Demeanor: Operatically lovelorn. Sometimes less so.
Hair Quality: The bedraggled muss of a man who lost both his hand and his bride. Except when he bothers to comb it. Then it looks okay!
Performance Quality: Seven Cages out of Ten.
Think about those words for a second. Think about them in the context of Nicolas Cage's career up to this point. Eight films deep, Cage's reputation is still something not yet fully formed, and yet there is a distinct aura around what a Nicolas Cage performance looks like at this point in history. He's officially graduated from his days playing teens and developmentally arrested early 20-somethings. Raising Arizona solidified his transition from full-on teen-ish heartthrob to a grown ass adult--albeit a very strange one. Nicolas Cage is something damn close to a movie star at this juncture, and his persona, as we know it, is nothing short of operatically crazy. If a filmmaker in 1987 were looking for a man to portray a comically tortured soul, especially one of Italian descent, who else but Nicolas Cage would sound correct for the part?
And yet, if it weren't for Cher, Nicolas Cage would not have been in Moonstruck.
The producers weren't sold on him. They didn't like his screen test. Were it not for the intervention of the film's starring actress (who herself nearly turned down the leading role, due to exhaustion from other projects prior), Nicolas Cage would probably not have played Ronny Cammareri.
Ronny isn't Nicolas Cage's biggest role, nor is it his most famous. He didn't win any awards for the part (though the film itself was nominated for six Oscars). And yet, when I think of Moonstruck, it is literally impossible for me to extricate the images of Nicolas Cage with a wooden hand screaming at Cher about his tragic life, Nicolas Cage tossing tables asunder so as to more easily pick up Cher's narrow frame to take her "to the bedroom," and Nicolas Cage sitting in Cher's family's kitchen, attentively munching away at a bowl of oatmeal while every single family issue surrounding the Castorini clan comes to a head one after the other. In short, I can't even imagine this movie without Nicolas Cage there.
And to think, it never would have happened had Cher never seen Peggy Sue Got Married.
Admittedly, I find the connection here between fate, Cage, and Cher a bit fascinating. In some ways, Cher and Cage are very alike in terms of their appeal as actors. Their careers, of course, couldn't be more different. Cher's acting life has become something she only sparsely indulges in, while Cage basically can't stop working until he somehow finds his way out of his current financial predicament. But as actors, they might as well be male and female versions of one another.
Sound insane? Think about it this way. Both are personalities well known for reinventing themselves as the years go by. Cher's reinventions may have been more in the context of greater pop culture versus film, but both have transformed themselves repeatedly to best suit whatever career path they were after. In terms of style, both often seem more interested in dialing up the energy of a scene versus really working on anything particularly nuanced. Even in her most quiet moments, Cher is basically radiating Cher-ness whenever she appears on screen in any movie. The same can easily be said of Cage. In some other reality, some distant dimension where up is down, black is white, and hard is soft, the roles of these two are somehow reversed. Yes, I'm aware that this would entail Nicolas Cage being married to Sonny Bono and Cher somehow starring in The Rock, but come on. How great a visual is that?
Anyway, back to Cage's intrinsic link to Moonstruck. A good deal of why I so thoroughly associate him with this movie is owed very specifically to that first scene I mentioned. By the time we meet Nicolas Cage's Ronny Cammareri, we've already spent a good solid 25 minutes of screen time watching Cher's Loretta Castorini go through the paces of her life. We know she's a book keeper for a family friend's business, and that she's agreed to be married to Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello), a shlubby, but well-meaning man who also happens to have been the best friend of her former husband, who is dead. She makes much of a stink regarding the idea of getting married again, owing her previous misfortune to cursed luck, but nonetheless agrees.
But of course, there is a catch. Johnny is off to Sicily to see his dying mother, and before they can get married, he wants to make peace with his brother, Ronny, who he has not spoken with in years. He tasks Loretta with making contact with Ronny, which leads to this particularly memorable encounter. (Apologies for the two videos, but this was the only embeddable version of the full scene I could find.)
A.V. Club writer Mike D'Angelo wrote what is probably the closest thing we'll ever have to a definitive breakdown of this scene right here (it even includes a non-embeddable clip of the full scene!). He breaks down the mechanics of this sequence in a way that certainly demystifies it--though to be fair, I didn't necessarily mind the editing quite as much as he did. More importantly, he nails exactly what it is about Cage's performance that makes this scene so utterly Nicolas Cage. It's not an improvisational thing, because as D'Angelo notes, Cage's read of the dialogue, right down to the "bread, bread, BREAD!" line, is completely true to John Patrick Shanley's script. Instead, it's purely the energy he infuses in the speech that makes it fly.
