The Actor Spotlight: Nicolas Cage

26 Aug
2011

I find it disconcerting how hated Nicolas Cage is. It’s not an uncommon occurrence to hear people say that they avoid Nicolas Cage movies because he is in it. Are there any other Oscar winners that that have that same problem? Make no mistake, I’m not saying he hasn’t been in bad films, but there is no actor who has been in over 50 films who can say they haven’t made a few mistakes. Yet these same people who damn him will forgive Al Pacino for doing Two For the Money, and are completely willing to ignore The Tourist from both Johnny Depp and Angelia Jolie‘s resumes. So why do people only take Ghost Rider, The Wicker Man, and Season of the Witch into consideration whether they should go see the newest Cage film? I have no illusions that this blog will make these Cage haters think he’s a master of the craft, but hopefully it will keep them from writing a movie off just because he is in it. 

 A Budding Career

His career started off well, his first starring role coming with Valley Girl. It was one of those opposites attract, Romeo and Juliet styles of movie and he played the punk kid to Deborah Foreman‘s valley girl teeny-bopper. It’s not a brilliant film by any means, but it was entertaining enough with Cage putting in a good performance considering he was only a teenager. He would be a supporting actor or star in many more movies of varying quality throughout the 80s including Rumble Fish, Peggy Sue Got Married, and Moonstruck but none matched his first amazing performance in Raising Arizona.

Directed by the Coen Brothers, Raising Arizona is comedy where a repeatedly unsuccessful criminal, Cage, marries the police officer he has only met on the occasions of his arrests played by Holly Hunter. Once they find out they will be unable to have a baby they decide to steal one from a wealthy business man who recently had five of his own. This is Cage’s second highest rated film on Flickchart and deservedly so, as he does some amazing work here. Here was a young man coming into his own as an actor working with two craftsmen who were coming into their own as directors and writers. Reviews were mixed when it first came out, but time has been kind to this film and it seems to grow more and more respected as the years go by.

Hitting His Stride

The early 90s were much like the 80s for Cage. He made a movie or two a year but only one was very memorable, Wild at Heart. It’s a typically weird David Lynch movie where Cage is dating a girl whose mother has more than once hired someone to kill him, and it’s a great example of his acting range. He’s still a young actor and instead of resting on the laurels that have gotten him his first starring roles he decides to play a rockabilly character in a movie that’s really out there and he nails it. Despite mixed to negative reviews the film did win the Palme d’Or in 1990 and has also become more appreciated as the years have gone on.

In 1995, he starred alongside Elisabeth Shue in Leaving Las Vegas and won the the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role. It was a well deserved Oscar, as he was superb as a broken-down man who has decided to drink himself to death in Las Vegas. I didn’t think this movie was directed or edited very well, as Mike Figgis decided to have a nearly ceaseless jazz music soundtrack playing throughout the film. Silence doesn’t necessarily hurt a film and when you have music blaring in every single moment you are discrediting the actors’ performances. Letting them display the mood is perfectly acceptable, especially when you have both Cage and Shue giving two powerhouse performances. Without them I probably wouldn’t have liked this movie very much but they elevate it into a must see film.

The rest of the 90s was rounded out with mostly action or thriller films. These aren’t his best work but can be quite fun. The Rock, Con Air, Face/Off, and 8MM have all found their audiences and have been included in more than a few guilty pleasures lists.

The Calm Before the Storm

He came out with a variety of different types of films in the early 2000s, but none were close to equaling his performance in Adaptation. In this film written by Charlie Kaufman, Cage plays both Charlie Kaufman and his fictional brother Donald Kaufman as he struggles to write a script based on the real book The Orchid Thief. This is his some of his best work, and he received his second Oscar nomination for it, only to lose out to Adrien Brody in The Pianist. Three more movies came out shortly after this that are also worthy films to watch: Matchstick Men, Lord of War, and The Weather Man.

Not the Bees!”: The Fall of Cage

When The Wicker Man came out, Cage was already falling off a bit. He was having some well documented relationship woes, he had recently tried his hand at directing a by all accounts flop with Sonny, and his good movies that were receiving critical acclaim weren’t getting a lot of box office numbers. In 2006, he had a chance to bring the fans back with an Oliver Stone film about the September 11th attacks called World Trade Center. Unfortunately. the same year United 93 was released which was much more highly regarded film about the same tragedy.

