We Are Here to Ruin Ourselves

Moonstruck (1987)

illustration by Tony Stella

We’ll sell the house!” Rose Castorini (Olympia Dukakis) sighs to her daughter, Loretta (Cher), while frying white bread with a perfect hole cut out for an egg, wiggly yolk ready for its roasted red pepper garnish, stovetop coffee percolating. The camera lingers over the pan in a way that always elicits groans of envy from my expert-cook mother, my opera-singing sister, and me. I watch Moonstruck with them at least twice each year—yelling every line together, mimicking every overwrought parody of Italian-American gesticulation. My dad usually yells that he can’t hear the movie over us at about 15 minutes in, then falls asleep. And when we aren’t watching it, we still pepper our conversations with quotes—because there is absolutely a Moonstruck line for every single situation, especially when you’re with your family.Loretta Castorini is a sensible accountant in her late 30s who lives in Brooklyn with her her 60-something parents, Rose and Cosmo (Dukakis and Vincent Gardenia), and her grandfather, the Old Man (Feodor Chaliapin Jr.). Cosmo, wrapped up in his middle-aged fears around mortality, is cheating on Rose, something she suspects but hasn’t yet confronted. Loretta originally moved back to the family home following the unexpected death of her first husband, but by the time the film begins, we find her getting engaged to the obtuse but secure Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello, who, to this day, still can’t separate himself from his disappointment at this impotent character). Immediately following the hilariously cringey engagement scene, we learn Johnny has to go to Sicily to attend the deathbed of his mother. They’ll get married when he returns, his mother safely six feet under. Loretta will plan the whole wedding while he’s gone. Johnny has just one request for his new fiancée—call his estranged brother, Ronny (Nicolas Cage), an opera-obsessed baker, and end the bad blood between the brothers by inviting him to their wedding.

But back to Rose and Loretta, in the kitchen. Rose hates Johnny, the underwhelming bore she just learned her daughter has chosen to marry. She hates her future son-in-law for any number of reasons, but right now, during this particular kitchen fight—with beats distinctly familiar to any adult who has ever moved back in with their parents—she hates Johnny for what he means for her house. Rose sees no need to hold onto the family’s palatial, plumbing-business funded homestead, because Johnny and Loretta will move into his place once they wed. There’s no child in the family to will the house to when she’s gone, and she wants to make Loretta feel just a little bit guilty about that. After all, it’s a house with history—not the world altering type, but the quiet, familial kind that every house carries within it. 

I first watched Moonstruck in my early 20s, more than 20 years after it was released, and a few years before my own parents would sell the suburban tract home I’d grown up in. We moved into that house very early in the lifespan of the neighborhood; the development had so recently been carved out of North Florida pine scrub that we regularly saw deer and snakes during the first few years. That first summer, my time was often spent with the other neighborhood kids, trespassing on construction sites. We jumped into holes in future front yards, wandered through half-finished lumber skeletons of soon-to-be McMansions, rode bikes to check on the progress of the neighborhood pool at least once daily.

By the time my parents moved out of that house, I was 26. I had left, but eventually was forced to move back in, just like Loretta, and I hated every “custom chosen” inch of that stucco, Edward Scissorhands piece of garbage. The neighborhood kids I’d once run feral and barefoot through local swampland with were gone, replaced by young couples with young children whose names I never learned. Dogs had lived and died, their ashes spread in the backyard. The neighborhood pool, long since completed, was dirty now, and too shallow. The grandparents whose visits I looked forward to at Christmas had mostly died too, and we settled into a new phase of holiday celebration—the underwhelming kind, with grown children who don’t have their own kids yet. So, unlike Rose, I couldn’t have been happier my parents were moving. By doing so, they were helping stop the slow replacement of my blissful childhood memories. This way, at least, I could preserve what was left.  

*

“I LOST MY HAND! I LOST MY BRIDE!” my mom, sister, and I scream at the TV with Ronny Cammareri, hands raised in mimicry of his on-screen amputated appendage. Our heads make an exact quarter turn and tilt up, as we embrace the strange internal logic of our familial favorite movie. The yeasty smell of crunchy bread must be overwhelming as Ronny lords over the ovens he keeps burning every day. Backlit by the fire’s red light, he throws coal onto the white heat of his long-burning anger. The bread he’s baking seems like the sort you’d have to eat within 12 hours to keep from going stale, the kind you smear an unhealthily-big plug of butter onto. Ronny has been scarred by circumstance; his mangled hand the physical manifestation of a long held resentment for his brother, whose new fiancée is now asking him to come to their wedding as he bakes the morning bread. He holds his brother responsible for both his injury and the end of his last relationship. He feels left behind in his own life, with no hope beyond what the Metropolitan Opera’s next season holds.

