I’m going to say it without shame: Moonstruck remains a goofy and immensely pleasurable ensemble film 25 years after its original release.

Here’s what I never quite realized on my previous viewings: it’s entirely about sex amongst middle-aged and senior men and women. Yet unlike the recent spate of Films About Older People (Hope SpringsThe Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), it doesn’t announce a target audience. Rather, Moonstruck folds it all into a comedy that still works so long as you’re not determined to take any of it very seriously — and there’s nary a teenager or 20-something to distract us from all the older folks happily boinking. It’s kind of great.

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When my mom saw the film back in the 80s, she pronounced it “stupid.” (She has no tolerance for frothy films.) So let me ask you to set aside your skepticism about silly films like this one. Yet despite its embrace of the goofy — as well as its over-the-top, romanticized Italian Brooklyn — the cast is great and the jokes remain really good. This film that isn’t trying to be anything more than diverting.

So it’s kind of delightful to realize that as the 1980s was specializing in teen-oriented sex comedies, this film let older people have and want sex.

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Moonstruck is also a Cinderella story — in which the dowdy, grey-haired, humorless accountant Loretta (Cher) lets herself flirt with real passion and love for the first time since her husband died (and then she visits the beauty parlor!). She just got engaged to the foolish, 50-something Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello) because … well, because she wants to change her bad luck in life. No, she doesn’t love him. No, this isn’t going to be a passionate marriage. As Johnny heads off to visit his dying mother in Sicily, we know perfectly well that he won’t last long as her fiancé.

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Loretta moves through the same grooves of life she’s inhabited for years, such that even when she meets Johnny’s long estranged brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage), she doesn’t know what to do in the face of all his rage at his brother, whom he blames for maiming his hand. (Actually, one of my favorite scenes is in the basement of the Cammareri Bros. Bakery, where Ronny shovels coal into the ovens, and where Cage gets to do his kookiest and most interesting acting: “I lost my hand! I lost my girl! Johnny has his hand! Johnny has his bride!” You can see he learned a lot from making Raising Arizona earlier that year.)

So she takes him upstairs and cooks him a steak and lets him cool down.

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Jeez, she’s stuck in a rut. Nothing exemplifies it more than when she attempts to diagnose Ronny’s misery while he eats his steak. “You can’t see what you are. I can see everything. You are a wolf,” she pronounces — a wolf who chewed off its own foot in order to escape a bad relationship with a disloyal woman. Sure, she sounds definitive, but it’s not even an original thought; she heard the same words out of the mouths of the bickering owners of the Sweetheart Liquor Store the night before.

Well, the joke’s on her: he sweeps her off her feet — yes, literally — and they spend the rest of the day in bed. Nor are they the only ones gettin’ it on. So are Loretta’s aunt and uncle (pictured above). So is Loretta’s adulterous father. So is the 50-something lecherous NYU professor (John Mahoney), whose girlfriends dump him at the little Italian joint where Loretta’s miserable mother, Rose (Olympia Dukakis) tries to get a quiet bite and mull over the fact that she has a philandering husband.

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OMG, Dukakis is so good in this role. She won Best Supporting Actress that year, of course. What I like best is her little moans of comic misery. (Note to self: issue little moans more often.)

Now, one can argue that my premise is off-base — how can this be a film about sex for older people if we have the youthful, sweaty Nicolas Cage decorating the screen for us with all his chest hair? I was surprised to find he was only 24 when he made this film.

Cher after her Cinderella makeover just in time for a night at the opera

Cher after her Cinderella makeover just in time for a night at the opera

In my own defense, I think few would have read him as so young. Not only was he supposed to be the brother of the 56-yr-old Aiello, but Cage had appeared in several parts that had made him appear older (Peggy Sue Got MarriedRaising Arizona), so contemporary audiences were used to reading him as older. I had pegged Cage’s character here as in his mid-30s. (I like it that he seems to have been on a roll with older women as he made these films: Cher [age 41], Holly Hunter [age 30], Kathleen Turner [age 33]; this says a lot about his particular version of appeal at the time.)

