The Many Ages of Cage: Nicolas Cage, Actor
Legendary broadcaster Terry Wogan had many great guests on his chat show during its 10 year run, but none were as live-wire as a young actor named Nicolas Cage. In the UK to promote Wild at Heart, Cage somersaulted onto the stage, pulled a few karate moves, and threw cash into the crowd. Once he finally took a seat next to Wogan, he realised that he had over-exerted himself in the heat of the studio lights and panted his way through the interview. Wogan, with his typical drollery, was clearly tiptoeing his way through the conversation - like everyone else, he had absolutely no idea what would come next. Cage had one more surprise. Still suffering from the heat, he stripped off his T-shirt, gave it to Wogan, and finished the rest of their chat bare-chested under his leather jacket.
This was the wild and crazy Nic Cage, a strutting, hooting, karate-kicking meme of a man long before memes even existed, an “obnoxious, irreverent, arrogant madman” (his own words) who would become a favourite in certain corners of Youtube with mashup videos of his most outrageous acting moments. And it was a persona that he would come to reckon with over 30 years later in the meta action-adventure The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent when he would come face-to-face with his flamboyant younger self.
Where to begin with an actor whose colourful career has racked up over 100 movies and counting? An eccentric personality whose oft-quoted misadventures with stolen dinosaur skulls, malevolent pet cobras, and shroom sessions with his cat have provided a field day for journalists and web scribes seeking to link his larger-than-life screen presence with an equally left-field personal life?
The start almost feels prosaic and disrespectful to a true original like Nicolas Cage, so perhaps we should begin by addressing those Nic Cage videos. You’ve probably seen them, with titles like “Nicolas Cage Losing His Shit” and “Nic Cage Ultimate Freakouts.” They’re pretty funny stuff, but what bugs me about them is this: They are obviously compiled by people with little care for the context of the scene and little interest or knowledge of the thought process that goes into Cage’s outlandish acting choices. These clip reels just chortle at him as the wacky guy who just goes off his rocker all the time, which totally misses the point of what the actor is trying to achieve.
Perhaps Ethan Hawke said it best when he claimed that Cage was “the only actor since Marlon Brando that’s actually done anything new with the art,” and the full picture is far more fascinating than a guy just “losing his shit” in a bunch of scenes.
As most actors have striven for realism over the past 50 years or so, Cage has ploughed a courageous furrow in the opposite direction by rejecting naturalism altogether, developing a form of acting that he has variously described as “Nouveau shamanism,” “Western Kabuki,” and inspired by German Expressionism. In his thoughtful interviews, Cage is clearly very serious about his art, and this is where a more interesting picture emerges: Here is a surreal performance artist who has somehow made a living as a high-profile actor for over four decades and counting.
The First Age of Cage: Rising Star
Born Nicolas Kim Coppola, Cage hails from a vaunted Hollywood family including his uncle Francis Ford Coppola, auntie Talia Shire, and cousins Sofia Coppola and Jason Schwartzmann. He ditched the family name early on, wanting to forge his own path without accusations of nepotism, and became Nicolas Cage.
It still took him a little while to reach escape velocity from his venerable family name. He received his first lead role in Valley Girl in 1983, and initially seemed to be going for the same kind of brooding intensity as Matt Dillon and Mickey Rourke in the ‘80s, both of which he supported in his uncle’s Rumble Fish in the same year. He made two more movies with Francis Ford Coppola, The Cotton Club and Peggy Sue Got Married. Despite the family connection, none of them allowed him to stretch his legs creatively in the way working with other directors would.
He had more luck in Alan Parker’s Birdy, for which he prepared in the extreme method route by having two teeth pulled without anaesthetic to make him appear authentically pained as a traumatised Vietnam veteran.
His big breakthrough wasn’t far away. Unlikely as it may sound, he was far from the most outrageous character in the Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona, although he claimed he was channelling Woody Woodpecker as slow-witted ex-con H.I. McDonaugh. Then came an early fan favourite role as the combustible baker with a wooden hand in Moonstruck, the movie that won Cher an Oscar. Cage was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance, and Roger Ebert argued that he should have also received a nod from the Academy.
