Recently I defended Michael Bay (while simultaneously expressing how odious his movies can be), and now I rush to the defense of another man used as a lazy punchline to a billion deeply unfunny jokes about bad cinema: the acting colossus called Nicolas Cage. As with Bay, Cage is treated like a cautionary tale about how that vile, Chthonic monolith called Hollywood can drive people insane with greed, how talented individuals can lose their way and begin a descent from making art to making dross. He is accused of sleepwalking through films, cashing checks, appearing in unworthy crowd-pleasing dreck, and working with anti-cinematic infidels. His personal life is raked over (he keeps impulsively marrying women! He calls his kid a silly name! He buys too much crap!), his eccentricities treated as signs of mental illness, and his success used as example number two in the case against modern culture (example one being the success of Bay). Only Ben Affleck is treated with less respect, a fact that I intend to address in a future post where I defend him too. (I’m serious about that. Affleck is awesome.)
There are millions who seem to love to take a short-cut in thinking and just refer to Cage as a has-been with no understanding of what a joke he has become, though Cage’s most famous critic has been Sean Penn, the former friend who once told the New York Times, “Nic Cage is no longer an actor. He could be again, but now he’s more like a…performer”. This was said around the time that Cage appeared in two Bruckheimer productions — The Rock and Con Air — which seems to be the one thing an artist can do that will sink his credibility. Why did Penn single out Cage for that and not Cage’s co-stars Ed Harris, or Sean Connery, or John Cusack, or John Malkovich? They’re respected actors who have won awards and are considered to be fine actors, but Cage falls into the line of fire for moving from carefully considered character pieces like Leaving Las Vegas to action movies, three of which he did in a row (the third being the classic John Woo SF actioner Face/Off). His wildly broad performances in those movies were almost certainly a factor, but then he has always given broad performances, within which lie subtle moments (see also Wild At Heart, Birdy, Peggy Sue Got Married, etc.). They’re entertaining displays of eye-rolling crowd-pleasing acting pyrotechnics, but there’s a soul there too. This is what I think of as getting The Full-On Cage Experience, with madness and soulfulness tied together. Penn could never pull off anything like that. When he mugs, he ends up wrecking the movie.
By all that’s holy and unholy, how much better was Penn in Milk, or Dead Man Walking (incidentally, that’s one of my favourite screen performances of all time)? It’s not even a fair competition. Besides, this accusation, insinuating that Cage is no longer an actor, is rich coming from someone who appeared in I Am Sam. I’ll take an entertaining and unpretentious actor having fun playing a demonic avenger with a flaming skull than some humourless chide wasting his talent on Oscar-baiting bullshit like that any day of the week. Sadly, Penn’s not the only one who thinks Cage has pissed his talent away. In this little essay, Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman compares Cage to Dr. Wesley T. Snipes, which is prescient considering Cage’s current tax woes, but while Snipes has descended into Direct-To-DVD hell, Cage is still working on big-budget movies and smaller curios, still attracting the viewing public, and still cranking out performances that are — at best — thrilling, and — at worst — merely entertaining.
The one argument that genuinely annoys me is the one where Cage is cranking out piss-poor, lazy performances since his last truly astonishing performance in Jonze and Kaufman’s Adaptation. I’ve often said that I think his work in that (along with his work in Leaving Las Vegas and Raising Arizona) deserves a coveted Shades of Caruso Free Pass…
…but of all the movies he has made since, only three performances really disappointed me: his work as Benjamin Gates in the first National Treasure movie, where he seemed awfully tired; his creepy performance in Next, the empty action thriller adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s clever short story; and his catatonic turn as a greasy-haired loser assassin in the disastrous remake of Bangkok Dangerous, which I suspect he took so he could get a holiday in Thailand. That last one really did give me cause for concern, but Gleiberman likes to make out that Cage is regularly signing on for “grade-Z genre schlockers”, which apparently include Ghost Rider and The Wicker Man. Neither of them are good movies, but they were not developed as low-budget cash-ins. Ghost Rider was obviously meant to be a big comic book adaptation, with a pretty good cast and a $110m budget, and even if it was absolutely dire, it was made with love by fans of the character, of which Cage is one.
The Wicker Man is a dumb-ass movie by any standards, but it’s made by Neil LaBute, who was once a promising director. He could have turned in a thoughtless remake of the excellent original (which would fit under Gleiberman’s umbrella of “genre schlocker”) but instead made something personal, for better or worse. For all its faults it’s obviously of a part with his other movies, dealing with his favourite themes of misanthropy, deceit, misogyny, fear of opening up to others, and gynophobia. I’ve occasionally argued that The Wicker Man is a satire on male fear of impotence and castration, a paranoid comical fantasy about a scheming cabal of exaggerated feminist ballbreakers who are out to destroy the penis, turning all men into drones and semen-donors whose sexuality is merely a sacrifice of power to the almighty womb in order to replenish the earth with children.
