Out of the Celluloid Closet

Why I Always Return to Moonstruck When I Feel Alone

· Updated on October 4, 2023

The holidays—including the beginning of the year—are hard for me, being estranged from my blood relatives. I know they are for many queer and trans people for whom this period of vacation or “family time” looks very different compared to our straight and cisgender peers. I always spend this season crying a lot, which is not so different from my usual state (I’m a Pisces moon, after all.) But it’s specifically because this time of year makes me feel like a little kid again—alone, ignored, isolated from a lot of joy that so many others associate this time period of the year with. And if I want a similar joy, it seems I’m tasked with creating it for myself, a heavy burden to bear. 

And so here I am in my cozy basement apartment doing what I do best: returning to some of the classics I grew up on, which are all undeniably cis, straight, and heteronormative as hell—You’ve Got Mail, The Holiday, Moonstruck to name a few. Despite a recent uptick in queer and trans rom-coms like Happiest Season or Jingle All the Way, I find myself coming back to these seemingly super straight films instead. They’re full of heart, and humanity, and life lessons that are comforting. 

When I was 18 and left my parents to start a life on my own, I took almost nothing from our “home” with me, save for a vintage purple ’80s sweater from my dad’s bedroom trunk. I also took a few keepsakes, like the Moonstruck DVD, one of the only good things my parents ever gifted me, ironically, and the one movie I’ll always come back to. It’s about understanding there is something bigger than ourselves at play in the world, in a way that the recent gay holiday movies have failed to tap into authentically. 

One thing always comes up for me this time of year: No matter how naturally independent I am, it is exhausting to be responsible for holding myself at the end of the day, because I was forced to be by a family that did not know how to love me and chose not to care for me. Even as someone who loves being alone and loves spending time with myself, I know there is a difference between being alone by choice and being alone because you just are. 

A few weeks ago, while sick and sobbing in the bath, I lit balsam candles, poured in lavender epsom salts, and turned to my great comfort… Moonstruck. It’s arguably one of the gayest straight movies in existence. Not only is it about the power of the moon, it comes complete with U-Hauling and falling in love in a day, strained family dynamics, and Italians being dramatic and holding grudges for half a century—have I sold you yet?

No matter how naturally independent I am, it is exhausting to be responsible for holding myself at the end of the day, because I was forced to be by a family that did not know how to love me.

Loretta Castorini (Cher) is a widowed woman who lives with her parents in Brooklyn. She’s engaged to a man named Johnny Cammareri, who she doesn’t love. She isolates herself and stays away from true emotions because she wants to avoid pain. Believing she has bad luck, she’s convinced herself that being vulnerable and allowing herself to truly want someone or something would simply bring the unexpected into her life in a way she can’t afford. 

After getting engaged out of the blue, Loretta is tasked by her emotionally immature fiance with going to find his estranged brother Ronny to invite him to their wedding. But it all goes wrong when she falls in love with Ronny because he’s the total opposite of his brother—passionate and unafraid to say how he feels, to know who he is, and tell it like it is. (Did I mention that Ronny is played by a young, shaggy-haired, crazed Nicolas Cage?) Loretta tried so hard to avoid her own desires and the unexpected in favor of control. Here she finds herself in a predicament, unable to control her true wants and needs after they’re unleashed by the onset of real passion.

Following the first time she sleeps with Ronny, Loretta says yes to a date at the Metropolitan Opera with him, after he dramatically states that he loves nothing more in life than her and the opera. If he can have them both at once, he says, he’ll be content for the rest of his life. Prior to the evening, Loretta still spends the day on her own, treating herself to luxuries like a haircut and color job, brand new heels and a stunning outfit—not because she’s trying to impress or show up for anyone else, but because she wants to show up for herself.

What happens when we stop abiding by a narrative about who we are and what our lives are about, and let ourselves actually live?

The movie explores again and again how she’s able to show up for her lover because she finally starts making decisions for herself and starts choosing herself. That in itself asks us what we’re capable of doing when we trust our intuition and lean into the mess of things: what happens when we look in the mirror and stop hiding from love, from the most raw and real parts of ourselves? What happens when we stop abiding by a narrative about who we are and what our lives are about, and let ourselves actually live?