Now we had lift off, and the following year came the movie that is generally regarded as ground zero for Cage’s unique style of “mega-acting” - Vampire’s Kiss. Prefiguring Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho by a few years, it’s a horror-satire of ‘80s yuppiedom where Cage plays a loathsome literary agent who believes he is turning into a vampire.
It’s a staple of those Nic Cage highlight reels and he certainly goes big, but once again it’s all about context. He’s in almost every scene of a 100-minute movie, and his performance is consistent for a comedy about a man whose psychoses make him think he is becoming a bloodsucking undead creature. But yeah, he did eat a live cockroach for the role on his own suggestion - and took two takes doing it.
The Second Age of Cage: Going Mainstream
Shortly after David Lynch’s Wild at Heart was released in 1990 and around the same time he made his energetic appearance on Wogan, Carla Hall of the Washington Post opened a profile of the actor with the question - “Can Nicolas Cage play a normal guy?”
Even by that stage of his career, it perhaps should have been clear: Nicolas Cage had little interest in playing normal guys. Lynch was already comparing him to a jazz musician, “looking for complicated notes in his acting,” and the director managed to capture one of Cage’s most iconic performances. In Lynch’s warped vision of Americana, Cage was at his most charismatic as Sailor, a bad boy Elvis-lover in a snakeskin jacket.
Cage is pure rock ‘n’ roll in the movie, busting heads, crooning Elvis tunes, and cooking up some sizzling chemistry with Laura Dern. A throwback to the teen exploitation flicks of the ‘50s and ‘60s, Cage was effortlessly and authentically sexy, cool, and dangerous. He still had many of his greater roles to come but Wild at Heart felt like an early peak, a blast of pure rebellion before he took a plunge into the Hollywood mainstream.
The early to mid ‘90s saw Cage dabble in several genres including erotic thriller (Zandalee), neo noir (Red Rock West), inoffensive schedule fillers like Guarding Tess, and rom-coms such as It Could Happen to You and Honeymoon in Vegas. The latter was the first instalment of Cage’s unofficial Vegas Trilogy and, with its similar premise, beat the po-faced Indecent Proposal to the punch, if not the box office bucks. It also gave the world The Flying Elvi, a troupe of skydivers dressed as Elvis Presley who are guaranteed to add some extra glitz to any wedding on the Strip.
In between, he also went big and outrageous in crime thrillers like Deadfall and Kiss of Death, where he blew the bland top-billing Michael Biehn and David Caruso off the screen respectively.
Then came another Vegas movie that couldn’t be more different in tone, subject matter, and outcome than Honeymoon in Vegas. Adapted from John O’Brien’s semi-autobiographical novel, Mike Figgis’s low-budget Leaving Las Vegas was an indie that avoided the usual cliches of the tragic drunk and the hooker with the heart of gold thanks to its pure rawness. Filmed in 16mm over just 28 days, Cage found the role liberating after years of glossier projects, giving a heartbreaking performance as a man who decides to drink himself to death and finds love along the way in the form of Elisabeth Shue’s forlorn sex worker.
The film was a box office success and received rapturous reviews from critics. Just five years after Wild at Heart, Cage received the greatest accolade that mainstream Hollywood could offer with an Oscar nomination. He was up against a strong field including Richard Dreyfuss (Mr. Holland’s Opus), Anthony Hopkins (Nixon), and Sean Penn (Dead Man Walking), but Cage took home the Best Actor award.
His acceptance speech was a far cry from his crazed Wogan appearance, a dignified and humble moment that showed Cage knew exactly what the score was, thanking the Academy for enabling him to “blur the line between art and commerce.” And his subsequent films would certainly lean towards the latter as he took an unexpected change of direction.
The Third Age of Cage: The Action Years
Winning an Academy Award isn’t always a guarantee of success, and the so-called “Oscar Curse” has claimed many big names over the years. Kim Basinger was unable to build on the esteem she earned with her only Oscar win for L.A. Confidential, and Halle Berry picked up a Razzie for Catwoman just three years after receiving the Best Actress award for Monster’s Ball.As for Nicolas Cage, he turned the acclaim into some serious bank by transforming himself into a bonafide action superstar. For Michael Bay’s The Rock, he played harried FBI chemical weapons specialist Stanley Goodspeed, tasked with breaking into Alcatraz to take out Ed Harris’s band of terrorists. The role felt somewhat like a reprisal of his part in Guarding Tess, with Cage developing great chemistry with a senior actor. This time around it was Sean Connery, who sparkled as the only man to ever break out of the maximum security island prison.
