Aside from marking the film debut of Christina Aguilera, 'Burlesque' heralds the onscreen return of Cher, whose last major movie role was in 1999's 'Tea with Mussolini' (though she spoofed herself delightfully in 2003's 'Stuck on You'). A completely unique performer and bonafide superstar, Cher has had amazing success as a pop diva, television star and movie actress since she started out 45 years ago as half of a "hippie" singing duo (and showbiz marriage).
Though she has proved her mettle as a straight-up actress in several memorable roles, big-screen stardom didn't seem to be in the cards early on. Her first big film was 1967's 'Good Times,' a silly movie-parody musical in which she and Sonny Bono appeared as themselves. (It was also the movie debut of director William Friedkin, who'd go on to helm 'The French Connection' and 'The Exorcist.') Her first dramatic role – as a smart-aleck runaway -- was in 1969's 'Chastity,' a somewhat rickety vehicle written and produced by Sonny. These days, of course, both films are worth a fortune in '60s camp-nostalgia gold.
Cher didn't attempt serious acting again until the early '80s, when she was cast in the Robert Altman-directed Broadway play 'Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean,' alongside Kathy Bates, Karen Black and Sandy Dennis, all of whom reprised their roles in Altman's subsequent movie adaptation. Playing a member of an all-female fan club that reunites on the 20th anniversary of Dean's death, Cher was a revelation, nabbing a Golden Globe nomination for her performance.
It was 1983's 'Silkwood' -- a much higher profile film -- that established the former co-host of the 'Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour' as a real actress. As Meryl Streep's gay roommate, Cher gave a nuanced performance that resulted in a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Next came what many consider her finest serious dramatic role: Rusty Dennis in 'Mask.' A hard living biker chick and a caring, supportive mother to a severely deformed son, Rusty was a complicated character that Cher clearly relished playing.
She dominated the screen in 1987, in three very different movies. Playing one of three women seduced by the devil (Jack Nicholson), she held her own with Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pffeifer in supernatural comedy-fantasy 'The Witches of Eastwick,' and was solid in the uncharacteristic role of a harried public defender in the In the entertaining but farfetched crime drama 'Suspect.' Finally came 'Moonstruck,' a film blessed with a marvelously droll screenplay by John Patrick Shanley, a fantastic cast including Olympia Dukakis, Vincent Gardenia and John Mahoney, and confident direction by Norman Jewison. Cher was fabulous as the earthy, forthright Loretta Castorini, a widowed bookkeeper resigned to a loveless life due to "bad luck."
A whimsical romcom that excelled on every level, 'Moonstruck' was the feel-good hit of the year (winning Oscars for Best Actress [Cher], Supporting Actress [Dukakis] and Screenplay). Cher's character, who lives with her colorful -- but not clichéd -- Italian-American family in Brooklyn Heights, gets engaged to a guy she doesn't love (Danny Aiello), then falls hard for his charismatic, tormented brother (Nicolas Cage). It wasn't Cher's most subtle role, but her emotional performance was completely appropriate in the context of the movie, itself more than a tad operatic. And her accent may have been a little rough around the edges, but she got everything else right. It's hard to imagine another actress playing the lovelorn, guilt-stricken Loretta with such soulful panache. And who else could have pulled off such gigantic hair?
Though Cher was the movie's biggest name at the time, her performance was buoyed by excellent turns from her co-stars, especially Dukakis as her beleaguered, dignified mother, and Cage, whose fiery embodiment of the physically and emotionally wounded Ronnie pushed the movie into a whole other realm. They were an unlikely duo; aside from an 18-year age difference, they had vastly different public personas and backgrounds. Cher was (still) mainly considered a glitzy pop superstar; Cage, just coming off 'Raising Arizona,' was a fast-rising, offbeat actor many years away from his first action film. Their crazy onscreen chemistry was one of the movie's best surprises.
Cher didn't make many movies after 'Moonstruck,' playing a wildly unconventional mother to Winona Ryder and Christina Ricci in the quirky, lightweight 'Mermaids'; the depressed wife of a two-timing Ryan O'Neal in Chazz Palminteri's play-turned-movie 'Faithful' and a wealthy, flamboyant American amid a cast of British heavyweights in the aforementioned 'Tea With Mussolini,' Franco Zeffirelli's enjoyably soapy melodrama. None of these came close to 'Moonstruck,' a once-in-a-lifetime movie and role.