future years. And those seldom match up with Oscar nominees or winners of any given year. But for those that think the Oscars matter, Cher’s win for Moonstruck was a career Oscar, after an uphill battle to get in films. Of course, Glenn Close is a superior actress to Cher. But Oscar has stiffed Close eight times now, so naysayers should place the blame where it belongs, on the Academy of Motion Picture Sciences, not Cher.

Cher with her Oscar for "Moonstruck" in 1988.

John Patrick Shanley deservedly won Best Original Screenplay for Moonstruck. The story is so perfectly told that I'm surprised it hasn't been done as a Broadway play or musical. In this age of re-invention and re-boots, I’m sure that day will come. This fairy tale for adults has wonderful bits of business, unabashed romanticism, smart dialogue, and an atmospheric valentine to New York City. The charm is in the quirky details and dramatically heightened characters.

Norman Jewison, who will be 95 in July, has had a long, diverse career, but his films have always focused on character, often with humor: The Cincinnati Kid; The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming; In The Heat of the Night, The Thomas Crown Affair; Fiddler on the Roof; And Justice for All; and Moonstruck. Jewison is the only director to have guided singing divas Judy Garland, Doris Day, and Cher in their mid-life careers! A great actor’s director, Jewison’s movies are typically smart, well-told, and character driven. It’s a shame that Jewison didn’t win for Best Director, as Moonstruck was his baby, and one of his last big hits. Instead, Bernardo Bertolucci won for The Last Emperor.

The ensemble cast is memorable, from the leads down to the smallest parts.

Nicolas Cage as Johnny, the baker who lost a hand and then his bride-to-be.

Nicolas Cage is bizarrely brilliant as Ronny Cammareri, and has Cher to thank for getting the role. Nobody wanted Cage, even after a screen test, or perhaps especially so. However, Cher thought Cage’s take on the bruised romantic baker was fascinating. Nicolas Cage, then not keen on making mainstream movies, thus became a top leading man with Moonstruck. He reminds me of a comic Stanley Kowalski, with some of his monologues near-operatic. As Ronny, Cage’s bellowing rant about his baker not having a hand or bride is hilariously riveting. And the opera loving baker’s impassioned speech on love’s imperfection is a classic moment, comedic but wise. Cage is at the beginning of his youth and offbeat good looks, and gives the role everything he’s got.

Nicolas Cage became a leading man with his off-kilter looks & delivery in "Moonstruck."

Danny Aeillo plays the thankless part of mama’s boy Johnny Cammareri beautifully. Like most of Moonstruck’s characters, he has to decide whether to make a romantic leap or not. Johnny’s got a heart of gold but is a gutless wonder, yet Aeillo makes him funny and empathetic.

Olympia Dukakis & John Mahoney in one of the loveliest scenes from "Moonstruck."

Olympia Dukakis, who got her big movie break in Moonstruck, was perfect casting as Cher’s film mother, Rose Castorini. Aside from their resemblance, Olympia’s no-nonsense demeanor was perfectly in sync with Cher. Dukakis gets big laughs with her deadpan lines, but also wins over viewers as the longsuffering wife of a cheating hubby. Dukakis’ dinner scene with John Mahoney’s man-child professor is flirtatious and bittersweet, and shows both Rose’s softer side and strong character, as she tells Professor Perry, “I know who I am.”

Olympia Dukakis with her Oscar for "Moonstruck."

Vincent Gardenia, as Cosmo Castorini, has one of his best roles as the straying husband. Vincent was a wonderful actor, who was at home in comedy or drama. Here, Gardenia conveys both. He’s utterly believable as the Italian alpha male, a tough businessman who thinks he’s calling all the shots. But every scene Cosmo’s in with wife Rose, you absolutely know he doesn’t have the last word.

Vincent Gardenia and Anita Gillette as Cosmo Castorini & Mona, in "Moonstruck."

John Mahoney, who soon became a favorite TV face, as the dad of Frasier, is charming and wistful in his extended scene as the tomcat college professor mama Rose meets while dining out solo.

Louis Guss is loveable as Rose’s brother Raymond, happily married to Rita. Guss goes big but in a good way as the romantic who lets the whole word know it.  Julie Bovasso, as Rita, so delightful here, was also the dialogue coach for the other actors’ accents. I can hear her in my head her telling Cher’s Loretta, “You were so weird last night!” Or in the finale, as the family member who answers the door, Rita announces in a sing-song voice, “It’s Johnny Cammareri.”

Julie Bovasso & Louis Guss as Rita & Raymond, with Olympia Dukakis.
Everyone's waiting for the arrival of Johnny Cammareri in "Moonstruck."

