Nicolas Frickin’ Cage
There’s an episode in the fifth season of the show Community (2009–2015) in which film student Abed (Danny Pudi), the on-the-spectrum pop-culture enthusiast who has a habit of deconstructing everything as if he’s narrating a network comedy, is tasked with the daunting challenge of figuring out whether Nicolas Cage is good or bad. Not is he a good or bad actor — is he good or bad. Abed obsesses, he goes crazy; like Cage, he commits to the assignment. In front of the class, with a binder of notes the size of the Warren Commission, he rambles like a conspiracy theorist, bursts into seemingly random changes in tone and volume. “Nicolas frickin Cage!” he yawps before mounting the desk and crooning, “I’m a cat. I’m a sexy cat.” He stomps around, howling, moving his body in erratic patterns. Then he calmly leaves the room and the professor intones, “That was brilliant.” This pretty much sums up how the world feels about Nicolas Cage, an actor whose estimable talents and indelible contributions to American cinema have by now been reduced to a meme. (Think of the bees in 2006’s The Wicker Man.) Is he good? Is he bad? One thing’s for sure: he’s always Nicolas Cage.
It’s hard to remember a time when Cage wasn’t known for his bombast. Even when he’s fairly chill, he’s always made singular choices as an actor, sometimes baffling, sometimes beguiling. Consider Crazy Charlie, high-pitched and pompadoured in Uncle Francis’s Peggy Sue Got Married (1986). His voice is so absurd, yet he practically steals the movie from Kathleen Turner. Think of his ebullience, talking about his ambitions as a musician, his dreams for the future; think of the way he later stalks the basement, heartbroken and bathed in dusty light, telling Peggy, telling himself that he’s gonna make it one day. It was a ballsy decision to make the character talk like Pokey the claymation horse, and it stays with you. (In a 2007 interview with Conan O’Brien, Cage admitted that the high-pitched voice he used for Peggy Sue had begun to seep into his real life, saying that when he’s tired he’ll sometimes unconsciously talk in that register. You can’t make this up.) The next year he had his breakthrough role as a one-handed baker who woos Cher in Moonstruck (1987). It’s a performance of antsy sensitivity and anger, an unhappy man consumed by regrets and plagued by thoughts of “What if.” “I lost my hand! I lost my bride!” he barks, holding up his wooden prosthetic. That same year, Cage further showed off comedic chops as the incompetent criminal who steals a baby in the Coen brothers’ Raising Arizona, which remains his most likeable performance, a well-meaning guy dumbfounded in a situation that’s quickly gone beyond his control.
In 1995, Cage was tough and manly as a drug dealer who befriends a predictably milquetoast David Caruso in Kiss of Death, maybe Cage’s most straightforward, mainstream performance; it was made for $40 million and didn’t even gross half of that. That same year, Cage starred in Leaving Las Vegas (his second film to take place in Vegas, after 1992’s Honeymoon in Vegas), which won him the Oscar for Best Actor, finally making Nic Cage a marquee name. He followed up the win with a brief run as an unlikely action hero — in Michael Bay’s The Rock (which is Cage’s only film in The Criterion Collection), Con Air (“Put the bunny back in the box”), and John Woo’s Face/Off. It’s a testament to Cage’s incorruptible commitment to his roles that he is just as fun here as he is in Moonstruck. Whether he’s wallowing in self-pity or punching John Malkovich in the face, he’s endlessly entertaining. He doesn’t disguise himself or disappear into roles — you always know it’s Nicolas Cage. That’s part of what’s so fun about him.
Anyone can flail around wildly and yell like Jim Carrey in The Mask (1994). Anyone can be obnoxious. What Cage does is different. It’s performance art, for better and worse. His presence is not a method actor’s contrivance as much as it feels like a natural, unfettered expression of a man who purchases castles for fun and names his kid after Superman’s father. He’s just so weird. David Lynch, who directed Wild at Heart (1990), once called Cage the jazz musician of acting, and there’s something to that. Though he plays an Elvis aficionado in Lynch’s film, his alterations of tempo and tone recall what you’d find on a free jazz recording, something like late John Coltrane or Ornette Coleman. On the latter, Richard Brody said that the saxophonist’s reimagining of popular songs “complexified them, extending the range of improvisations into exotically chromatic realms.” He goes on: “Coleman broke through style and structure to seek sound.” Something similar can be said about Cage, whose complex performances shatter standard notions of style and aspire to capture something that transcends character and story. Cage’s lunacy is lyrical, inimitable. People say that they would watch a good actor read from the phone book; well, Cage recites the ABCs in the much-memified Vampire’s Kiss (1988), like Coleman riffing on a classic, embellishing and enlivening it. And, just like the free-jazz greats, Cage can sometimes over-blow all the notes, which makes for an exhausting experience.
