Nicolas Cage is thought of as many things: Nouveau shamanist thespian. Eater of live cockroaches. Coppola. He has done everything from action movies to bizarre arthouse pictures to Disney family adventure. If there is a genre of film, Cage has almost certainly dabbled in it. But he is rarely thought of as a romantic lead. He certainly can be an intensely physical, sexual screen presence (just watch him and Laura Dern in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart) and he has a capability for quiet yearning that few can match (like in last year’s revelatory Pig). But something about his most legendary characteristic, the unique, blinding intensity he brings to his craft, feels a bit incongruous with “romantic leading man.” This is, of course, incorrect. He did wonderful romantic comedy work in It Could Happen to You with Bridget Fonda and with Sarah Jessica Parker in Honeymoon in Vegas. He is certainly capable of it. But his single finest romantic lead performance was in 1987’s Moonstruck, which managed to take some of the rawest expression of that intensity and turn it into one of his most soulful and heartwarming performances. It is currently streaming on HBO Max, but it is leaving tonight, so make haste.
Moonstruck stars Nicolas Cage as Ronny Cammareri, a hot-headed, nearly bestial Italian-American baker in New York City. It actually takes the movie a few minutes to get to him; it begins centered on Loretta Castorini (Cher in an Academy Award-winning performance), a bookkeeper and widow who lives with her similarly Italian-American family. After the unexpected death of her husband several years before, Loretta has been dating Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello) a perfectly nice, perfectly boring man. After thoughtlessly proposing to her in a crowded restaurant (not even having a ring on hand), he reveals that he needs to fly to Sicily to be with his dying mother and that he needs her to ask his estranged younger brother Ronny to be in their wedding. Cue a sweaty Nicolas Cage in a subterranean bakery, screaming about his wooden hand.
See, Nicolas Cage’s character was once engaged to be married himself, but then Danny Aiello came into his bakery to get a loaf of bread and distracted him while he was using the slicer. His hand got cut off, his fiance left him for another man, he blamed his older brother and has been stewing in his bakery ever since. He tells Cher to get out of his bakery and that he won’t come to the wedding; she won’t take no for an answer. She won’t take no for an answer and ends up making dinner for him (insisting that rather than prepare him a well-done steak, it needs to be bloody “for his blood”). They drunkenly end up in bed together, and things go from there.
But putting it so simply does not do the sheer magnetic chemistry of Nicolas Cage and Cher justice. Cage is 17 years younger than Cher, an unusual thing for a romantic comedy pairing. Even more unusually, while the age difference seems to be the same in the film, it is not particularly commented on. Instead, the movie focuses on the passion between them. It manifests in both a raw attraction to each other and the dangerous choices they make. Cher is overwhelmed with guilt over her infidelity. Cage is overwhelmed with feeling love and a sense of destiny to be with her. Eventually, love finds a way to bring them together and even Johnny manages to stay in the family. Moonstruck is just as much about the bonds of family and their importance as the strength of passion, another unusual aspect of the movie.
It’s also the kind of movie in which Nicolas Cage yells at one of his employees to get him “THE BIG KNIFE” because he is going to cut his own throat in despair, and she yells back just as operatically that she will not. It’s the kind of movie in which Cher slaps Cage across the face with the eternal line “snap out of it!” But it is also the kind of movie that has an almost unearthly tenderness to scenes like the moment in which Cage reaches out to Cher with his wooden hand while snow falls around them, and she gently takes it, against her better judgment, but with inescapable love. It’s the kind of movie where the crestfallen Danny Aiello is told by an elderly Italian grandfather that he must take a drink with everyone when Cage finally proposes to Cher, because he too is familia.
Moonstruck was directed by Norman Jewison, an experienced and multitalented director. It was written by Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning playwright and filmmaker John Patrick Shanley. The movie was not expected by most to be a success but eventually grossed over $120 million off a $15 million budget. It was also nominated for six Academy Awards, winning three, and instantly joined the canon of romantic comedy. It weathered studio interference, Nicolas Cage’s instinct to use a weird voice, and brawls between the cast members while filming. And just like the tumultuous, chaotic, and ultimately loving families at its center, it managed to weather it all and be a success.