Tuesday, April 7, 2020

In the Family Way: “Moonstruck”

I wonder what genuine Italian-Americans think of Moonstruck, which in 1987 was a huge critical and popular hit. Do they consider it a charming, heartwarming representation of a vanishing way of life? Or do they cringe at the clichés, annoyed at being presented to the world as superstitious, hyperemotional, in love with food, sex, and opera? Maybe they’re just glad that this fanciful version of life in an Italian section of Brooklyn--while it may boast some (offscreen) lusty coupling and a smidgeon of adultery—contains nary a single Mafioso. Not being of Italian descent myself, I am free to enjoy this fairytale (which, I should note, is based on an Oscar-winning original screenplay by John Patrick Shanley, who is no more Italian than I am).

There is, I should note, a mostly Italian-American cast, featuring Vincent Gardenia as a philandering papa, Broadway avant-garde specialist Julie Bovasso as a lusty aunt, and the late Danny Aiello as a hapless suitor. The leading man is Nicolas Cage, who is actually a Coppola with a name change. But the film’s two performance Oscars were won by women whose kinfolk came from other locales. Cher (born Cherilyn Sarkisian) can claim Armenian descent, and Olympia Dukakis is Greek-American. Well, I guess their Mediterranean roots make them close enough for Hollywood.

At any rate, their characters are definitely people with a well-defined outlook. They strongly believe in luck, mostly bad. (Cher’s Loretta started off her marriage on the wrong foot because there was no church wedding. As a direct consequence, her husband was hit by a bus and died.) Whatever their behavior during the week, these women go to confession on Sunday. They crave romantic rapture, but remain highly suspicious of it: to marry for love is to invite disappointment. Still, there’s always room for the occasional miracle, like the one in faraway Palermo that solves everyone’s problems at the film’s end. So long as that huge round moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie (as in the Dean Martin musical oldie that opens and closes the film), everything will turn out as it should.

You can call this movie a watered-down form of grand opera: the snippet of Puccini’s La Bohème we hear in Moonstruck captures something of the characters’ baroque emotional journeys. Though the operatic performance that’s a key part of the plot takes place at WASP-y Lincoln Center, it tugs directly at the heartstrings of the blue-collar Italians in attendance. (There’s a key moment when Loretta, overcome by her first taste of opera, breaks down her emotional barriers. Her eyes moisten, and suddenly this self-sufficient woman is ready to clutch the proffered hand of someone who loves her This night-at-the-opera trope was stolen, I suspect, by the writers of Pretty Woman, who created a similarly transformative moment for Julia Roberts, in the company of Richard Gere, three years later.) 

More than anything, though, Moonstruck is a movie about the unbreakable bonds of family. To cast off (or cast out) a family member is to invite disaster. On the other hand, to bring family together (especially around a dinner table stocked with plenty of pasta and wine) is to usher in God’s grace. At a time when most of us are stuck in self-isolation, sometimes separated by great distances from loved ones, it sounds like a dream come true to be crowded around a table groaning with the weight of good food. Would that this year’s Easter and Passover celebrations could allow for that “all in the family” kind of joy.


  1. I love, love, love this movie for its joyous appreciation of family.

  2. Thanks, Theresa. Being Italian-American certainly sounds exciting!