This paper is the first chapter of a twenty-eight-volume exploration of the life and career of one Nicolas Cage, one of America’s greatest actors.
Cage’s recently-announced casting as Joe Exotic in the dramatized version of the documentary series Tiger King has reignited discussion of Cage’s bountiful work, sparking intense debate. The purpose of this project is to defend the greatness of his name against those who would besmirch it and to take action against that horrible wrong, as Ben Gates would advocate.
This paper was researched over many long nights, quarantined alone with nothing but fear, black coffee, and the 97 films in which Mr. Cage has appeared. It is the belief of the author that this paper’s release to the public should be immediate and widespread, for the sake of healing our broken humanity and reviving the fire of the ghost rider within us all.
Picture, if you will, a pearl of great price. It glistens in the sun, priceless, perfectly smooth, a beauty that begs, nay demands, elegiac prose as purple as the plump backside of Barney, a pearl that knows no equal on this earth or others.
Now imagine it’s in a toilet. And that toilet’s in a portapotty. And that portapotty’s busted as all hell. There graffiti’s all over the place – real obscene graffiti too, like men in bear costumes punching women in the face and “Drive Angry” gang tags. The toilet is overflowing with the kind of material one cannot mention by name in a paper this well-researched and austere, and the stench overwhelms.
But somewhere deep inside that lumpy brown water, the pearl is waiting for you. If only you have the courage to reach down and take it.
That’s a metaphor.
The pearl is Nicolas Cage, and the dirty portapotty is all his bad movies.
What a good metaphor.
Nicolas Cage is an electrifying and phenomenal actor, whose performance dwarfs those around him, like a gaping black hole draining the universe with its relentless pull. He is best known for his freak-outs, his frenetic limb-waving, his frequent and inexplicable volume modification, and his desire that the bunny be put back in the box. A series of major films that were lacerated by critics (Bangkok Dangerous, Drive Angry, The Wicker Man, The Season of the Witch, etc.), as well as a penchant for making low-budget straight-to-on-demand films (a recent sampling: Pay the Ghost, The Trust, USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage, Army of One, Vengeance: A Love Story, The Humanity Bureau, A Score to Settle, Running With The Devil, Kill Chain), has left the vague impression that he just a wild man, yodeling his way through dozens of bad movies with wide eyes and a flailing fist.
This could not be further from the truth.
That previous line was given its own paragraph to indicate how important it is. Nicolas Cage is an amazing actor, and those who disagree fail to take his entire career into account, with its many swings and nuances. Let us delve in.
A RELIABLE INDICATION of an actor’s merit is the directors they work with. Great directors spot talent and nurture it in their films. They harness acting glory, like one might harness a stallion wild from the field, and they tame that beast into a performance worthy of their art.
Here is a sampling of the directors Nicolas Cage has worked with: David Lynch, The Coen Brothers, Spike Jonze, Werner Herzog, Francis Ford Coppola (his uncle, but still counts), Oliver Stone, Ridley Scott, Martin Scorsese.
That lineup would make any actor jealous. And note that in the films he made with these directors, he wasn’t a side character or a bit part, he was the leading man. These movies were built largely around his performance, especially the largely plotless Bringing out the Dead and meta twist-a-whirl Adaptation.
Cage has been sought out repeatedly by the best directors to carry their films, a strong indication of the live wire of talent running beneath his soul.
“If there’s something wrong, those who have the ability to take action have the responsibility to take action.” – Ben Gates, National Treasure
IF SOMEONE WERE TO ARGUE against this thesis – let us call that person Nineteenth President of the United States Rutherford B. Hayes – then that person would likely point to such subpar films as I have mentioned above – perhaps adding on Left Behind, Gone in Sixty Seconds, Knowing, etc., and Rutherford, being an immature academic unworthy of attacking a thesis so grand as this one, would say that these films were stanky stanky poo poo and condemn Cage’s performance in them. Rutherford would have a point. Nicolas Cage makes a lot of movies, often six or seven a year. And many are not particularly good or memorable. But that does not take away from the many films he has made that are absolute gold.
Consider this, Mr. Hayes: Ernest Hemingway wrote Across the River and Into the Trees, widely considered crap. Brian de Palma directed a painfully mediocre adaptation of The Bonfire of the Vanities. Vincent Van Gogh painted plenty of forgettable landscapes, and also he cut his own ear off and tried to get a prostitute to mail it to his best friend. Every great artist has missteps. The Snows of Kilimanjaro is still one of the best short stories ever written. Scarface is still one of the peaks of crime cinema. Starry Night still hangs in the pantheon of painting.
Bad stuff doesn’t negate good stuff.
And yes, Nicolas Cage has had a lot of bad stuff, but quality beats quantity when it comes to great work. Here is a brief foray through a few of his best films.
Leaving Las Vegas – We’re going to start off with his Oscar. Academy Awards don’t mean that much (Al Pacino won for Scent of a Woman, not Godfather II), but they mean something, and Cage deserved this one. He plays a depressed writer intending to drink himself to death in a Vegas-style boozy suicide. Sad, poignant, etc.
