How does one begin to talk about Nicolas Cage? Well, let’s first start by considering the polar positions that so often clouds discussions regarding him. Such conversation tends to proceed as follows: speaker A becomes animated and quickly designates Nic Cage a genius, citing such greats as Raising Arizona, Leaving Las Vegas, and Adaptation, and rejecting his flops with an assured “a job’s a job” shrug of the shoulders; then, enter speaker B (usually the cynic of the group), stage right, who scoffs at such a thought as they make reference to such films as National Treasure, Season of the Witch, and Drive Angry before going on to call his greater moments “accidents”, holding the acclaimed directors he’s worked under, rather than the star, chiefly responsible for his flurries of success. There was once a time when any others in attendance to said debate couldn’t have cared less about Nic Cage, a one-time A-lister with a penchant for delirious hyperactivity, but the debate is now one that sits beside the (somewhat tiring) “when will Leo win an Oscar?” shtick at the epicentre of film conversation. Both Leo’s elusive Oscar – seriously, can it please be this year so as to discourage any more of those fucking memes? – and the “Nic Cage: Genius or Madman?” dispute (wonderfully dramatised here in all its absurdity) as sources of debate have now branched out from the films in question into the realm of pop culture (a process that can only be measured, of course, by the production of related memes). So, Nic Cage: is he a genius or a madman? Who the fuck really knows.
As nephew to both Francis Ford Coppola and Talia Shire, and cousin to Roman and Sofia Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, it is quite clear that Cage was born into American film royalty. Cage made his debut in cult teen comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High but his ascent was not immediate. Cage’s relation to Francis Ford Coppola often played to his advantage; he was awarded small roles in Rumble Fish (pictured above) and The Cotton Club. Although his audition for a larger role in The Outsiders, another of his uncle’s films, was unsuccessful – the role went to Matt Dillon, Cage’s costar in Rumble Fish – Coppola eventually cast Cage in a leading role for his hit comedy Peggy Sue Got Married.
By this time Cage had already been tested as a leading performer in Valley Girl, a modern take on Romeo & Juliet, and in Birdy, Alan Parker’s acclaimed tale of Vietnam veterans battling PTSD. Following Peggy Sue Got Married, Cage’s final collaboration with his uncle, Cage starred in the romantic comedy Moonstruck, opposite Cher in an Oscar-winning role, and in the Coen brothers’ screwball comedy Raising Arizona. Although it opened to mixed reviews, Raising Arizona, like many Cage films that followed, went on to garner a cult following; the film, which features Cage and Holly Hunter as a pair of unintelligent kidnappers, remains one of the odder but more rewarding films in the Coen brothers’ considerable canon.
Cage opened the 1990s in style in David Lynch’s Palme d’Or-winning road movie Wild at Heart. The film functions as an acid ode to The Wizard of Oz that follows Sailor (Cage) and Lulu (frequent Lynch collaborator Laura Dern) across the country as they are pursued by a pack of crazies fronted by a deranged Willem Dafoe. The film was received poorly upon its initial release but has since been reappraised; it is a weird and wonderful Lynchian odyssey that demands attention. Raising Arizona and Wild at Heart also stand as showcases for the type of characters that Cage plays so well; hyperkinetic, partially unhinged, and larger-than-life, this is Cage in his element.
Beside some relatively forgettable early-’90s fodder including Honeymoon in Vegas and Kiss of Death sits Red Rock West, an underrated crime gem in which Cage stars as an accidental hitman (incidentally, and surprisingly perhaps, the film remains Cage’s highest rated film on Rotten Tomatoes). In 1996 Cage walked off with an Oscar for Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas in which he played a suicidal alcoholic. Many of Cage’s detractors smirk at the fact that he has an Oscar to his name but the film really has to be seen to be believed. At the film’s centre is Cage, a hurricane of raw emotion that recalls Pacino at his very best; Figgis’ sobering study into the depths of depression is as captivating now as it was at the time of release.
Just as Cage had the world talking about his quality as a performer, the actor took a slightly bizarre career detour, albeit one that very few begrudge. Enter Nic Cage, action star. Not once, not twice, but three times, Cage proved his action credentials delivering back-to-back greatness in The Rock, Con Air, and Face/Off which, together, form a near-perfect trilogy of grin-inducing ’90s action cinema. After an unspectacular collaboration with Brain De Palma in Snake Eyes and an unpleasant collaboration with Joel Schumacher in 8mm, Cage returned to form in Martin Scorsese’s criminally underrated Bringing Out the Dead, a dark and desperate story of a Hell’s Kitchen paramedic on the edge of sanity. The film marked screenwriter Paul Schrader’s fourth collaboration with Martin Scorsese and works as a great accompaniment to Scorsese and Schrader’s sublime Taxi Driver.