Next up, he bulked up and grew his hair long for Con Air, one of the most bombastic action movies of the ‘90s. Playing the hero, Cage was almost the straight man for a colourful gallery of villains including Ving Rhames, Danny Trejo, Steve Buscemi, and John Malkovich - and the film concluded his unofficial Vegas trilogy with a spectacular set piece crashing a plane into the Strip.
Cage completed a trio of hugely successful action blockbusters with the best of the bunch, Face/Off. Much of the movie’s charm is watching Cage compete in the scenery-chewing stakes with another serial over-actor, John Travolta. Both stars clearly enjoy playing each other thanks to the film’s hokey sci-fi concept, their histrionics well-matched by John Woo’s typically overwrought directing style.
This trio of films firmly cemented Cage as one of Hollywood’s most bankable action stars at a time when the likes of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger were on the wane. In many ways, the unlikely success of Cage’s action prowess has unfairly shaded the rest of his career to date. While he continued with action fare over the next decade with movies like Gone in Sixty Seconds, the National Treasure movies, and Ghost Rider, they were usually far from his best work.
In between the bombast and the special effects, Cage put in some notable performances for a variety of esteemed directors. His bravura acting style found another soul mate in Brian De Palma for the underrated Snake Eyes; he gave a haunted performance in Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead, and played twin brothers in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. The dual role is arguably one of his most universally loved performances, and it earned him another Oscar nomination.
Although this was one of Cage’s most fertile periods, it wasn’t always successful. He was cast as Kal-El, aka Clark Kent, in Tim Burton’s abortive Superman Lives, surely one of the most intriguing movies never made. He kept it up with the rom-com stuff with City of Angels, a slushy and ponderous remake of Wim Wenders’ classic Wings of Desire, and added another clip to the highlights reel with some bad acting in Joel Schumacher’s snuff thriller 8mm.
And don’t even get me started on The Wicker Man, Neil LaBute’s risible remake of the ‘70s folk horror masterpiece. To his credit, Cage’s ludicrous performance is the only entertaining thing about the film, which is a double-edged sword. While he makes it just about watchable, it might have vanished from memory altogether without him. Which definitely would have been a good thing.
Perhaps Cage would have carried on in that vein, trading off commercially successful Hollywood fare with acclaimed performances in lower-key projects. But then disaster struck.
The Fourth Age of Cage: Into the Wilderness
In interviews, Nicolas Cage is as refreshingly candid about his financial woes as he is about everything else. In an appearance on CBS’s 60 Minutes earlier this year, he opened up about how over-investment in property left him staring down the barrel of a hefty debt when the housing market crashed in 2008:
“Financial mistakes happened with the real estate implosion that occurred, in which the lion’s share of everything I had earned was pretty much eradicated. But one thing I wasn’t going to do was file for bankruptcy.”
Instead, Cage held his nose and took just about every acting gig that came his way to pay his way out of trouble. Many of them were crummy by his own admission, but he also justifies his decision by saying he never phoned it in. I haven’t seen most of the generic thrillers, comedies, and view-on-demand crud he made over that period, but in the ones I have seen, Cage always elevates the thinnest material.
On the down side, Cage’s spell in the wilderness has somewhat cemented his reputation as a goofball hack for a generation of younger viewers who only know the wild and crazy side of his acting, made worse by the Youtube videos and memes of him “losing his shit” on film.
It was a lean period, but there were still indications that Cage had lost none of his distinct energy or passion for his craft. He amped up his performance while working with Werner Herzog on Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, had a choice role as Big Daddy in Kick-Ass, and gave a powerful character study in Joe.
Finally, Cage sorted out his finances and started making the kind of movies he wanted to make again, although it took a sharp eye to spot his gradual re-emergence from self-exile in VOD land at first. In a career spanning many dozens of movies, Cage starred in surprisingly few horrors up until around five years ago, but it was that genre that set the table for one of the greatest comebacks since Matthew McConaughey staged the McConaissance.
The Fifth Age of Cage: The ReCageissance
A little while back, I tried coining a new term to describe Nicolas Cage’s resurgence in recent years. I called it the ReCageissance: So far, the word hasn’t caught on, but I’m sticking with it!
