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Despite All His Cage

The agony and ecstasy of the artist formerly known as Nicolas Kim Coppola

There may be, in the end, only two kinds of movies: What If and Life Is a Little Different When. Alien: What if there was an alien? Rain Man: life is a little different when your brother is an autistic savant. Psycho: What if there was a psycho? Frankenstein: life is a little different when you’re the modern Prometheus. Stagecoach: What if there was a stagecoach? Babe: life is a little different when you are a sensible pig.

Correction: there is a third kind of movie, and it’s any that features Nicolas Kim Coppola, who simultaneously makes a burlesque of any movie he happens to be in while elevating it to an extravaganza. From manic character actor to Hollywood star, from I-will-punch-your-dad-for-money B-movie prolificacy to living internet meme, Coppola—that is, the actor Nicolas Cage—has adhered to such a strange muse that we wonder not only if his movies are any good, but if any movies are any good, and what is a movie anyway? Perhaps Nicolas Cage is not even an actor. Perhaps he is Kierkegaard’s knight of faith: an ennobled apprentice who renounces the world in search of infinite resignation to an absurdity only he can facilitate. He has played an angel and a refugee from Hell, but Nicolas Cage most resembles a man unfettered by inhibitions, earthbound by his own savagery. His is not only a career in celluloid, but a joke at the expense of the audience that fails to recognize their own pretensions in his wish to be regarded as a Nouveau Shamanic thespian instead of a mediocre, if memorable, movie star. Whichever rendition you subscribe to, the last laugh belongs to Cage.

Nicolas Cage’s first role was in the unsold pilot The Best of Times, a Gen X Laugh-In clone starring fellow freakazoid Crispin Glover. He played the kind of nervy jock persona that would exhaust the short career of Nicolas Coppola a year later in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Nicolas Cage, though, would be a different kind of contender: impermeable as the skin of his namesake, Marvel Comics’ Luke Cage, and fluid as the composer John Cage. Nic has cited both as his inspiration.

By 1983’s Valley Girl, he had arrived as a doofy Romeo, a blissed-out outsider with his heart on his sleeve who starts to look cute once you’ve settled on him as a perfectly reasonable second choice. But a few years later, by Peggy Sue Got Married and Raising Arizona, it became clear that he was having us on. Like a Stanislavski acolyte, Cage plays tragedy as comedy and comedy as tragedy. But he is not exactly a method actor. Rather, he does what he wants until someone tells him no. Hence, he plays cretin-Lothario Charlie Bodell in Peggy Sue with the voice of Pokey from Gumby and Sailor Ripley from Wild At Heart with that of Elvis Presley, because nobody told him not to. For his Oscar-winning performance as an inveterate alcoholic in Leaving Las Vegas, he was wisely kept from playing the part drunk (apart from one scene he filmed “completely off his face,” according to director Mike Figgis). And stoic performances in Joe and Pig show what Cage can accomplish if you take his toys away. On the other hand, he painted his face an alarming white-and-black in Ghost Rider, knowing that his head would be replaced by a flaming CGI skull in post. Why are there special effects in this movie? If Nicolas Cage wants to eat a cockroach or two (as he did in Vampire’s Kiss) to get into character, I say let him. You do you, man.

Up to his unlikely late-’90s apotheosis as a matinee idol, Cage operated on a one-for-them, one-for-me basis, oscillating between reliable middlebrow cinema and weird-beard passion projects: Cher’s one-handed hate-fuck in the acclaimed ethnic comedy Moonstruck; a literary agent who thinks he’s become one of the unliving in cult horror movie Vampire’s Kiss; a sky-diving P.I. in Golden Globe-nominated Honeymoon in Vegas; a tormented painter who cuckolds Judge Reinhold in the straight-to-video Zandalee; a repressed Secret Service agent in bankable Driving Miss Daisy rip-off Guarding Tess; and a drifter who accidentally impersonates the crazed Dennis Hopper (so, a cautionary tale) in the neo-noir Red Rock West, which played seven times on HBO before getting a limited U.S. theatrical release. The 1990 Palme d’Or-winning Wild at Heart is the best of both worlds, the rare case where Cage’s nuttiness seems a fair response to a world that is, as costar Laura Dern says as Lula Fortune, “weird on top.”

But by 1996, Cage was no longer his own man; he belonged to the masses. After starring in Michael Bay’s The Rock, he worked with John Woo, Brian De Palma, and Martin Scorsese in the course of three years. Most people’s familiarity with Cage comes from this period. There are his carefree locks in Con Air and his howling supervillainy in Face/Off (as Castor Troy, arch-foe to the face-touching family man played by John Travolta until they switch parts, as per the title). He plays a dirty cop screaming the name of the movie through a busted nose in Snake Eyes and a haunted paramedic in Bringing Out the Dead. The Academy Awards was not the only institution to pay Cage tribute; he won the Blockbuster Entertainment Award for Favorite Actor in 1998, tying with himself for Con Air and Face/Off. This was a period when it was still possible to dislike Nicolas Cage because, neither extraordinarily attractive nor particularly relatable, it was unclear why such a fluke action star was being sold as a mainstream A-list celebrity. This guy? With the receding hairline and the defiantly poor grasp of regional dialects?

