To write this piece, I had to fix a major cinematic blind spot: I had never seen Moonstruck. Yes, I know, I know. And let’s face it, it would be irresponsible (if not downright reprehensible) to write an obit for Olympia Dukakis without having seen her most famous role.
So, how does a cinephile and child of the ‘80s miss one of the most celebrated romantic comedies of that cherished decade? Well, I’m not the biggest romantic comedy guy for one. I rarely see any film rated PG that is about adults. I mean, what adults live PG-rated lives? I also remember the trailer seeming overly broad at the time, with lots of shouting. But that turned out to be a con, because, now having seen the film, I know the real reason why I’d never seen it before…I’m an idiot.
Moonstruck is way more subtle than the “greatest hits” trailer makes it out to be. It is keenly observed, eccentric, and most of all, very funny. And, with all due respect to Cher, Nicolas Cage, and Vincent Gardenia, no one is funnier in the film than Olympia Dukakis.
She doesn’t even show up in the film until over 17 and a half minutes in as her husband (Gardenia) and daughter (Cher) wake her to give her some exciting news. She comes to with a start, and her first words in the film are “Who’s dead?!” And all irony aside, it is hysterical.
Knowing that Dukakis had won the Oscar for best supporting actress that year, I actually thought she’d be in a bit more of the film. That being said, every moment she’s on screen, and every line that escapes her lips is as gold as the statue the Academy awarded her for her performance.
As I mentioned before the trailer for Moonstruck made the film look like a broadly-played Italian-American comedy, which only serves to tell you how deceiving trailers can be. Even Cher, who can be the performingest of performers is wonderfully subtle here. Only Nicolas Cage, with that Nicolas Cage energy of his, stretches the tone at all, but thanks to the light and authentic touch of director Norman Jewison, his performance works too.
But it’s Olympia Dukakis as the mother to a woman taking a second chance at love, and the wife to a man who still loves her but has taken her for granted, who is the beating heart of the film. The loveliest sequence in the movie belongs to her. As her husband is taking his girlfriend to the Metropolitan Opera, Rose (who knows something is amiss in their marriage) sits down for a meal by herself at her favorite local restaurant.
There, she meets a college professor (wonderfully played by John Mahoney), who, for the second time in the film, has a drink thrown at him by a much younger woman, who we soon learn is one of his students. Despite the obvious nature of his cad-like existence, Rose senses a sweetness in this professor who is so desperately trying to stay young by squiring women nearly a third his age.
She invites him over to eat with her. What follows is a remarkably bittersweet “meet cute” with thoughtful conversation, a slow walk home, and a kind rejection when the professor suggests he come up to her place. Rose turns the professor away, firmly but kindly. While she may feel a pang of temptation, and spending a few hours being truly seen is a virtue she has long missed, she’s simply not that kind of woman. She’s married, and even if they doesn’t mean what it should to her husband, it does mean something to her.
This brief encounter beautifully sets up the final scene in the film where she tells her husband, in front of a full table of family and guests, that she wants him to stop seeing “her.” Gardenia, raises up from his chair, pounds his fist on the table as if to offer some defiance, then he slumps back into his chair and simply says, “okay.” Rose is too good of a woman and too correct for him to deny her request.
Moreover, the performance of Olympia Dukakis is too good and too correct to resist.
It took me 34 years and the passing of Olympia Dukakis to finally see Moonstruck. What a folly in my cinematic life. I should not have needed any inspiration to see such a well-regarded and beautifully realized film.
But however grimly that inspiration may have arrived (in the cold embrace of mortality), I can only be grateful for it.
Moonstruck was a wonder to behold, thanks in no small part to the exquisite performance of Olympia Dukakis.
Olympia Dukakis died yesterday. She was 89 years old.
Sasha, Ryan, and Clarence have been stuck with me since April 27, 2018. Co-creator (with Ryan Adams) of the Reframe feature, staff writer, interviewer du jour, and a proud member of GALECA and the Indiana Film Journalists Association. I also scribe on boxing at NY Fights. My essay "My Black Grandpa" was shortlisted as "Best of Folklore" by The Bitter Southerner in 2018. My first work of fiction, "Eat 'Em Up, Tigers!" was published in Detroit Stories Quarterly in the 2020 summer edition.