After the passing of legendary actor Danny Aiello in December of 2019, any film fan’s Twitter timeline rightfully exploded in remembrances. From critical hits like Do The Right Thing and The Godfather: Part II to cult classics like Hudson Hawk, the man had a career that touched fans of every genre.
Including, as I was surprised to realize, romance nerds.
I will not lie– the 1987 Oscar®-winning rom-com Moonstruck (written by John Patrick Shanley and directed by Norman Jewison) is my favorite film, completely unironically, and I was surprised at how many of my Twitter friends also held the movie in such high regard. After all, the film is usually described as “that Cher movie with Nic Cage and his crazy eyes.”
But as the film wrestles with monogamy, true love, and family obligations, it’s the characters’ obsession with death and mortality that underlines every conflict. Sure, plenty of romantic films use the conceit of imminent character demise to drive the story forward– everything from teen tearjerker The Fault In Our Stars to the oft-derided Joe Vs. The Volcano. But Moonstruck treats death with an almost disquieting comfort, a welcoming sense of inevitability, that is revolutionary for the screen.
“I do find films like Me, Earl, And The Dying Girl, The Fault In Our Stars, etc. icky. To me, the presence of death in Moonstruck isn’t at all comparable to those,” says film writer Fiona Underhill. “It is the humour and attitude towards it which is key.”
The humor towards death in Moonstruck starts at the very opening: we meet our protagonist, Loretta Castorini (Cher) in a funeral home. She’s not weeping or even there for a service; she’s just the bookkeeper, tasked with keeping the business alive. As the funeral director Al closes the door on an active ceremony, the mood isn’t solemn– in fact, both Al and the mourners are focused on the make-up job performed on the body on display.
“I am a genius!” the director declares. “I make them look better than they did in real life!”
Loretta is nonplussed in the face of her client’s God-like powers. “If you’re such a genius,” she retorts, “then how come you got butter on your tie?”
Loretta has already been touched by death– she tells us off the bat that her first husband, a non-Italian based on her hyphenated last name of Castorini-Clark, has passed away, and later informs us: “Look, I was raised that a girl gets married young. I held out for love. I got married when I was 28. I met a man. I loved him. I married him. He wanted to have a baby right away. I said we should wait. Then he gets hit by a bus. What do I got? No man, no baby, no nothing.”
A bit dated of a message for 2020, and even for 1987 at that, but still, understandable. However, Loretta never exudes hopelessness, just a knowing solace. She’s not scared of death, just regrets that it came so soon into her life.
“Moonstruck is a film driven by death,” says writer, Andrew Rostan. “The story being told does not happen without the death of Loretta’s husband and the very possible death of Johnny’s mother. The first is barely discussed, but these are specters casting giant shadows over everything that happens.”
Loretta is inextricably linked to death. When she returns home from becoming engaged to Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello), her father, Cosmo (Vincent Gardenia) says they have to tell her mother (Olympia Dukakis). They enter her bedroom together, and Cosmo whispers her name, “Rose! Rose!”
A close-up of Rose’s face, as she lies on her back with her hands clasped on her chest like a body in a coffin– suddenly her eyes pop open and she asks, without moving, “Who’s dead?”
Underhill, who is British, also mentioned a layer that wasn’t quite obvious to me, an Italian-American with family roots in Brooklyn, like the Castorinis. “You have to mention Catholicism and the fact that Catholics have a different relationship with death than many people. Italians and Irish grow up seeing dead bodies, often in their own homes, because of wakes.”
The death aspect of Moonstruck does feel like the culture of the Castorini family, with their casual way of discussing it as though it was as common as pasta and red sauce. As does their very particular setting– a place that is associated with their heritage, in a time where they still had very strong ties to “the old country.”
Right after getting engaged, Johnny has to head to the airport. Loretta doesn’t seem unnerved that her romantic, restaurant proposal is cut short by his deathbed trip, or that he thought of marriage while simultaneously mourning his mother’s apparently imminent demise.
When Loretta sends him away– in a pre-9/11 scene where she accompanies him to the airport gate– she watches the flight take off, standing next to a woman in traditional Sicilian mourning garb of black dress and veil. “I put a curse on that plane,” the old woman yells, ranting about a lousy, man-thieving sister onboard. “It’s gonna explode, burn on fire, and fall into the sea.”
Loretta, the jaded widow so removed she isn’t even in black, says, “I don’t believe in curses.”
The widow responds, “Eh, neither do I.”
