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HOOKED ON CLASSICS ‌ La Vie Boheme

Twenty years later, Moonstruck still gets me

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Two weeks ago, at the 79th Academy Awards, the Oscar for Best Original Score went to Argentinean-born composer Gustavo Santaolalla for his work on Babel. You might expect a column here about that category, but the fact is, whenever I hear NPR's annual analyses of the plinking-xylophone, Philip Glass-esque nominees, I want to throw my radio a very long way. I'd honestly rather listen to a pledge drive.

And frankly I'd rather write about an Oscar-winning movie that came out 20 years ago, floating in a melodramatic orbit around Puccini's La Boheme (or perhaps vice-versa). I don't care what you think, I love Moonstruck.

John Patrick Shanley won an Oscar for his original screenplay. Cher, of course, took Best Actress for the role of Loretta, and Olympia Dukakis won best supporting for playing her mother. (At the 1988 ceremony she hoisted her trophy and said "Okay, Michael, let's go!" exhorting her presidential nominee cousin. Yeah, not so much.)

The word "melodrama" has a negative connotation these days, but my 1966 American College Dictionary defines it as a play that "intensifies sentiment and exaggerates passion," usually with music interspersed.

With that in mind, consider the film's seminal scene: Loretta and Ronny (Nicolas Cage), in his apartment above the bakery. He drops the needle on La Boheme, she cooks him a steak ("...bloody to feed your blood"), they have a little whiskey, incendiary comments are made. He throws the table to the side, runs his good hand through his hair, and carries her off to bed.

"Leave nothing but the skin over my bones," Loretta cries.

"Okay, there will be nothing left," he says.

There's not a lot of winking at the camera, as we say today. Moonstruck is an operatic movie, a pure melodrama. And compared to, say, a skin flick or a movie like, I don't know, Gladiator, Moonstruck (an early title was The Bride and the Wolf) is far more visceral, far more physical. You taste the sugar cubes in the spumante, smell the red peppers and eggs frying, feel the slaps and the glasses of water in your face. When Loretta walks out of the opera at the Met, she's so physically affected by it she looks like she might puke.

"That was just so awful ... Beautiful. Sad. She died ... I mean, she was coughing her brains out and still she had to keep singing!"

A scholar named Kathryn Conner Bennet wrote a paper entitled "The Gender Politics of Death: Three Formulations of La Boheme in Contemporary Cinema." (I'm not making this up.) It argues that the character of Loretta inverts the patriarchal structure of Puccini's opera by combining the characters of Mimi and Musetta into one. In Moonstruck the feminine becomes the center of gravity, with the men in orbit around her.

It's a lot of English major talk and I apologize for that, but consider my wife's favorite scene, right smack in the middle of the movie. Loretta, who's spent the first half of the movie taking care of everybody else, comes back from shopping, her salt-and-pepper hair died jet-black. She tries on her new pumps, relaxes with a glass of wine in front of the fire. Pure '80s schmaltz, it's a scene every woman can identify with, a quiet moment amidst the chaos of life and love.

And, in this operatic movie, the music in the background? A noodling, Kenny-G-style sax. Sorry, Puccini.

As Nic Cage's Ronny said, "Chrissy, over on the wall, bring me the big knife. I want to cut my throat."

Jonathan Sanchez hopes no one raises an Oscar next year and says, "Okay Barack, let's go!"

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