A quick glance at Cage’s filmography over the past five years would suggest that nothing much has changed. There are plenty of very mediocre VOD movies on the list, but, in 2018, buzz grew that his performance in an 80s-set indie horror called Mandy was the best thing he had done in years.
The buzz was right. As a taciturn lumberjack wreaking revenge on a gang of satanist bikers for his girlfriend’s murder, Cage was by turn soulful, unhinged, and utterly captivating in Panos Cosmatos’s neon-drenched horror.
The same year also saw him make an impact in both DC Comics and Marvel universes with his vocal talents, playing Kal-El in Teen Titans Go! To the Movies and Noir Spider-Man in the dazzling Spider-Man: Into the Multi-Verse.
The next step on the road back was Color Out of Space, Richard Stanley’s adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s eerie cosmic horror. Stanley’s unique perspective hadn’t been seen since he was fired from the disastrous The Island of Dr. Moreau almost 25 years earlier, and the combination of Lovecraft, Stanley, Cage, and stoner icon Tommy Chong promised a match made in cult movie heaven.
When the film was first announced, it only seemed like a question of how nuts Cage would go. But the movie defied expectations, a bleak and psychedelic slow-burn that is perhaps the best Lovecraft adaptation to date. While Cage does go pretty nuts, it is in keeping with his character’s arc: A nerdy middle-aged dad who just wants to escape the rat race and start a llama farm who steadily unravels as his land and family become overwhelmed by the malevolent shade of purple.
Willy’s Wonderland (2021) was no great shakes, but Cage tweaked his persona and made it worthwhile with a wordless turn as a janitor battling possessed animatronic puppets, grooving at a pinball machine and chugging energy drinks between kills. The same year, we also got the film that proved that Cage was still an actor capable of delivering a substantial performance.
Pig sounds like a riff on the John Wick formula. Cage plays a grief-stricken former chef living in the woods with his beloved truffle pig. When his porcine best friend is snatched, the dishevelled loner heads to the city to hunt down the culprits. What sounds like a revenge thriller plot becomes something far more poignant and heartfelt, with Cage delivering one of the most nuanced and restrained performances of his career.
Critics rightly hailed it as his best work in a long while and Cage won several awards, although missed out on a nomination for the Golden Globes and the Oscars. He was also nominated for the Razzie Redeemer Award. Since its inception in 2014, it has become known as the Razzie you want to win, honouring past Razzie winners or nominees who have made a significant comeback to become respected artists once again. Cage had previously racked up nine Razzie nominations but lost out to Will Smith for his Oscar-winning performance in King Richard.
For those Cage watchers among us, the actor was clearly back with style, and he celebrated with The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, a meta-action comedy that he initially turned down. Writer and director Tom Gormican persevered, writing to Cage personally and persuading him to take the role of a slightly altered version of himself. Along the way, his character would be plagued by “Nicky,” a de-aged version of his wild and obnoxious younger self.
On paper, it’s a film that could have very easily been insufferable. However, Gormican and his star pull off a neat balancing act with plenty of fan service, solid action beats, and a genuinely feel good bromance between Cage and our current man-of-the-moment Pedro Pascal. The result is a joyful and surprisingly touching celebration of the cult of Cage.
Cage’s return to the limelight was marked by this year’s Renfield. Unfortunately, Chris McKay’s movie simply isn’t very good, settling for broad strokes and gory gags. It also highlighted why Count Dracula’s familiar was always the sidekick and the vampire is one of literary horror’s greatest villains. We spend far too much time with Nicholas Hoult’s put-upon Renfield trying to escape the clutches of an abusive relationship with the Count himself, and nowhere near long enough with Cage’s take of the famous bloodsucker.
While his limited screen time means Cage doesn’t trouble the legacy of Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee, he does find interesting wrinkles for the well-worn character. He makes Dracula a ferocious and domineering force, but the movie feels like a missed opportunity. If we had a film that focused on Cage’s vampire, then it might have really been something.
Now approaching 60, Cage is showing no sign of slowing down with several more films slated for release over the next year or so. Love him or hate him, I have a feeling that we might see a few more ages of Cage before he hangs it up for good.
So there you have it, a run down of the many ages of Cage. What are your favourite Cage movies? What are his worst? Do you think he’s underrated or just a hack? Let us know!