Speaking of Cage, have you played Nicolas Cage Roulette? This site will randomly call up a Cage film via Netflix for you. I got Adaptation (2002), a true classic. But be warned: you might get one of the stinkers.

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The film also upholds real relationships rather than impractical and/or absurd ones, in large part by giving us a glimpse of Mahoney’s ridiculous professor who insists on dating his students. “She’s too young for you,” Loretta and Rose each (independently) pronounce about his affairs.

This statement — delivered twice, with the same affect, to great comic effect — encompasses less finger-wagging than you might expect, and shows how neatly the film was directed. Rather than sound preachy, the women simply mean to convey bluntly that adults should know better when they enter into impossible relationships. It’s less moralistic than matter-of-fact.

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Which is funny, considering how impractical is Loretta’s affair with Ronny — he of the wooden fingers, he of the passion for tragic opera, he of the crazy “gypsy eyes.” When the sardonic Rose asks, “Do you love him, Loretta?” and she says, “I love him awful, Ma,” Rose can only say, “That’s too bad.” You know they’ll make each other crazy as much as they make each other happy. 

But then we already knew that, didn’t we? — from the earlier scene when Ronny tells her:

Loretta, I love you. Not like they told you love is. And I didn’t know this either, but love don’t make things nice — it ruins everything. It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess. We aren’t here to make things perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. Not us! We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and die. The storybooks are bullshit. Now I want you to come upstairs with me and get in my bed.

I know: goofy as shit. I love it.

 

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Holly Hunter

18 April 2010

She’s appeared in film and TV for almost thirty years and has received the Academy Award for Best Actress, two Emmys, and a pile of other awards and nominations for many of her roles — yet I was surprised to find David Thomson give Hunter only a cursory, uninspired treatment in his otherwise invaluable New Biographical Dictionary of Film (2002).  This is my attempt to make up for it.  

One might be tempted to refer to her as “the thinking man’s [fill in blank with name of less talented starlet],” but it’s too easy.  I think Hunter is so distinctive because she has a perverse desire to be dissonant — she doesn’t play her beauty for the thinking man’s benefit (or anyone else’s); she’s wary but not fragile; she’s unexpected but not quirky.  Her characters can suddenly become sharp-edged and mean.  Holly Hunter is eminently watchable — one of the most watchable women of her generation.

Except for her intelligent beauty, nothing about Holly Hunter’s profile seems to have designed her for a career in Hollywood.  She grew up on a farm in rural Georgia (her hen won a national 4-H prize when Hunter was in high school), and to the best of my knowledge, she’s never performed without her trademark accent on display.  She graduated from Carnegie Mellon in 1980 before launching her professional acting career.  She’s relatively tiny (5’2″); and is so good a pianist that she performed all the music for her acclaimed role in Jane Campion’s “The Piano.” 

She appears almost disingenuously modest about her career.  “Actors are beggars and gypsies, that’s just the way it is,” she said, according to IMDB.com.  “And in many ways, I take what I can get.  But I do search high and low for stuff that interests me.”  Looking at the long list of her films and TV work (from which I compiled this short list), I’m struck by her consistent talent in choosing interesting parts and making them more interesting:

  • Raising Arizona (1987)
  • Broadcast News (1987)
  • Roe vs. Wade (1989)
  • The Piano (1993)
  • Copycat (1993)
  • The Firm (1993)
  • Home for the Holidays (1995)
  • Jesus’ Son (1999)
  • O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000)
  • Thirteen (2003)
  • The Incredibles (2004)
  • Nine Lives (2005)
  • Saving Grace (TV show, 2007-2010)
  • Hunter’s characters often inhabit that weird place between comedy and pathos, but you know immediately it’s not a recognizable pathos but something more real, awful.  In “Raising Arizona” her comically inconsolable weeping contrasted nicely with her otherwise drill-sergeant relationship to mouth-breathing H. I. McDonough (Nicholas Cage).  But in “Broadcast News” it was something more:  she paused every morning in the midst of her breakneck routine, sat on the edge of her bed, and indulged in a private crying jag.  Audiences laughed, but they weren’t sure they were supposed to.  In “Home for the Holidays” (a wonderful and much-overlooked film, in my opinion), she headed home to Baltimore in a terrible state — lonely, confused, worried about her daughter, dreading a family visit.  “Hey, little brother,” she breathes into the phone early in the film, beginning a mortifyingly desperate message for the Robert Downey, Jr. character (a message that comes back to haunt her).  Her eyes are huge, she’s a wreck.  Each time, the viewer can’t see her character’s fragility as pure comedy, even when it’s funny.  She’s not playing to type.  She’s fantastic.