Feodor Chaliapin, Jr. shines as the paternal grandfather with all the dogs, looks on in bewilderment at the goings on in his family during the full moon.

Anita Gillete, one-time sitcom fave, is great fun as Mona, the “cheap bit of goods” Cosmo is having an affair with. She doesn’t have the biggest part, but she makes her screen time count and is warm and funny as the overripe tart.

All of the characters, right down to the bits are comic gems, like Chrissy from the Cammareri bakery, so snarky to Loretta and sweet on Ronny. Or the crone at the airport, who tells Loretta that she hopes the plane her sister is on crashes, over a man. Everyone gets their moment to shine.

The trouble begins when Loretta accepts Johnny's marriage proposal.
Danny Aeillo & Cher in "Moonstruck."

Finally, there is Cher, who is perfectly cast as Loretta Castorini. It’s hard to believe that Sally Field was actually first choice for the role. I like Sally, I really like her, but I can’t even imagine Field as the hard-bitten Italian widow. I once had a bookstore boss who liked Cher in movies because she didn’t try to “play nice” to win over audiences. That’s Cher’s persona perfectly defined, which has made people love or loathe her for six decades now. She deftly plays the lovelorn Loretta, the brittle bookkeeper who is a romantic at heart. For those who thought Cher wasted her time on TV in the ‘70s, that’s where Cher honed her natural comic timing. And the diva’s delivery is pretty perfect here, barking out some of the movie’s snappiest lines, including the classic, “Snap out of it!”

Cher, who’s made no pretense of being a natural beauty, plays the Cinderella aspect of her role perfectly. I recall the audience I watched Moonstruck with ooh over Cher’s makeover for Loretta’s night at the opera. A Catholic pal told me at the time that she thought it hilarious that Loretta runs smack into some nuns after leaving the beauty parlor—and on her way to sin some more!

Loretta's luck finally turns, with a a love match proposal, in "Moonstruck."

My late, great movie pal, Alice once told me she liked the way Cher looked before her makeover, and I could see her point. It was a rare look at Cher, minus most of the drag, and her soulful big eyes and cheekbones are photographed beautifully. Cher works well with an ensemble, as most of her big movies were, and is effortlessly believable as a daughter in this big Italian family. And as Cher’s stone cold Loretta warms up, Cher’s charm and charisma is lovely to watch. To me, Loretta’s a great character for any actress to play, and Cher more than does her justice.

Nicolas Cage & Cher are "Moonstruck" lovers.

I saw Moonstruck at an art theater in Suttons Bay, MI during the winter of ’88. There were titters of laughter mixed with guffaws of disbelief at this unconventional romantic comedy, as the movie kept the audience off-balance. I also remember during the closing credits, there were many happy, smiling faces as people slowly left the movie. More than a few folks were humming or singing along to the Dean Martin standard, That’s Amore. And there were more than a few pleasantly surprised comments on how good Cher was in Moonstruck. Cher’s been surprising audiences for almost 60 years now.

FYI: I put all the movie overflow on my public FB  movie page. 

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All in the family: The cast of 1987's "Moonstruck."


  1. I cannot be objective about Moonstruck: It's one of my all-time favorite films. It's a comfort film for all times, including pandemics! I grew up in and near New York City, and the characters seemed close to real life to me. I'm so glad you reminded me how great it is.

    1. Hi Marianne, as a Michigander, I'm glad to know the characters are so authentic! Cheers, Rick

  2. I saw "Moonstruck" on a first date with a lovely (now ex) boyfriend. We hadn't heard anything about it, just chose it because it was playing near my apartment. Afterwards, we went out to an old-school red sauce Italian restaurant for dinner. Lots of happy memories. Recently re-watched it with my husband and loved it again -- your description of Nic Cage's "near-operatic monologues" is perfect.

    1. Hi Jeannie, what a sweet story. I've never hung around any Italian New Yorkers, but those who have written seem to agree "Moonstruck" is pretty spot on. I think it's a pretty timeless story,
      Thanks for writing, Rick

  3. Hi Rick, Beautiful article on a film I have enjoyed countless times. So well written and acted…Jewison is a great actor’s director. Need to see this again to commemorate the late great Olympia Dukakis. I am currently rewatching ALL the Tales of the City series…
    - Chris

    1. Hi, thanks Chris! I hadn't seen "Moonstruck" in awhile and am glad it still holds up so well. I've only seen parts of "Tales of the City" and need to revisit the story. Cheers and enjoy the summer, Rick