One of the reasons I love Moonstruck so much — beyond its general rom-com hall-of-fame excellence — is its dedication to making romance look decadent. Romance, in Moonstruck, is the emotional equivalent of digging into a chocolate cake for the sheer, gluttonous deliciousness of it, calories and future stomachaches be damned. It’s unapologetic about its big passions, which, it allows, can look silly, and which can be destructive, and which are never less validly felt for any it. Romance is a force beyond reason in the movie, sweeping characters away with no regard for wisdom or propriety or collateral damage. The latter is important to stress because, from a strictly objective point of view, the primary love story involves what could be considered some real dick moves on the part of the major parties involved.
This is, after all, a movie about how winsome widow Loretta Castorini (Cher) finds herself falling into the asymmetrical arms of her fiancé’s estranged brother, Ronny, while said fiancé is off in Sicily attending to his mother on her (maybe) deathbed. And no, Loretta doesn’t love the guy she’s agreed to marry — Johnny Cammareri, played with wonderful schmuckiness by the late Danny Aiello. And yes, they have such an embalmed corpse of a relationship that she has to instruct him on how to properly propose to her when he decides to finally pop the question. Still, best practice would definitely involve breaking things off with Johnny first. The fact that Loretta’s amorous reawakening is entirely unexpected doesn’t make it any more polite of a development. But it’s romance, electric and irresistible. The opera is involved! How is she supposed to do anything other than give in?
It’s Nicolas Cage as Ronny, a baker with a prosthetic hand and a lifelong grudge, who gets the grand speech in Moonstruck, standing out in the snow and telling Loretta the world could fall down around them and it wouldn’t matter so long as she was in his bed. Cage was at a point in his career in which he was balanced right on the edge between allure and absurdity, which makes him perfect for the role, and for saying something like, “We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and die!” (John Patrick Shanley would win a Pulitzer in 2005 for his play Doubt, but he deserved one a couple decades earlier for that line alone.) It’s a magnificent monologue, one of the ages, but it’s not the scene I find myself thinking back on again and again.
The one I always go back to is the one that follows, the one where Loretta is heading home alone in the morning along the Columbia Waterfront, kicking a beer can down the street. It’s barely a scene, really, more of an interstitial between the clinching crescendo of the night out and the familial breakfast confrontation that’s about to come. Yet somehow it feels like the most luxurious slice of the film, this walk of non-shame. Loretta’s still in her Lincoln Center–ready finery, having given in to Ronny’s fervid plea the evening before and gone home with him once again. She’s left her lover listening to his favorite aria, one he turns up right before the movie cuts to her, as though knowing she’d need adequately opulent accompaniment for the shot that follows. And there she comes around the corner, swanning down the sidewalk in no particular hurry, Manhattan laid out behind her as a backdrop.
It’s an image that’s so pleasurable it feels almost demented, this interlude with a character who’s just blown up her staid, orderly life in an uncharacteristically grandiose way. The camera takes a second to close in on her red glitter pumps as she steps down the empty street, idly punting a piece of trash along the pavement. The whimsical playfulness of what she’s doing is a part of the scene’s appeal, but there’s also the expression on Cher’s face, one that wants and tries to be contemplative but that keeps slipping into something closer to satisfaction despite itself. It’s the look of someone who’s done something that she suspects might turn out to have been dumb, but that in the moment she can’t stop privately smiling about. Loretta’s walking down the same familiar blocks that have always been there, but it’s clear that everything looks bright and new to her. It looks new to us, too, maybe because the film’s cozy corner of Brooklyn Heights hasn’t been shot from this particular angle yet. Suddenly it seems cracked open, the whole city, with all its million other stories unfolding behind it, always there but never shown this way before.
I rewatched the last act of Moonstruck the other night. In part, this was because I was thinking about writing about it, and in part because it makes for truly transporting comfort viewing in times of stress. But more than any of that, three weeks into self-isolation now, I’d felt a sudden longing to see Cher striding loose and easy in front of that cityscape in last night’s dress. Her character’s indulging in an interim of freedom before having to deal with all the messy, vibrant, and ultimately joyous consequences of what’s been happening — this is, after all, a romantic comedy. The longer you live in New York, the more quiet mornings like that you can accrue. Some of them might well be slap-happy, after having stayed out all night for reasons welcome and regrettable.
And some of them are just sampled briefly while up early hurrying on the way to some other obligation. And some of them you might select for yourself, for the simple fact that it can be so lovely out when most everyone else is still asleep. Being shut up inside leads you to start missing people, inevitably, and bustle and noise and contact. But what I hadn’t expected to miss so much was the possibility of the city, delivered in such a concentrated dose in those images onscreen. There’s the possibility that you could wander your way back to your doorstep, or you could keep going, and see what’s waiting around the next corner, and the next one. It may not be as decadent an experience as romance — but right now it feels like the biggest extravagance I can think of.
Every week for the foreseeable future, Vulture will be selecting one film to watch as part of our new Friday Night Movie Club. This week’s selection comes from our staff writer Rachel Handler, who will begin her screening of Moonstruck on April 3 at 7 p.m. ET. Head to Vulture’s Twitter to catch her live commentary, and look ahead at next’s week movie here.
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