Cage occasionally plays it pensive — there’s David Gordon Green’s Joe (2013), and this past year we got Pig, which was marketed as John Wick with swine instead of a dog but is instead a ruminating character study about a grief-stricken former chief and his hermetic life — but he is known for, and defined by, his grandiosity, those mercurial bursts of sustained insanity, what has been called “mega-acting.” Not that he’s winging it; he’s committing to it. (He famously pulled out two of his own teeth — without painkillers — for 1984’s Birdy). Cage brings life to every movie he’s in, whether the role calls for it or not. He is a fire in a windstorm. Even if he’s in some garbage he took for the paycheck (he has had his financial troubles, buying those castles and all), he zaps every scene with a bolt of energy. Sometimes it’s the wrong energy, but it is energy all the same. He rarely phones it in (even though he sometimes recycles bits, like his Vampire’s Kiss cadences reappearing in the very purple Color Out of Space), whether he’s a temperamental criminal in Rage (2014) or, as Wikipedia succinctly puts it, “an ex-construction contractor and unemployed handy man who believes that God has sent him to capture Osama bin Laden in Pakistan” in Army of One (2016). Cage has been a prolific actor, appearing in five, six, seven films in one year, many of them flotsam, but Cage brings energy to them all. In the last decade, Cage has been in over 40 movies, 13 of which were direct-to-video. He has said he takes roles in these low-budget throwaway movies because they give him more freedom. There aren’t producers worried about profit. These are modestly budgeted films made by low-profile directors, not what we would typically call auteurs, who are willing to let Cage go free. Sometimes these smaller movies bring out the best in Cage, as with Tim Hunter’s perverse peeping tom movie Looking Glass, released the same year as Mandy (2018). (Hunter showed off serious chops directing for the TV show Hannibal.) It’s a good movie, well shot with that sickly verdant hue of a gas station and dark, desolate highways, clever and competent, just nothing particularly special; but Cage, as a languorous perv, is exceptional. He simmers; he seems always on the verge of an eruption, and because it is Nicolas Cage, we expect him to erupt. He looks like he has something squirming around inside of him.
When Cage finds the right director, the right role, he taps into that wonderful mixture of accessibility and lyricism, like a track off of The Shape of Jazz to Come. In Brian De Palma’s Snake Eyes (1996), a modest hit at the box office, Cage plays a corrupt Atlantic City cop who dresses like he’s a hustler in the 1970s and gets embroiled in a conspiracy. The film opens with an extended Steadicam shot of Cage prowling the hallways of an arena where a big boxing match is about to happen, and we see him interact with all kinds of low lives, stealing money from a drug dealer, haggling with a bookie, and bellowing “It’s fight night!” Just watch him jumping up and down, so thrilled to be alive. Cage is so gleefully animated in Snake Eyes; the next year, he went the opposite direction as a man defeated in Martin Scorsese’s haunted, hallucinatory Bringing Out the Dead. Cage looks all pallid, ethereal as the lights of the ambulance splash red and white against his face, and shadows pool under his glassy eyes, a worn-out man trying to keep the ghosts at bay. The somnolent medic is our tragic flaneur, driving through rain-slick city streets, watching the streetwalkers prowl the night. He is a man cursed with too much empathy, a man plagued by the pain around him. And yet he has hope. Sometimes ghosts are angels.
Cage got his second Oscar nomination for Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation (2002), in which he plays twin brothers, Charlie and Donald Kaufman, the first of who is based on the real writer, the second fictitious. Charlie is trying to write a screenplay and combat his multitude of phobias, and Donald is freeloading. Portly and slouchy, Cage trudges around, all woebegone and pathetic, a man who hates himself and always has his anxieties to gnaw away at him. Just five years earlier, he’d been in Con Air and John Woo’s adrenaline-injection Face/Off, two very masculine movies. Adaptation would make a good double feature with Face/Off, another movie in which Cage plays dual roles: a terrorist named Castor Troy and his dweeby brother. After planting a bomb in Los Angeles while dressed as a horny priest, Troy and his sibling are about to take off in a small jet from a remote landing strip. Troy, menacingly trying to seduce an undercover agent, says in her ear, all sleazy, “I could eat a peach for hours.” It makes your skin crinkle. The FBI, led by a vengeful John Travolta, shows up and fireworks go off. Face/Off begins with Cage being Cage, and all the odd tics that it entails, the yelling and wild facial gestures, the alien annunciation, then Cage doing Travolta when they exchange faces, then Cage doing Travolta doing Cage — it’s an evolution of performances that ends up deconstructing the mystery that is Nicolas Cage. This is how Cage sees other people seeing him; this is Cage’s self-vivisection. The best bit is when, Cage-doing-Travolta-doing-Cage takes a beating in a dystopian maximum-security prison, and he looks up to his little bro and slowly, sadly contorts his face into a very Nic Cage-y smile so wide it looks like it hurts, with crazy gaping eyes with a maniacal tilt of the head. Nicolas frickin Cage.
Top image: Spike Jonze’s Adaptation
Nicolas Cage stars in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, which opens in theaters April 22.