As written, Ronny Cammareri just sounds like any other sad sack asshole who's lost something--in this case, his hand, and his bride. But when presented through the prism of Cage-ian weirdness, it becomes something far more than just a sad man bitching about his problems. It's operatic in quality, something so overbearingly desperate and heartfelt that it almost borders on parody.
So why, then, do we buy into Ronny Cammareri instead of laugh at him? To be fair, I think we do a bit of both. Like all great Cage roles, Cammareri is at least a little bit risible. He's so tortured and sullen and bitter that he might as well be a drinking buddy of the Count of Monte Cristo, and yet there is something almost authentic feeling underneath all that bluster. I think it's due in no small part to how Cher's character is written here. Loretta's reaction is one of empathy, but only to a certain point. When she points out that him losing his hand isn't really his brother's fault, his reaction is so petulant and overblown that you realize he's become this tragic caricature only because nobody's ever bothered to call him on his bullshit before. It's precisely this reaction that makes his sudden affection for Loretta seem believable, and not just like something engineered for the sake of the script.
This isn't even Moonstruck's most famous scene, of course. Their later exchange, in which Loretta smacks Ronny across the face and yells the famous "Snap out of it!" line right before he takes her to bed, is a far more quoted/referenced scene. But while that scene has more easily found its way into pop culture's film reference lexicon, I think the scene in the bakery is the best summation of what Moonstruck means in the context of Cage's career, and is easily the most interesting moment of the entire movie. It's the moment in which you best see what Nicolas Cage as an actor has to offer a movie like Moonstruck. Which isn't to say that he's bad in the rest of the film, but nowhere is he allowed to wield so many different emotions at once.
In fact, for the rest of Moonstruck, Cage more or less follows Cher around like a lost puppy. He knows his brother is in love with this woman, and doesn't care. She knows he's in love with her, but mostly doesn't care either. And yet they keep meeting up, and keep circling one another, periodically sleeping together while Johnny is in Sicily. Why? Because love, stupid.
That's really all Moonstruck has to say about anything. The correlation with the moon, a loose concept of the moon making people crazy in love because I don't know I guess that's something old Italian people would totally say, is less a fully-formed concept and more just something for the old Italian people in the movie to talk about. When it dares to explore more interesting subject matter, such as Cher's father having an affair, or Cher's mother (the great Olympia Dukakis, who rightfully won an Oscar for her part in this movie) beginning to explore the male psyche through various conversations with men (including the repeatedly appearing John Mahoney as a college professor and ladies man), it never quite follows through on any of them.
Nowhere is this more true than the admittedly kind of great, if wholly ridiculous final scene, in which every single problem currently afflicting the Cammareri and Castorini clans comes to a head in nice, neat fashion at the breakfast table. Moonstruck doesn't exist to comment on any of the complexities of the human condition. It's there to basically say life is only as complicated as you make it, and the more you just rely on things like love and family and the moon I guess, the better off you'll be. Now shut up and eat your oatmeal.
It's a sweet message that perhaps falls a bit flat in our more cynical times. Moonstruck is nothing if not an entirely optimistic movie, and the tidiness with which that optimism cleans up what few messes the film's characters make is perhaps the ultimate form of Hollywood escapism. But for its time, Moonstruck obviously struck a chord, what with its many Oscar nominations and wins, and strong box office success. And even though it might not be the biggest or most memorable of all Nicolas Cage roles, his work in Moonstruck left enough of a lasting impression on me to where the film and the man will always immediately associate. Even if that does mostly come from one single, fantastic scene.
- Nicolas Cage has previously said that it really was his role in Peggy Sue Got Married that caught Cher's attention. She definitively wouldn't agree to do the movie unless Cage played Ronny. The studio quickly acquiesced.
- Cher was 41 when she filmed Moonstruck. Nicolas Cage was 23.
- Apparently the studio originally wanted Sally Field for Cher's role. How different of a movie would THAT have been?
- I really do think it's a product of seeing the movie again so many years after first watching it (last time I saw it I was a teenager), but the stuff with the old people muttering about the moon really is incredibly hokey. Not to mention kind of incoherent, editing wise. I'd have much rather learned more about Olympia Dukakis' solo excursions into the world while her husband was out philandering, personally.
- No part of Moonstruck is less realistic than Danny Aiello's reaction to Ronny proposing to Loretta. Yes, he's broken off the engagement, but there is no way, no way, he doesn't throw Nicolas Cage across the breakfast table in any other movie.