Watching Moonstruck during this time of year reminds me that it might always bring all of these hard things up to the surface for me, because it requires me to sit in my loneliness. Around December, I always start feeling old feelings about the lack of safety and security I felt growing up in an abusive household. Everything was tinged with either the absence of something I longed for, or the presence of too many challenges. That’s not the position I’m in now at all. I have so much love in my life, but since most of my loved ones live far away in other places and I don’t get to be with them as often as I like, I often become convinced that means I am alone.

Growing up, my parents had us celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas—despite neither of them really believing in the holidays. But this time of year didn’t come with gifts. It often came with some sad excuse for a Christmas wreath because we couldn’t afford a tree—in later years a large plastic tree which wreaked of the same fakeness my parents exuded trying to make us celebrate and pretend we weren’t all screaming at each other the other 364 days a year. What has always most stuck with me is the emptiness I felt from that: the feeling that the holidays are a hollow lie, beautiful wrapping paper and bows placed on something empty. 

“A person can see where they’ve messed up in their life and they can change the way they do things,” Loretta yells at Ronny after their date to the opera, when he tries to convince her to be with him, and she’s scared she would be making a mistake. “I can take hold of myself and say yes to some things and no to other things that are going to ruin everything. I can do that,” she says, clearly trying to convince herself more than she’s trying to convince him. But he won’t let her believe her own bullshit: he sees right through 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,” he philosophizes. “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.” It’s in this moment that Loretta caves. She knows she loves him. And she’s finally ready to accept that she’s lived a lie to maintain control of her life—but that sense of control was always false.

As dramatic as this scene is and as much as someone saying this to me in real life might piss me off because it’s so grand and would feel unboundaried in a way I don’t quite have patience for, I love it in this context. Because it’s also something I feel deeply as a queer poet who’s constantly yearning towards the moon and stars. 

I don’t think I will ever get a warm and fuzzy feeling seeing everyone posting their happy families on Instagram.

I think about what it means to create my own safety and harmony even when everything outside is chaos—about what it means and looks like to build a home for myself, which I’m doing for the first time in my life, three decades in. I have done the hard, necessary work to not isolate myself, to not grip onto the illusion of control—to let love in despite all the good reasons I’d have to hide. I’ve broken my own heart by loving. I’ve let it make me a mess.

After being in therapy for the last twenty years—specifically intensive trauma therapy for the last nearly two years—I’ve learned how to focus on what I do have and what is in my control. So I can acknowledge that I don’t live in a deep pit of despair, but I will still cry a lot right now. And I can acknowledge that the holidays might always be rough in some ways. 

I don’t think I will ever get a warm and fuzzy feeling seeing everyone posting their happy families on Instagram. I might always feel a little left out. But I’ve learned to create my own traditions and rituals, and how to do the hard work of making my life look and feel good, even if there are still challenging moments.

Yes, the holidays are good at making me feel like I am a void of unmet needs and neglect like when I was a kid, as if the holidays are the only time to bask in shared and co-created joy. But I don’t believe in binaries in general, so why should I during one particular time of year? It’s not all or nothing. Our lives contain multitudes. 

Sometimes I’m going to be alone, like during the holidays, not because I’ve chosen it. I’m alone because sometimes everyone is. There will be moments of love’s absence or moments of aloneness that feel overpowering. But there are so many co-created beautiful things and people in my life, even if they’re not always physically here with me—they’re scattered across the country, sometimes here on birthdays and holidays and for special occasions, sometimes not. I won’t let one dark and lonely time of year convince me that object permanence means this is the story of my life. Joan Didion wrote that we tell ourselves stories in order to live, which is true. But sometimes we tell ourselves the wrong stories so we have excuses to hold onto the bitterness we think cloaks us in protection, when it actually keeps us small and sad. 

Here, watching Nicolas Cage shout at the moon about how love don’t make things nice, I will not let myself be convinced that just because I am occasionally tasked with bearing the burden of holding myself up alone that I haven’t so many times—often, even—felt the relief and wonder of sharing the weight with those who do love me. And even sometimes sharing the task of co-creating joy and making love anew will always make all this grief a little easier to carry. ♦

Elly Belle is a New York-based journalist and poet dedicated to community and justice.

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