Don’t let the La bohème fool you, though—he’s a brute, a chaos agent. Four silent paws in the moonlight, padding towards the flock. Thirty years later, it’s still Cage’s best role. His costuming, hair, and makeup are just shy enough of literal that, even before he scratches a stubbled chin with his intact right paw, we know Ronny is a wolf. He’s a wolf sent to chase away Loretta’s past self, the self who knew how it all would go, who knew the home she wanted. She had this perfect plan to marry Ronny’s tame, goofy brother, Johnny—a man she doesn’t love—and move into his apartment, away from her mother and father and that empty house and all their midlife marital baggage. She’s selling herself short willingly, eyes wide open, to become a bride with a sensible life ahead of her, far removed from the tragedy and comedy she’s used to at home. She’s a bride without a head, as Ronny later yells at her. After all, she married for love once, only to bury her husband before they could have the child she wasn’t ready for, the one he wanted and she denied. Her parents had married for love, too, and look where it got them. She knew that answer intimately after living with them again for a few years and it horrified her. Having proxy fights (never spoken, always inferred) over the marital politics of what time someone goes to bed, or the underlying meaning of putting on a Vikki Carr record. Why would Loretta remarry for love—at her age!—and make the same mistake? Maybe for something awful, tragic, transcendent. The wolf inches closer.

My mother, sister, and I believe so strongly in Moonstruck, and by extension its most unhinged scene, that my sister and I both use it to test new boyfriends. Do they “get” it? Do they understand why the two lovers fall immediately and operatically into each other’s arms, nearly to their ruin? Are they able to go to the absurd, to accept a love story about a bride without a head and a wolf without a foot? Most importantly, are they laughing at the jokes? This is valuable information—it will tell us, with pinpoint accuracy, all we need to know about how they will fare at our family Thanksgiving, with yelling uncles and children left to their own devices, while their parents watch a bird smoke for eight hours, buzzes increasing with the thermometer’s reading.

On the January afternoon I first made my husband watch Moonstruck, I remember being wrapped up cozily together during a Toronto winter in his extremely small, under-heated grad residence. It was the second day of a three-day weekend visit; at the time, I was back living with my parents in Florida, and he was up in Toronto finishing seminary. There’s a strange, full-circle quality to watching it in Toronto for me; we met and went to school and fell in love in the same city Moonstruck director Norman Jewison is from, on the same campus he went to school. The neighborhood just west of campus, the Annex, even looks a bit like the Brooklyn of Moonstruck. When I’d lived in Toronto a few months before, prior to moving back in with my parents, he and I were just good, platonic friends—I was actually dating someone else the entire time I lived there. Once we were both single, though, it didn’t take long for us to figure out what was going on.

He loved the movie, of course, and thought it was a riot. He got it. We laughed and snuggled closer as it ended, then went out for beers and argued about it, probably; we love arguing about movies. The middle day was my favorite on these long distance visits, because I was always exhausted the day I arrived and morose the day I had to go back home. But the normalcy of the middle day helped me trick myself into believing the texts I was getting weren’t about my flight back home. Leaving was painful, not just because I was leaving him behind, but also because I had moved out of the very same building just a few months before. I still missed it terribly, along with my friends, and being in school, and living in a big city, and the person I was during those 13 charmed months before my program, visa, and money all ran out and I moved back home, out of options. I missed her, too.

Results of the Moonstruck Test have been mixed for my sister and me, but I still know that the movie gets it right when it says that love ruins your life for the better. I know what Loretta went through, what she felt when the certainty of her inconvenient feelings came over her, standing outside of the Met, engaged to the wrong brother. (She didn’t know why she agreed to go to the Opera with Ronny, but she knew she wanted to look really hot when she did, and that would not bode well. We should know better, too—you don’t get a close up of Cher putting on burgundy lipstick for any old thing.)

When I stop and remember how I felt standing on the precipice of my two-year, cross-border, long-distance relationship, complete with friendship-ruining, life-altering shockwaves and international immigration, it feels like Loretta’s exasperation. “What the fuck am I about to choose to do here?” I asked myself. “Is this worth living back with my parents in a house I’d outgrown, all my potential rent spent on plane tickets? What a mess.” We had no idea where we would live. Who would move where, whose-job-this and cross-border-that. Did we need to know that before starting to date? And even if it all worked out, would we resent each other for the sacrifices we would have to make in order to be together? He was nearly done with school, with an easy path ahead of him to ordination. I was lonely and sad, back in a hometown abandoned by old friends, and the choice I was about to make would absolutely postpone the moment when I triumphantly left home again.

He eventually did leave Toronto, and moved down south with me. But being together would also complicate the way I imagined my place within my own family, in ways I’m still trying to untangle. Where will we raise a family? What place can possibly tick all the boxes? I grew up so close to my grandparents that the thought of raising children away from my own parents isn’t an easy one, for them or for me. But staying in a city my husband and I barely tolerate, thousands of miles from his family isn’t easy either. Would I be close enough to care for my aging parents the way I had recently seen them care for their parents—with compassion and sadness and love, a phone call and quick drive away? Of course it was worth it—you shouldn’t even have to ask. That isn’t really the point. I need to watch all that fear and uncertainty—not fear about her love for Ronnie, but the anxiety around what it would take to make it real—come over Loretta, because she still made the stupid, star-crossed choice, and it worked.

