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14 October 2016

The most misunderstood man in Hollywood? What I learned from watching every Nicolas Cage film

Tracking the rise and fall (and rise again?) of cinema’s most mocked and memed actor.

By Ed jefferson

It’s a shame about Nicolas Cage. Or at least, that’s what a more sympathetic review of one of his recent films will tend to say, before alluding to a connection between his decision to take a role in whichever load of old rubbish it is this time and his widely reported financial difficulties, and then making a joke about bees.

In popular culture terms, Cage is less of an actor these days than he is the owner of the face that launched a thousand memes. Looking at the worst of his output over the last ten years, you can kind of see why. The movie of Left Behind, evangelical Christianity’s version of a Tom Clancy novel. Two entirely separate, but equally bad, films in which Cage adopts a risible accent to play a medieval crusader who deserts because he’s sick of violence. And far too many cheapo sub-Taken thrillers in which he plays increasingly tired-looking men who have to do a lot of punching in order to save women: the nadir of these being The Wicker Man, in which the twist is that he has to punch the women instead. While dressed as a bear.

But take almost any era of Cage’s career and you can find some real dross: his earliest leading roles were in dull coming-of-age period dramas like The Boy In Blue, which ambitiously but delusionally aimed to do for nineteenth-century competitive rowing what Rocky did for boxing.

Okay, by the late Eighties he was finally getting decent comedy roles, as a good-hearted baby thief in early Coen Brothers classic Raising Arizona and a deranged would-be undead literary agent in the brilliantly weird Vampire’s Kiss. But you have to set those against dreadful Top Gun-but-with-helicopters effort Wings of the Apache, and the even worse than it sounds Judge Reinhold-starring erotic thriller Zandalee.

Cage really hit his stride in the mid-Nineties, when he figured out how to use his comedic talents in other genres. One of the many enjoyable things about The Rock is that he’s not playing against type: the character is meant to be as unlikely an action hero as the actor, whose biggest box office hit up to that point had been the Cher-based rom-com Moonstruck.

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Although he had just won an Oscar for dying of gin in Elisabeth Shue’s lap. Leaving Las Vegas (1995), based on a semi-autobiographical novel about a suicidal alcoholic writer, is almost too bleak to recommend. Cage’s award-winning turn is about as far from comedy as you can get, but he uses the same skills to give us flashes of the funny, charming character that existed before the booze took its toll.

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Clips of Cage on YouTube, taken out of context, obscure the nuance he is perfectly capable of. When he “loses his shit”, as per one popular compilation video, there’s a reason. A lot of the time he’s funny because he’s trying to be funny, outrageously over-the-top because he’s trying to be outrageously over-the-top.

Even when he does go too far, it gives bad films some entertainment value more often than it damages good films. The notable exception being Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), in which the then rather inexperienced Cage decided to spend the whole film doing an impression of a horse from a cartoon he’d liked as a child: leading lady Kathleen Turner was reportedly deeply unamused.

Yes, he has appeared in some bilge over the last decade. But that’s nothing new. And it’s not like he hasn’t also done good work, most notably as the shambling, bellowing agent of chaos at the heart of Werner Herzog’s bizarre masterpiece Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Just this year we got The Trust, a sort of “Coens-lite” comedy heist movie, in which he’s great as an earnest but odd cop turned con artist, who exponentially reveals himself to be even further off the deep end than initially suspected.

And the man’s a movie-making machine. This weekend alone he can be seen twice at the London Film Festival, in Oliver Stone’s Snowden, and Paul Schrader’s mafia drama Dog Eat Dog. He’ll also soon be appearing in decidedly cheap-looking World War II “epic” USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage, and Army of One, in which he plays a handyman who decides he must kill Osama Bin Laden. Because he’s been told to by God. Played by Russell Brand. Sure.

Regardless of whether the motivation for all this is the artistic challenge or financial necessity, if Cage continues to roll the dice this much, it seems statistically improbable that he won’t stumble into some kind of career upswing eventually.

One of the worst things Cage was ever in was a film called Deadfall. He staggers about in a bad hairpiece and false moustache, screaming his lines so incomprehensibly that it makes “NOT THE BEES!” look positively restrained, until someone sticks his head in a deep fat fryer.

Just two years later, he was holding an Oscar.

It’s not a shame about Nicolas Cage until it’s a shame about Nicolas Cage.

Ed Jefferson has watched every Nicolas Cage film. Follow his thoughts about each one here on Medium.