If it’s Loretta who is chased and threatened by death, it’s her mother Rose who doesn’t quite understand it. Rose is, at all times, rooted in life. She is a housewife, she tells people proudly, a mother who raised two children with her husband, the plumber. It’s not for lack of creativity that Rose has lived the life she imagined. Rose, above all else, gives off the impression of confidence and satisfaction.
Your life gets shaken when your partner in it decides something is wrong.
“Cosmo’s cheating,” she tells her daughter one day at confession.
Loretta doesn’t believe her. “He’s too old!” she retorts back.
But Rose knows therein lies the crux– Cosmo is old. He’s got a 37 year old daughter on her second marriage, and grandkids by his son. Rose, though she can’t quite verbalize it, knows that the “old” is part of the problem. Rose just hasn’t confronted it yet– her son lives somewhere else with his family, her daughter says she’ll just move out of her mother’s home and into Johnny’s apartment when they get hitched.
“We’ll sell the house,” Rose says, for the first time feeling that her life just might be slipping away. Three generations currently reside in the Castorini residence, but Cosmo’s father’s social life consists of attending his friends’ funerals. Rose’s daughter is resigned to moving away, and not having kids. When there’s only one generation at home, what’s the point?
Rose’s understanding of the fear of mortality takes further shape as she meets another man struggling with women– Perry, the WASPish college professor played by John Mahoney. We’ve seen Perry be distractingly ditched by two dates, and both Loretta and Rose come to the same conclusion at the end of each dust-up: he’s dating women who are just far, far too young for him.
When Rose asks him about it pointedly, he has a long-winded response, full of hot air: “You want to know why I chase women? I find women charming. I teach these classes I’ve taught for a million years. The spontaneity went out of it for me a long time ago. I started out excited about something, wanted to share it. Now it’s rote, a multiplication table. Except sometimes I’ll be droning along. I’ll look up, and I’ll see a fresh, beautiful, young face. And it’s all new to her. I’m just this great guy who’s brilliant and thinks out loud. When that happens, when I look out there among those chairs and see a young woman’s face and see me in her eyes the way I always wanted to be, maybe once was, I ask her out for a date. It doesn’t last long. A few weeks. A couple of precious months. Then she catches on that I’m just this burnt-out, old gasbag and she’s fresh and bright and full of promise. At that moment, she stands up and throws a glass of water in my face…”
Rose, alive with determination, needs more answers. She corners Johnny, her daughter’s fiancé, for one of the greatest conversations in a movie of great conversations:
ROSE: “Why do men chase women?”
JOHNNY: “There’s the Bible story. God took a rib from Adam and made Eve. Now maybe men chase women to get the rib back. When God took the rib, He left a big hole there. A place where there used to be something. And the women have that. Now maybe, just maybe, a man isn’t complete as a man… without a woman.”
ROSE: “Why would a man need more than one woman?”
JOHNNY: “I don’t know. Maybe because he fears death.”
ROSE: “That’s it. That’s the reason.”
JOHNNY: “I don’t know!”
ROSE: “Thank you for answering my question.”
The film makes a point to say that it’s not just men who two-time– while Johnny is away in Italy, Loretta hooks up with his brother, Ronnie (Nic Cage) and falls head over heels. Her mother figures out she’s cheating, and needless to say, isn’t thrilled. Though she meddles somewhat, Rose leaves her daughter to make her own, adult decisions– ending, via mutual breakup with Johnny who feels he cannot get married after his mother miraculously lives, engaged to Ronnie and incandescently full of life, once again.
But Rose’s resolution with her husband is solemn and more meaningful.
“Have I been a good wife,” she asks her husband out of the blue at breakfast.
“Yeah,” he says with all the enthusiasm of a kid caught stealing.
“I want you to stop seeing her,” she commands her husband, who stands up, punches the table, but does not argue.
“A man understands one day that his life is built on nothing… and that’s a bad, crazy day,” Cosmo laments.
“Your life,” Rose follows up, “is not built on nothing. Te amo [I love you].”
“Te amo,” Cosmo replies.
“One of the last times I saw Moonstruck was with a group of close friends, and one of them said in all seriousness about halfway through that the movie scared her a little because everyone was so intense,” Rostan adds. “Not to invalidate her opinion one bit, but I would ask, if you are living in a society where death is confronting and overhanging everything, does that not make the pursuit of love and the vibrancy love brings something worth getting intense about?”
“Films now just don’t have that wise-cracking charm of Moonstruck,” adds Underhill. “That tone… just doesn’t exist now.”
At the end of the film, each character finds love, and is no longer chased by death– either because of their own struggle conquering the fear of the inevitable, or because one woman, who has never lived in fear, snaps them out of it. The movie, brilliantly, treats both triumphs with the respect they deserve.