    She has the same complicated relationship to her sexiness.  For a long time, she seemed resigned to cutie pie status; her diminutive frame, distinctive accent, and heavy bangs distracted from her sex appeal — she was smart, not a beauty.  In “Broadcast News” her character’s brief affair with William Hurt’s dim-witted anchorman made so much sense because she lacked all the conventional beauties he possessed — how could she not want to be wanted by him, no matter how smart she was otherwise?  Likewise, her mixed views of herself made it impossible for her to fall in love with the shlubby Albert Brooks, her best friend.  In all those early parts, her resolute jaw lent daggers to her voice.  Over time, though, she used her big, dark eyes to terrific effect — most strikingly in “The Piano,” in a face starker than Emily Dickinson’s, with heavy eyebrows and that fiercely black, parted-in-the-middle hair that granted her face little prettiness.

    At some point in her mid-30s she grew into her beauty as she grew out her hair.  Don’t get me wrong: she never tried to be a Julia Roberts or appear in rom coms.  Rather, she developed a lithe way of using her body — moving slowly and with a slightly wicked, self-conscious, rolling gait that (in my mother’s phrasing) told you she was looking for trouble.  Not that it made her sexiness conventional.  Her tongue remained just as sharp, her characters idiosyncratic and generally disinterested in pleasing anyone. 

    By the time she appeared in “Saving Grace” she was nearly 50.  In its pilot she appeared in a few nearly-nude scenes in which her tiny, skinny frame is covered with alarmingly blueish pale skin.  Being willing to appear in such a shot — on television, no less, and in a Hollywood that rejects actresses when they cease to be youthfully sexy — impressed me yet again with Hunter’s determination to be her own woman, to display her character’s troubles on her very body.  I didn’t latch onto that show (the religious angle never worked for me), but it wasn’t because of her, it wasn’t for lack of trying, and it didn’t change my overall respect for her skill in finding great parts.  She seemed all the sexier in “Saving Grace” for downing shots of whiskey, sleeping with younger men, and pulling hard on all those cigarettes — cigarettes now coded for TV viewers as “bad” — and letting her natural smarts get a bit fuzzy in the haze.

    It’s also been interesting to see Hunter’s long list of characters whose complicated maternal status, marital status, and career make them more interesting.  Whether she gets her husband to kidnap a baby for her (“Raising Arizona”), chooses abortion (“Roe v. Wade,” which reflected Hunter’s own firm pro-choice views), struggles as a single mother or young widow (“The Piano,” “Home For the Holidays,” “Thirteen,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou”), or wrestles with her career (“Broadcast News,” “Saving Grace”), taken together her characters exemplify the struggles of a whole generation of women in a “post-feminist” age.  I find it striking that, with the recent cancellation of “Saving Grace,” Hunter has apparently determined to take a break from acting to be with her family — her domestic partner and her twin 4-year-old boys, whom she bore at age 47.  I hope it’s not a decision that came from a lack of roles.  I want to keep watching Holly Hunter in roles that expand our understanding of complex human emotions — and not least because right now, Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren seem to be the only women over 50 getting parts that allow them to be interesting and have sex lives. 

    David Thomson: I think we shouldn’t be surprised if Holly Hunter has more awards awaiting her — and if your next edition of the Biographical Dictionary of Film requires a serious revision of your earlier entry.