Bringing out the Dead – Scorsese teams up with Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader again for this film, in which Cage plays a New York ambulance driver. The sleepless Cage goes from death to death, accident to accident, growing increasingly red-eyed and hopeless in this entrancing psychodrama.
Adaptation – Charlie Kaufman wrote a movie about Charlie Kaufman writing a movie, and Charlie Kaufman is played by Nicolas Cage. The movie is a delight, with Cage playing out of type as a neurotic, diminutive recluse, more likely to quietly whimper than dramatically roar. Oh, and also he plays Charlie Kaufman’s twin brother.
Raising Arizona – An early Coen Brothers classic comedy, in which Cage and Holly Hunter play a criminality-prone couple who kidnap a baby to hold for ransom. It includes the following line, delivered beautifully by Mr. Cage, “I’ll be taking these Huggies and whatever cash you got.”
National Treasure – An enjoyable adventure for the whole family. Nicolas Cage steals the Declaration of Independence. We learn about American history. Sean Bean’s there. It’s a lot of fun.
Moonstruck – This comedy netted an Oscar for Cher, and it makes full use of young Nicolas Cage’s fiery screaming abilities and hilarious, occasionally baffling charisma.
Red Rock West – This 1994 noir flew under the radar, but it’s a gem. Cage plays a marine mistaken for a contract killer and hired to kill a man’s wife, only to end up being convinced by said wife to kill her husband instead, just in time for the actual hitman, played by Dennis Hopper, to show up in search of his money.
Wild at Heart – What can one say about David Lynch? A lot, actually. But this is already obscenely long, so let’s just say he is a hypnotizing director of deep and lasting bizareness. And his choice to cast Cage as the male lead alongside Laura Dern in this Bonnie and Clyde story is inspired. Just look at that shot of Cage pointing, cigarette dangling out of his mouth, after stomping a guy’s face. Also, this line, “Did I ever tell ya that this here jacket represents a symbol of my individuality, and my belief in personal freedom?”
“‘Cuz I was made for this sewer, baby, and I am the king,” Rick Santoro, Snake Eyes.
IN 2009, NICOLAS CAGE starred in Werner Herzog’s reimagining in the 1992 film Bad Lieutenant, as the titular bad lieutenant. This movie is a stew of everything Cage. It incorporates all the screaming, the insane quotes, the bipolarity into a wild ride through Cage-land.
The pain killer-addicted bad lieutenant is a man rocketing toward self-destruction. He commits many crimes throughout the film, tries to solve some murders, and smokes out of a “lucky crack pipe.” The movie includes such lines as “Shoot him again. His soul is still dancing.” And an unforgettable scene in which Cage brandishes his revolver at two elderly women, screaming, “I should f****** kill you f****** both. You’re the f****** reason this country’s going down the drain.”
His off-the-wall performance is the perfect match for the film, a blend of actor and material so perfect it has never entirely been achieved in his filmography before or since. All of the wild Cage-isms that threaten to bust down the walls of his other movies fit perfectly in the world of this drugged-out cop.
“OH, NO! NOT THE BEES! NOT THE BEES! AAAAAHHHHH! OH, THEY’RE IN MY EYES! MY EYES! AAAAHHHHH! AAAAAGGHHH!” Edward Malus, The Wicker Man
ALMOST ALL OF THE BAD MOVIES in Nicolas Cage’s oeuvre are enjoyable for one reason, and that is Nicolas Cage.
Two notable examples: Deadfall and The Wicker Man
Deadfall is a bad crime movie. Cage plays a crazy guy with a mustache. Whenever he’s not on the screen, the movie is not enjoyable in any way. It’s pretty boring. When he is on screen, the sheer insanity of his performance is a delight. He dials it up to eleven, crying like a pouting baby, karate chopping men at a strip club, and hollering, “VIVE LA F****** FRANCE MAN!” for no discernable reason.
The Wicker Man is an ill-thought out remake of the classic ’70s horror film. If you want to see a great movie, watch that one. If you want to see Nicolas Cage kick a woman into a wall, watch this. It includes such classic moments as Cage brandishing a burnt doll, while yelling, “How’d it get burned? How’d it get burned? How’d it get burned? How’d it get burned?” and Cage running across a meadow in a full-body bear suit in order to punch another woman in the face. Without Cage, this movie is just mediocre nothing. With him, it’s its own special breed of happiness.
COMMUNITY IS THE BEST SITCOM of all time after Frasier, and the character Abed Nadir is the show’s definitive voice of cinema. In Season 5, Episode 2, Abed is assigned the task of determining whether or not Nicolas Cage is a good actor. The assignment gives him a mental breakdown, leading him to leap onto his professor’s desk and proclaim “I’m a sexy cat.”
Afterward, as he throws away his collection of DVDs, he says, “I thought the meaning of people was somewhere in [movies], and then I looked inside Nicolas Cage and found a secret – people are random and pointless”
Nicolas Cage’s career is one that must be studied extensively, deeply, with mythic intent and snake venom spirit. It contains multitudes. Leaving Las Vegas and Deadfall. Raising Arizona and Left Behind. The duality of man. The decay of meaning. The inscrutability of existence. The silence of God.
Nicolas Cage is a good actor.