By Alan Hurst

For a brief period in the eighties and early nineties Cher was a big movie star.

She had earned some credibility and a Golden Globe nomination with the little seen Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982), Robert Altman’s screen adaptation of his short-lived Broadway production featuring the same cast (Cher, Karen Black, Sandy Dennis, Kathy Bates). The following year she was part of the ensemble of Mike Nichols’ excellent Silkwood (1983), where she more than held her own with Meryl Streep and Kurt Russell, playing the plain, lesbian friend of Karen Silkwood. She earned rave reviews, a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress that year. More raves came Cher’s way with her biker mom in Peter Bogdanovich’s drama Mask (1985), winning her Best Actress at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, another Golden Globe nomination, but alas no Oscar nomination (a major snub that year).

But it was two year’s later that Cher fully emerged as a major movie star with the release of The Witches of Eastwick (1987), Suspect (1987), and Moonstruck (1988), all within a few months of each other. Each was a hit and the latter gave her what would end up being her best film role.

Moonstruck is my favourite romantic comedy of the eighties, with apologies to Arthur (1981), Tootsie (1982), Bull Durham (1988) and When Harry Met Sally (1989). It boasted a supremely funny and well-structured screenplay by John Patrick Shanley that built scene by scene to a perfectly executed third act. Shanley’s love and affection for these characters – an extended Italian family in Brooklyn – comes through in every scene and every nuanced line of dialogue.

Cher plays Loretta Castorini, a 37-year old widow who lives with her parents (Vincent Gardenia and Olympia Dukakis) and her grandfather. Unlucky in love, she has become engaged to Johnny (Danny Aiello) because he’s a safe choice. At the beginning of the film Johnny (a true mamma’s boy) heads back to Sicily to visit his dying mother but he asks Loretta to go visit his estranged brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage) and invite him to their wedding. This is where Moonstruck kicks into high gear, as sparks fly between Loretta and Ronny, setting in motion a roundelay of multi-generational flirting, love and life altering decisions.

I think this is director Norman Jewison’s best film – there’s nary a false step here. It’s not a musical but the film has a pop tune bounce right from the credits where Dean Martin is crooning “That’s Amore”. You know that this is going to be a cockeyed look at love and family and that bounce continues throughout the film, augmented by some wonderful scenes with both major and minor characters. There’s the famous “Snap out of it” slap that Cher gives Cage at their first meeting, just before falling into bed together. There’s a wonderful scene of subtle flirtation between Dukakis (who knows her husband is having an affair) and John Mahoney (Frasier) as a rakish college professor. Cher’s makeover from dowdy widow to model gorgeous is pure cinematic fun. And her walk home alone in the morning after a night with Cage, kicking a can down the street while still dressed in her model finery with Puccini on the soundtrack is a perfect movie star moment. My favourite scene is probably towards the end as the family and extended family gather around the kitchen table for breakfast and all the secrets and affirmations of love come out. The comic tension is perfect.

One of the things that Jewison gets very right in Moonstruck is the tone – there’s a real sense of community, family and warmth. Everyone knows you at the local restaurant, the wine store, the beauty salon, and the bakery. The house is home to multiple generations, the family has money, but everything is comfortable, worn and functional. And all family meetings end up in the kitchen.

Jewison has also ensured that the soundtrack is nice mix of original (by Dick Hyman), pop (vocals by Vikki Carr, Dean Martin) and opera (Puccini), all of it only adding to the warm ethnic feel and romanticism.

Shanley’s screenplay works as well as it does because of the gifted ensemble that Jewison pulled together. Cher is entirely believable as the young Italian widow – logical, feisty, vulnerable and very funny. The character’s evolution from practical spinster to carefree romantic is both expertly performed and a treat to watch. She’s also a very nice physical match for Olympia Dukakis. This is the film that brought Dukakis to the world’s attention – her weary, acerbic, still beautiful mother is one of the major perks of the film. Her defeated sighs and straight to the point line delivery are priceless (“Old man, you give those dogs another bite of my food, I’m gonna kick you ‘til your dead.”) Vincent Gardenia as the dad facing a late mid-life crisis is also very good – you don’t like what he’s up to with his mistress, but you get it and his inevitable shift at the end of the film back to the comfortable reality of his marriage and home life is moving. Helping Cher master her Italian accent was coach Julie Bovaso, who plays her Aunt Rita here. Bovaso, also familiar to moviegoers as John Travolta’s mom in Saturday Night Fever (1977), is a wonderful, warm presence.

My one quibble with the film – and it’s minor – is Nicholas Cage’s performance as Ronny. Again, he’s a nice physical match for Cher, but he takes a bit of getting used to. The performance veers from quirkily operatic to romantic pretty quickly and it’s takes a little time to catch up. But once he calms down and gets himself cleaned up for his date with Cher at the opera, everything is perfect.

The film was a major hit when released at the end of 1987, enjoying good reviews and strong box-office. It won Golden Globes for Cher and Olympia Dukakis and was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director (Jewison), Best Actress (Cher), Best Supporting Actor (Gardenia), Best Supporting Actress (Dukakis) and Best Original Screenplay (Shanley). Cher, Dukakis and Shanley all took home Oscars that night year.

After a three year break Cher gave another expert comedic performance in Mermaids (1990), a nice retro coming of age comedy with Winona Ryder and Bob Hoskins, but that was essentially it except for a truly bad comedy with Ryan O’Neal called Faithful (1996); Franco Zeffirelli’s enjoyable Tea With Mussolini (1999) where she was a standout in a cast that included Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Judi Dench and Lily Tomlin; and the campy but fun Burlesque (2010). She was supposedly offered or considered for such major films as The War of the Roses (1989), The Grifters (1990), The Addams Family (1991), Thelma and Louise (1991), and The Bridges of Madison County (1995). It’s too bad that some of these didn’t materialize – during that time Cher had whatever that indefinable “it” was – a complex, vibrant screen presence, excellent comedic chops and, with the right director, she showed she could be a strong and intuitive actress.

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