Nic Cage on the Loose
‘I have an acronym for myself. Know what it is? B.A.D. B.A.D: Balls. Attitude. Direction. You should give yourself an acronym...it helps you visualize your goals.’
Is Nic Cage a great actor, or is he just pretending? You will find passionate advocates for both sides of that coin, and with evidence to back them up. He’s an eccentric among movie stars, an A-lister with a taste for B movie barnstorming; a showboat who regularly transforms his physical appearance, his hair, even his voice, but with an ostentation that is unmistakable.
He could have been Nicolas Blue – in fact, I think it’s a shame he Caged himself, Blue could have been a bolder expression of his wild streak. This was the alternate stage name Francis Coppola’s teenage nephew considered as he resolved to dissociate himself from charges of nepotism back in the early 1980s. But “Cage” won out, inspired by the Marvel comic book character Luke Cage, aka Power Man. (Coming to a cinema near you in 2011, incidentally.)
Unlike Uncle Francis, power doesn’t seem to be a priority with Cage. His career hasn’t been strategic, he’s a loose cannon, grabbing at anything that interests him – mostly, it seems, the chance to act up in flamboyant roles regardless of the context.
He tried his hand at directing just the once, with Sonny in 2002, a portrait of a male prostitute whose mom is his madam, and he’s wisely steered clear of a follow up. (“Emotionally incoherent”, sniffed the New York Times in one of the kinder reviews.)
Cage started out as a hardcore Method actor, someone who sought to live his roles inside out, exposing raw nerves and tapping his personal demons. He had a couple of teeth extracted to get a hint of his character’s shrapnel damage in Birdy. He destroyed a toy remote controlled car to locate his rage for the psycho role in The Cotton Club.
Best of all is the famous incident when he was called on to eat a raw egg In Vampire’s Kiss. Instead he suggested a cockroach – and he proceeded to eat it on camera. (Then director Robert Bierman demanded another two takes.) As Pauline Kael commented, this was an amazing performance: “Cage starts out over the top and just keeps going…”
But this wasn’t really the method – a technique that is supposed to be about revealing the truth. Even early on, Cage was doing something different – his acting was more flamboyant and stylized, even expressionist. In Vampire’s Kiss, his yuppie (who may or may not be a vampire) is Max Schrek – Nosferatu himself – in a business suit: he has wild eyes, flaring nostrils, he grimaces and flails, contorting his body in angular poses.
You might consider those appropriate choices in the circumstances, but two years earlier Cage was equally outlandish in Uncle Francis’s melancholy comedy Peggy Sue Got Married.
Playing Kathleen Turner’s eventual husband in her high school reverie (a part very similar to the one played by his old school chum Crispin Glover in Back to the Future), Cage bleached his hair blond and accentuated his customary nasal voice to give it a bizarrely extra-nerdy lilt.
Kathleen Turner was dismayed – so was Coppola – and Cage was nearly fired, but somehow he convinced them to go with it. The performance is a sore thumb in an underrated picture, but it sort-of makes sense when you know that Cage’s acting heroes at the time were Marlon Brando, James Dean, and… Jerry Lewis.
Love him or loathe him, Cage has stuck to his guns. He can be subdued and even subtle (see his superb double performance as Charlie and Donald Kaufman in Adaptation, the fire-fighter John McLoughlin in World Trade Center or the TV star in crisis in The Weather Man) but when he’s on, nobody can touch him for sheer brass neck (see Wild At Heart, Lord Of War, or this week’s Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans).
Ten or twelve years ago Sean Penn publicly rebuked him for selling out, taking the action movie route over art – but for Cage the bottom line seems to be having fun. Certainly he’s no film snob.
He won an out-of-the-blue Academy Award as the alcoholic writer in Leaving Las Vegas in 1995, and followed it with The Rock, Con Air, Face/Off and Snake Eyes. Does that represent selling out? Maybe, but his performances in these films are very different from the blank, one-note machismo we might have had from Stallone, Schwarzenegger or Van Damme. He’s an improbable action star, he doesn’t have that physique to back him up. Instead he has… well, B.A.D.
You want to see his eyes light up? Give him a character like Memphis Raines (Gone in Sixty Seconds) or Johnny Blaze (Ghost Rider), someone larger than life, preferably with an Elvis fetish. Turn him on and turn him loose.
Top 6 Nic Cage Performances
1. Sailor - Wild at Heart
Directed by David Lynch, Wild at Heart follows the troubled romance of Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern), two lovers who struggle to remain together even when fate seems intent on keeping them apart.
2. Ben - Leaving Las Vegas
Ben Sanderson (Cage) is a Hollywood screenwriter who's become an alcoholic. After being fired, he heads to Las Vegas, where he plans to drink himself to death. There he meets Sera (Elisabeth Shue), a streetwise prostitute...
3. HI McDunnough - Raising Arizona
Combining influences from Tex Avery cartoons, Sam Raimi horror movies and 1940s B-movies, Joel and Ethan Coen followed up their stylish film noir debut, Blood Simple (1984), with this frantic screwball comedy.
4. Castor Troy - Face/Off
From director John Woo (Hard Boiled, The Killer), Face/Off is the perfect showcase for the acting talents of Travolta and Cage, each spending most of the film perfectly imitating the other.
5. Charlie - Adaptation
Following up their acclaimed debut, Being John Malkovich, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze are back to metaphysical moviemaking with Adaptation. Cage is both Charlie Kaufman...
6. Donald - Adaptation
...and his fictionalised identical twin brother Donald. While Donald freeloads off his sibling and works on a serial-killer movie script, Charlie is tormented by both his own army of neuroses and his new project.
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