Sadly, even if this was LaBute’s intention — and even if Cage was in on this project for that reason alone — it’s still ridiculous and poorly made and filled with wonderfully camp moments. Cage maintains that the comedic aspects of the movie were not lost on him. In an interview with Spike Jonze, Drew McWeeny discusses meeting Cage, and Jonze is full of praise:
Jonze: I love [Cage]. We had the best time working together. He really works and focuses.
McWeeny: His publicist was a little wary of me being there, I guess, because he doesn’t do a lot of press and he doesn’t allow press around a lot, but he really was very accessible once I’d been there for a few days, and he kind of warmed up to me. And he was really just fascinating. I loved chatting with him about stuff.
Jonze: Totally chill.
McWeeny: Yeah. And I think far more self-aware than most people think. Like I think some people think Nic is in this vacuum and doesn’t realize how crazy some of his performances are. I got the feeling he was totally aware of how people perceive things. We were talking about THE WICKER MAN, and he was like, “How do people call that an unintentional comedy? I’m in a bear suit kicking Lelee Sobieski in the throat. I know it’s funny.”
Jonze: He just takes it so seriously that nobody knows how to take him. Like PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED, I was like, “What is that?” Like I was 15 so I didn’t really know.
McWeeny: I just love how you can always count on him to push things further, like VAMPIRE’S KISS. He ate a roach, man.
Jonze: And also just the insanity of that performance, just the balls-out fearlessness.
Is it enough that Cage is aware of the ridiculousness of the movies he is appearing in? For me it is. I strongly suspect Cage is the most easily bored person in the world, and unfortunately that is paired with the ability to get work in movies that pay millions of dollars for him to spend on cars and comics and castles. Some of the films he has been in lately are truly awful, and I would never argue that they weren’t. Neverthless, I watch them for those flashes of manic commitment from Cage — The Partial Cage Experience — that delight me so. Are they valid acting choices, or is he merely trying to entertain himself while he trudges through formulaic populist bilge? As far as I’m concerned, even if he’s merely trying to entertain himself, he succeeding in entertaining me, and surely that’s what counts.
The only other popular actors that delight me as much are Clooney (who can do pathos and comedy equally well), Streep (who is always the best thing about everything she has ever been in), and maybe Jeff Bridges. Even those fine actors have not given me as much pleasure as Cage does, even when you forget about his early, golden years and concentrate on this bizarre stretch of poor movies. Since Adaptation we’ve had the insanity of Not The Bees…
…a literally hysterical fiery transformation…
…a Shout-Off with Rose Byrne (who is utterly overmatched, despite her invention of the word “chuldren”)…
…a run in with an obnoxious know-it-all child (the best part of which is how he treats the kid like an adult for most of the scene)…
…and a frustrating teaser of what could be his finest hour, if ever Rob Zombie got the money to make it…
His willingness to make fun of himself is the thing that keeps his crazy public and professional persona viable, and though many of his actions seem completely deranged, I honestly believe he’s playing a trick on us. Can someone who makes a series of adverts like these really be unintentionally weird?
(N.B. Anyone who has a sense of humour about themselves gets a break from me. Even the reportedly tyrannical and insensitive director Michael Bay gets points for playing up to his image with this commercial for Verizon:)
I’m a fully paid up Cage fan. For entertainment value, he can’t be beat. To see a person with such intelligence, quirkiness, restlessness, fearlessness, and energy do his thing in such big-screen movies is a rare thrill. If I squint I can see why Cage is now considered a hack by critics and film-watchers, because it’s easy to confuse being in a terrible movie and actually being terrible, but I worry that maybe people are also turned off by his intensity and his allegiance to the weird. The odd soporific performance aside, perhaps what baffles people the most is seeing him devote so much energy to projects that they feel don’t deserve it. Personally, I think that’s admirable. He’s getting paid enough, after all. Dance, you fucking monkey! Dance for your millions!
And yet even though I revel in his passionate and unpredictable work in crud, I’ve become concerned that we would never get another performance out of Cage that is as electrifying as his best work (disclaimer: I’ve not seen Lord of War or The Weather Man, and some have said he gives solid, rounded performances in both). Once upon a time he would work with Lynch and Scorsese, and the performances he gave were over-the-top yet grounded in some kind of emotional profundity, but lately those performances — while entertaining, memorable, and stronger than popular wisdom would have you believe — are lacking that extra fire. Well, I’m happy to report the return of The Full-On Cage Experience, as he takes on the task of being the 21st Century Klaus Kinski. More on that tomorrow, when I review Werner Herzog’s excellent Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.