The Time of Nic
Before financial woes and Ghost Rider derailed his career, Nic Cage had something special.
“There are often lists of the great living male movie stars. How often do you see the name of Nicolas Cage? He should always be up there. He’s daring and fearless in his choice of roles, and unafraid to crawl out on a limb, saw it off and remain suspended in air.”—Roger Ebert
“Nic Cage is no longer an actor.”—Sean Penn
The truth about Cage probably lies somewhere in between. Lately, he’s been turning up in three or four films a year, and they’re often shoddy paycheck gigs we can only presume were taken to stave off some well-publicized and hilarious financial problems. (Owning multiple castles, years of back taxes, that pet shark and dinosaur skull.) You can lose an entire evening chasing crazy Cage headlines down the Internet rabbit hole.
There’s not a lot of quality control in the Cage filmography. But really, how could there be? He’s probably shot two direct-to-video movies in Bulgaria during the time it took me to write this article.
Yet what you’ll find in Cage’s work is what’s missing from the work of most modern actors, and that may be what draws the ire of dullards like former costar Penn. It’s that spark of anything-can-happen unpredictability; those bug-eyed, sideways line readings that seem to have landed here from another planet. I’ve watched almost all of Cage’s 60-something pictures and can tell you that I never know what I’m going to see next. When Nic gets into his wackadoo groove, there’s nothing else quite like him in cinema.
I interviewed Cage once on a junket for Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, and a brief roundtable with this wiry man in a plaid blazer, sporting shock-orange fake hair and engaging in unrelenting eye contact left me convinced I’d just had an audience with an alien being. He doesn’t operate on our wavelength, and I’ve come around to thinking we moviegoers are all the luckier for it.
It’s an opinion shared by Ned Hinkle, creative director at the Brattle Theatre, who’s running a repertory series this month called: Nicolas Cage: Greatest American Actor. Surveying some of the ecstatic highs and awful lows of this singular career, Hinkle wants to make a showcase for Cage at his most boffo bizarre.
“He’s a magnet for the crazy, the weird and the wonderful of cinema,” Hinkle muses. “And while it’s admittedly facetious to subtitle the series Greatest American Actor, I mean it when I say that Cage’s range is something to behold, and his ability to leave it all on the screen is just amazing.”
Carefully curated in chronological order, the series kicks off with Martha Coolidge’s 1983 Valley Girl and the Coen Brothers’ triumphant Raising Arizona, offering a double whammy of the actor’s leonine, cartoon physicality at a time when he was primarily known as Francis Ford Coppola’s oddball nephew. I daresay there are few things more sublime in the Coens’ fabled oeuvre than Cage’s breathy, incongruously tranquil voice-over: “Maybe it was Utah.”
A stand-alone evening is granted to Vampire’s Kiss, perhaps the Rosetta stone of gonzo performances. Starring as a bizarrely-accented, buttoned-down executive who thinks he’s become a vampire, Cage hems and hollers in a feast of scenery-chewing that was widely despised upon its 1988 release but has become a cult classic. He also eats a live cockroach.
Wild at Heart is still my favorite, with Cage channeling Elvis Presley in a lewd sprawl through a scorched America of curdled iconography, the way only David Lynch at the peak of his powers could imagine. The actor’s courtly Presley-isms (he did end up marrying the King’s daughter for about 15 minutes way back when) are just one example of the way he idiosyncratically slips into another performer’s skin.
Next arrives Face/Off, John Woo’s over-the-top extravaganza in which Cage swaps visages with John Travolta, effortlessly mimicking the disco king’s halting mannerisms, but only after establishing a gold-pistol standard for debauched villainy. It’s still a kick to watch these two try on each other’s outsized screen personas.
The series culminates with a double feature of Cage’s most acclaimed and derided turns of recent years. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans teams him with freaky soul mate Werner Herzog on a journey into half-kidding depravity, while The Wicker Man finds the actor almost super-heroically sputtering and railing against the constraints of a movie that doesn’t quite know what to do with all this Nicolas Cage.
“The chances he takes are just phenomenal,” Hinkle concludes. “And no, sometimes they don’t work out. Hello, Wicker Man! It’s easy to say that Cage’s best days are behind him and that he’s his own punch line now, but look at Bad Lieutenant. That movie is brilliant, and his performance is what makes it. He’s goofy but scary, unhinged but in control, and not afraid to look ugly.”
Greatest American Actor
Starring Nicolas Cage. Runs June 11–21 at the Brattle Theatre. For a full schedule, visit brattlefilm.org.