Few actors get a conversation started like Nicholas Cage. The man inspires nothing if not a wide range of opinions. Then again, few actors have worked so tirelessly to redefine the essence of screen acting itself. Nicolas Cage is the originator of his own, highly singular acting style. There has never been anyone like him, much in the same way that there has never been anyone like Buster Keaton. To some degree, you either “get” Cage or you don’t. There are plenty who can’t get on the actor’s idiosyncratic wavelength. Others uncharitably refer to him as a “bad” actor. There are those who, somewhat understandably, view the latter half of the actor’s decades-spanning career, with films like Between Worlds other primal, as an extended act of performance art. There are also those who see Cage as one of the more gifted and expressive actors currently working. In the eyes of his fans, Cage is that rare performer who is actually the individual author of his own work.
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Cage’s filmography is many things: varied, far-reaching, and entirely unexpected, for starters. His is a body of work that spans genres, several presidencies, and the massive gulf that exists between good and bad art. There is no one like Nicolas Cage, and there will never be again. All that said, in order to truly understand one of our more mystifying contemporary movie stars, we must take a look at seven of his most revealing and compelling performances.
The ’80s saw Cage charting a meteoric rise before fully breaking into Hollywood superstardom. In Martha Coolidge’s valley girl, Cage gives a performance for the ages as Randy: a hard-living Hollywood bad boy whose cold heart is thawed by a girl from, you guessed it, the San Fernando Valley. A few years and a handful of credits later, Cage would distinguish himself as one of the earliest collaborators of joel other Ethan Coen when he gamely played pea-brained career criminal HI McDunnough in the brother’s outlaw comedy, Raising Arizona. All that said, these brilliant performances still can’t hold a candle to the one cage delivers in Norman Jewison’s moonstruck: a screwy masterpiece of a New York love story where the actor dives heedlessly into the role of a heartthrob baker whose love for opera matches Cage’s own highly operatic register. Cage isn’t just acting here – he’s all but singing to the camera, and it’s impossible not to get caught up in the magnetism of his performance.
Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
Image via MGM
Cage continued to work steadily into the 90’s: memorable appearances included his taciturn drifter in John Dahl’s underrated neo-noir Red Rock West and a lead part alongside Bridget Fonda in the 1994 hit, It Could Happen To You. All the while, in the process, Cage was bringing an unprecedented and intensely unusual energy to the dominant leading-man archetype of the period. Particularly during this era, Cage specialized playing guys who were not necessarily tough or brave, but instead, neurotic, eccentric, and unquestionably human. Sticking with this approach, the ascendant star found massive success a mere year after it could happen to you with the release of Leaving Las Vegas, where his work as a down-on-his-luck alcoholic determined to end it all brings all of these above-described traits to the fore. In the end, Cage took home not only a Golden Globe, but an Academy Award for his efforts.
Image via Paramount
The ’90s kick off one of the stranger phases of Cage’s career, albeit one that’s left an indelible imprint on his greater cinematic legacy: his run as a ’90s action hero. It’s true that Cage lacked the brawn of Schwarzenegger and the bruiser charisma of Bruce Willis in his heyday. Alas, in muscular blockbusters such as Michael Bay’s The Rock and the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced Con Air, the Moonstruck star injected meathead genre exercises with jolts of indelible character-actor weirdness. Perhaps no living action director utilized Cage’s gonzo talents better than the legendary John Woowho cast the actor both as debauched terrorist Castor Troy and also as a bizarre version of John Travolta in the masterful ’90s classic Face/Off. To see Cage beautifully playing one of his most reprehensible characters is one thing. To see him perform a pitch-perfect Travolta impression, and nail every emotional beat in the process? Pure cinema, plain and simple.
Image via Sony Pictures
Cage is mesmerizing in the Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman collaboration adaptation, where he brings an abundance of wounded humanity not only to the role of a self-loathing screenwriter (Kaufman, or at least the movie’s funhouse-mirror version of the man), but also his cheerfully mediocre fictional brother, Donald. It’s hard to believe that a movie like adaptation, with its lack of a straightforward plot and biting Hollywood satire, got made at all, but Cage is the only actor who could have allowed a premise this out-there to really work. After all, it’s too easy to look at Cage’s “worst” work as some kind of punchline. The openness of Cage’s own artistry, which is on full display in both of the funny-sad, marvelously observed performances that the actor delivers in this film implores us as viewers to go deeper, to search for a richer read on the act of performance itself .
Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans (2009)
Image via First Look Studios
Cage’s mischievous penchant for muddying the boundaries that separate high art from low art reached its zenith when he gave a barn-burning, galvanizing turn in Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans, Werner Herzog’s vulgar and polarizing re-imagining of Abel Ferrara’s underworld masterpiece, Bad Lieutenant. For better or worse, it is an unforgettable performance that sees Cage threatening senior citizens, hallucinating an iguana, switching regional accents on a dime, and smoking crack in the presence of rapper Xzibit, of all people. More than many other Nicolas Cage performances, this collaboration with Herzog goes well beyond the binary of “good” or “bad” acting. Here, “good” or “bad” is not the point. Love or hate this movie, you’ve got to check it out at least once in your lifetime.
Image via Roadside Attractions
In spite of the drubbing Cage took from critics during the post-2010 aughts, where he featured in no shortage of straight-to-VOD dirt, the guy was often still working with interesting filmmakers in the arthouse world. On occasion, he would even turn in a performance that appeased his longtime detractors. This was certainly the case with David Gordon Green‘s joe, a mean, low-down Southern character study about a blue-collar roughneck who works arduously every day to quell his own latent capacity for brutality. Any hopes that Cage would resort to his familiar “Rage Cage” theatrics are put to bed in the poetic early minutes of Joe, which is tonally closer to something like last year’s pig than it is to anything produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. Cage is expertly in control of the fire that burns inside him in Joe, and watching him make futile attempts to quell it provides no shortage of thrills.
Image via NEON
Career rough patches and all, you can’t keep a game-changer like Cage down for long. Write him off, lambast his movies all you want: he’s just going to come back harder, with a performance undeniable enough to silence his naysayers To wit: Cage delivered the most soulful performance of his career in last year’s Pig, which was sold to audiences as a John Wick-style Cage revenge vehicle (substituting an adorable dog for a prized truffle pig, of course). This angle is not only inaccurate, it is misleading. Pig is a gentle, still film: a serene meditation on grief and loss. Cage, an actor known for his meltdowns, barely raises his voice in Pig. The performance is a rebuke to the shallow, pedantic criticisms that Cage has been giving the same overly mannered his performance his entire career. In Pig, Cage bravely bares a part of himself – a piece of his heart, really – that we’ve never seen before. The result is one of the actor’s all-time great performances.
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About The Author
(4 Articles Published)
Nicholas Laskin is a writer who works and lives in Los Angeles, California. A screenwriter and film journalist, Nick co-wrote and co-produced all ten episodes of a comedy-drama series “Talents,” that played at the Austin Film Festival back in 2014. When he’s not catching a movie screening at one of LA’s great revival houses, you can find Nick perusing the local bookstore for vintage detective novels or scribbling at home with his cat Greta on his lap.
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