I need to know that’s possible sometimes, and that’s when I turn to Moonstruck.

*

Old Man. You give those dogs another piece of my food, I’m gonna kick you ‘til you’re dead,” Rose exclaims, perturbed by her eccentric father-in-law sharing his plate with his mongrel pack of Italian-understanding, grave-stomping dogs. The dogs patiently wait outside the dining room for just such an opportunity. The meal is some sort of pasta. Red wine in heavy decanters, crusty bread on the table, low lighting. It’s the sort of family meal that is understood, in an unstated way, to happen weekly. The sort of meal that is exactly what I imagine the matriarch of a family like the Castorini’s to serve. But unlike most weeks, Rose is growing annoyed as she plates servings for her husband, the Old Man, her brother, Raymond, and sister-and-law, Rita. (Loretta, her daughter, uncharacteristically skipped out on the meal after announcing her underwhelming, ill-fated engagement. She’s busy howling at the moon.)

While Raymond waits for his plate of pasta to come down the table, he gets lost in reverie, memories of the past triggered by the huge, bright moon. The sky is lit by moonlight so bright it makes familiar landscapes seem alien and romantic, bright enough to disrupt your sleep or make you stop in your tracks and look up. Raymond remembers aloud the last night he saw such a moon; it was the night his future brother-in-law, Cosmo, was standing, Romeo and Juliet-at-the-balcony style, under his sister’s window many years ago. Raymond’s memory of their young courtship, its passion and that passion’s current gaping absence, seems like a slap in the face to Cosmo and Rose; it triggers defensiveness, guilt, and drunkenness all at once in Cosmo. He repeatedly barks to Raymond that he doesn’t want to talk about it. As viewers, we know he’s taciturn because of the affair he is having; Rose suspects her husband’s infidelity, but hasn’t yet confirmed her suspicions. She is growing tired of the sham that everything is okay as she serves the meal she cooked. Pained by the implicit comparison of then and now, Rose pushes Cosmo to acknowledge something, anything, and they have an embarrassing fight in front of the family at the table. Having been reminded of the intensity of their young courtship, her father-in-law’s insubordination with the dogs shreds the last fraying strand of Rose’s unraveling patience, and leads to what has now become my go-to overdramatic threat to yell.

It’s easy to write about Moonstruck as a love story because it is a love story, and a damn good one—although when you tell people that the best romantic comedy ever made, and your own unequivocal favorite film, stars both Cher and Nic Cage, they tend to raise an eyebrow. The suddenness and inexplicability, the certainty of Loretta’s eventual fall for Ronny used to baffle me; I used to watch in cold fear. Sure, Ronny and Loretta were in love, I thought. But everyone who gets married is presumably in love, and look where they’re headed: towards Rose and Cosmo, weathering the betrayal and pain of infidelity. The contrast between the two leading couples always makes me wonder: How can I believe in Ronny and Loretta and the Opera and the red shoes and snap out of it! when I’ve watched Rose and Cosmo implode? I guess the quote that always comes back to me is Ronny’s, about how love doesn’t make things nice, it ruins everything, makes a mess, raises ten questions for each one it answers. “Where will we live and will they be angry forever if I move away and is that person I thought I was gone forever and what do I want my home to be and and and…” So why put yourself through the pain?

But the point is, the thing Moonstruck lets you walk away feeling is: who cares. You find your person and then you figure it out. Rose and Cosmo end up bruised, but intact—their final te amo, whispered across the breakfast table, lets us know it will all be okay. When Loretta chooses Ronny, not Johnny, I think she chooses the Table, in the figurative, Christian, bread-and-wine communion sense. Instead of boredom and certainty, she chooses the weekly family dinners, the fighting parents, the dog-obsessed grandpa, maybe even the big house with Ronny. (The climactic last scene begins with Ronny showing up unannounced to meet the family, after all.) Loretta chose the last thing she imagined, and in the messiest way possible. (After counting on one hand the number of times I’d been to church, I married a minister-in-training, so I feel for her.) But none of that mess, the cheating and lying and confusion, matters by the end of the film, as the camera pans lovingly from old family photograph to family photograph, placed just so on a doily-lined piano. I still don’t know if I’ll end up staying, like I suspect Loretta and Ronny did, but the Castorini ancestors seem to laugh at what we just witnessed, and at my own anxiety about how to build a life with another person I could be satisfied with, without letting anyone I love down, myself not the least.

They whisper from their frames: “You think that matters? When you are Home, who gives a shit. You’ll be up here in a frame with me before you know it. These people all know your dirty laundry and still love you, so calm the hell down. This is the place where you can’t fuck up beyond forgiveness. Where you get the hell over it and have a goddamned meal together, and could you set the table real fast? Where you can break up with your fiancé and get engaged to his brother in the same scene and everyone ends up hugging. Where your dad serves you champagne, you get a little too drunk before noon and end up yelling “a la familia!” Where everyone has shit they are going through when they sit down at the table, but you better be ready to plop a sugar cube in a glass of champagne and get the hell over it for a little while.”

In other words: Get ready to ruin yourself for love, then die.