It should be noted that at this point in his career Nic Cage was still producing more hits than he was misses, but that fact would change as he entered the 2000s. Post-2000 Nic Cage is not without his successes, they are just far fewer than in the late 1980s and 1990s. Among them include Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation in which Cage plays twin screenwriters Charlie and Donald Kaufman; Cage delivers two wonderfully nuanced performances as the Kaufman brothers, and was Oscar-nominated for his troubles. Other post-2000 hits include Ridley Scott’s Matchstick Men, Andrew Niccol’s Lord of War, Gore Verbinski’s The Weather Man, Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass and, most recently, David Gordon Green’s Joe.
What is clear among these films, and indeed among many of the hits of Cage’s career, is that Cage often operates best when paired with an assured director. Bad Lieutenant, for instance, finds the star at the level of crazy often saved for his most derided roles, but in fact represents the actor at his absolute best; under Herzog, Cage’s whirlwind approach is given direction, and, from that, comes a phenomenally unhinged performance. Cage also excels as Big Daddy in Kick-Ass, bringing a healthy dose of Adam West to the “it’s not Batman, we promise” role of the film; the safehouse shootout in which Big Daddy hands the ass-kicking reigns to Hit-Girl is one of the standout scenes of the film, not least for Cage’s surprisingly touching performance.
So what do we make of the rest? Where do we stand on the likes of National Treasure, The Wicker Man, Ghost Rider, Next, Bangkok Dangerous, Knowing, Season of the Witch, Drive Angry, Trespass, Rage, Left Behind, Outcast, The Dying of the Light, and Pay the Ghost? Quite a list, right? That’s not even all of them. Nearly all of these films were universally panned on release, and yet some of them retain a small amount of charm for Cage himself. Not all films are going to be classics, but Cage gives it his all in every performance, even if his all isn’t entirely necessary. Never satisfied to phone it in and cash a cheque – and, oh, how many actors are more than happy to do that? – Cage treats each project as though his career depends upon it; so awful are some of his performances, so overstated and ridiculous, that they have generated a cult-like obsession around them – The Wicker Man is perhaps the best example of that. Treat such films not as B-movies but as trash movies in the real sense of the word and they take on an entirely new meaning; sure, some are irredeemable, and others are as maddening as they are mad, but there is perverse fun to be found in getting in on Cage’s joke and laughing along with him (I mean, come on, with titles like Bangkok Dangerous, Drive Angry, and Rage, it’s got to all be a joke, right?).
Equal parts genius and madman, perhaps, nevertheless Nic Cage is a gift that keeps on giving. There is no denying the talents of this utterly singular actor who is never less than interesting. Make what you will of him, he’s here to stay. The man turns 52 tomorrow. Happy birthday, Nic. Never change.
Top Five Nic Cage Films:
Raising Arizona (1987) – This Coen brothers comedy puts the screwy in screwball and remains one of their more neglected films. A cult classic that is well worth watching. Arguably, the first must-see lead performance in Cage’s career. Similarly off-kilter is David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, which is also an underseen classic.
Leaving Las Vegas (1995) – The one that won Cage an Oscar, and deservedly so. Mike Figgis’ study into depression and alcoholism remains a shattering piece of filmmaking with a never-better Cage at its centre.
The Rock, Con Air, and Face/Off (1996-7) – These three ’90s action classics are best enjoyed together. Fast-paced, exciting, and cool as hell, they remain the pinnacle of American ’90s action cinema.
Adaptation (2002) – Charlie Kaufman’s experiences of (not) writing an adaptation of Susan Orlean’s The Orchard Thief became the basis of this highly meta, complex, and literate treat. Cage performs excellently not only as Kaufman himself, but as Kaufman’s fictional twin brother Donald.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009) – Werner Herzog’s corrupt cop thriller owes little more than its name to Abel Ferrera’s 1992 film. Cage is at his most deranged in this weird but wonderful black comedy; this is also a fine example of the actor’s hyperactive style working, and makes a case for the fact that he has not lost it. Not yet, anyway.
What do you think of Nic Cage? Is he a genius, madman, or something else entirely? Please do let us know.