I blame the “Not the Bees!” scene from The Wicker Man as the straw that broke the camels back for people to become so anti-Cage. It became a popular video for people to make fun of on message boards and blogs for awhile and will still rear up from time to time. I’m not really surprised by this and I can’t say I’ve never laughed at it, but part of the reason it’s so funny is because of how committed Cage is to the scene. The bees are really terrible CGI, and when Cage is screaming and wailing he doesn’t know how ridiculous it’s going to look so he just goes for it. Next time you watch it, try to imagine if any actor could have made that scene believable before you judge him as a bad actor because of it.

Almost every non-professional review, and even a few professional ones, for any movie he has done since has been more a vehicle for mockery than cinematic criticism. His hair often gets the brunt of the insults, and claims of overacting are popular as well. I’m not claiming movies like Ghost Rider, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Drive Angry, or Season of the Witch are good films but the vitriol that gets spewed on him by the casual movie goer because of this small percentage of his work is frustrating. Especially, when these same people are going into it with the mindset that they are just going to make fun of Cage.

The Resurgence?

Mixed in with a lot of those recent bad movies have been two great films. The first seems to be overlooked by many and is called Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans where Cage received his best critical reviews since Adaptation. The second is one that surprised even the most jaded of casual internet movie critic and that was Kick-Ass. He plays a supporting but important role, and it was really nice to see him getting some accolades from even the most stringent of haters.

I hope he can be a part of enough good films in the coming years to right the ship. I know very little of the movies he has in production or post-production except that the sequel to Ghost Rider is one of them and I have no hope that will help his cause. There are rumors of a third National Treasure film, which will probably do little else but keep him in the public’s attention. My hope lies almost completely in the recent announcement that he has been linked with the new Spike Jonze directed Charlie Kaufman written film, Frank or Francis. If he can match the same type of performance as he did when they all collaborated on Adaptation we could be in for a great treat and hopefully a few more people will realize he’s not as terrible as everyone seems to think he is.

  • http://www.facebook.com/travis.easton Travis Easton

    I’m a Cage fan, it’s nice to see some others at least appreciate his work.

  • http://travismcclain.blogspot.com Travis McClain

    You’ve really got two different Nicolas Cage fans.  There’s the Raising Arizona/Leaving Las Vegas fan and then there’s the Rock/Con Air/Face/Off fan.  Those two each want something pretty different out of him, so if he appeases one of the two, he’s almost guaranteed to lose the interest of the other.

    Personally, I like him in general and I would never avoid a movie because he’s in it.  Still, I’d be lying if I said I actively sought out Nic Cage movies.  Anyone who would think to blow part of his fortune on Action Comics #1 is alright in my book!

    By the way, shame on you for failing to mention Bringing Out the Dead.  He was terrific in that!  I introduced my wife to that movie when she began working EMS and she went crazy over it, saying it did a great job capturing a lot of the job.  (At the time, she was working for a company that had the contract with county coroner, so they worked some gruesome scenes.)

    I was pretty disappointed in Ghost Rider, but I’m game for the sequel.  I’m hopeful that, now that the origin story is out of the way, they can tell a story that’s not so perfunctory and paint-by-numbers.  And maybe they’ll spend the money for some actual special effects; the final act was little more than suggestive of what should have been some visually impressive moments.  I can’t fault Cage for that, of course, but unfortunately it remains a blemish in his filmography.

    • http://www.facebook.com/ryan.stuckey Ryan Stuckey

      Actually I have never seen Bringing Out the Dead, but your high marks had me shoot it to the top of my netflix queue (too bad it’s a ‘very long wait’).

      He really is one of my favorite actors (top 10 at least), and I’m slowly but surely trying to watch all his films.

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  • LS

    Herzog found a true muse in Cage with Bad Lieutenant; he uses Cage there the way he used Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, or Boris S. in Kaspar Hauser. With the context of Herzog’s best in mind, it is an incredible performance that captures and entices. Bad Lieutenant is a film that demands to be scene.