Cage became reborn not as a man, but as a meme, and accepted the internet’s dubious promise of immortality.

In the twenty-first century, Cage began by doing what was expected of him: romantic lead in the ludicrous panty-peeler Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, white savior war hero in Windtalkers, and dual roles as frustrated screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and his lovable loser of a twin brother in 2002’s diffidently po-mo Adaptation. That same year, he took time off to direct a vanity picture, Sonny, which certainly seems like a Nicolas Cage movie, except he’s not in it until the end, as a chortling pimp in a bright yellow suit who brandishes a sword-cane after James Franco does him dirty. Did Cage make this movie just to play this part? It sure doesn’t seem like he was meeting his own expectations in Disney’s National Treasure or Ghost Rider. He’s also in Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, but at this point, who cared? Cage sure didn’t. Luckily, this is where things started to get interesting again.

The common narrative of Cage’s tabloid downfall has it that exorbitant spending—he bought two albino King Cobras, a pyramid-shaped mausoleum, a copy of Action Comics #1, a Martian meteorite, two castles, some shrunken heads, an island, and a stolen Tyrannosaurus skull from the Gobi Desert (he later agreed to turn it over)—led to tax problems that made him willing to star in the likes of Left Behind, a Christian propaganda film directed by the world’s most-employed stunt double. This is fun, like wondering if Sir Mix-a-Lot is under a curse that makes it so that he literally cannot lie and is forced to divulge his fondness for the largesse of the derriere at every juncture or, as Cage asks at the end of Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, if fish dream. It is also lamer than a horse in a wheelchair, just a cheap mental shorthand for the kind of ruination we require of celebrities. Still, forced to account for the spectacle of Cage punching a woman while dressed as a bear in the awful remake of The Wicker Man, only money makes sense. But what if he knows it’s funny? What if he’s at home in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice—a Disney-Jerry Bruckheimer film based on a Mickey Mouse cartoon based on a ballad by Goethe—as he was in Birdy? Sometimes the clown’s smile is only painted-on; sometimes he’s actually screaming “Not the bees! Not the bees!” Cage became reborn not as a man, but as a meme, and accepted the internet’s dubious promise of immortality, only to excel as a rinky-dink cult hero and embark on his renaissance. Having refracted the limelight, Cage hid a revelation behind his abnormally-widened eyes: if you do it well, people will pay you just as much to be bad.

It is impossible not to notice how much Cage relishes his new baptism in lunacy in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. For a man hallucinating iguanas and toking from his lucky crack pipe, he seems uncannily self-possessed in the role. He knows precisely what is required of him: to act for the filmmaker who had Klaus Kinski punch a horse in Aguirre, the Wrath of God. It could be worse; he could be Val Kilmer, who is also in this movie. Kilmer can’t even see the iguanas.

The ensuing decade would see Cage play a Batman analogue in Kick-Ass, drink wine from his rival’s skull in the inexplicably 3-D dumpster fire Drive Angry, stalk a succubus as a Teutonic knight in Season of the Witch, voice an animated caveman in The Croods, do the whole Saturn-Devouring-His-Son thing in Mom and Dad, play an ersatz noir version of Peter Parker in Spider-Man­: Into the Spider-Verse, and, in 2021’s Willy’s Wonderland, portray a mute drifter who massacres Chuck-E-Cheese robots while doggedly cleaning a haunted pizza parlor. Most of these aren’t necessarily better than they sound, but a standout is Mandy, in which he hops himself up on cocaine to wreak vengeance on a demonic biker gang and a loopy love cult, one member of which tells him he exudes “a cosmic darkness.” There is poetry in such ballistics. I drove, angry as a cloud.

Everyone seemed to sit up and take notice of Cage’s 2021 turn in Pig as a bereaved truffle-farmer who has transferred his affection for his wife over to the missing swine of the title. Here, his fury is directed inward, a smoldering star of self-recrimination. He is quiet and disdains to chew the scenery, as if content that it will eat itself. But let’s not forget what we’ve learned. It’s not that an actor of Nicolas Cage’s experience and caliber merely possesses a range of settings, from one to eleventy-zillion, it’s that he can go from bananas to Donkey Kong on a dime. He excels at playing a dweeby dad, but in Color Out of Space, he switches from admonishment to babbling maniac inside a line; same in Kick-Ass, where the disciplinarian father to Chloë Grace Moretz’s masked avenger barely conceals the vigilante within. This the Cage who famously shout-sung the alphabet in Vampire’s Kiss, who tells a man in a pharmacy he’ll make him piss blood in Matchstick Men, who downs a bottle of vodka in his underpants, on the toilet, in Mandy. This is the vaunted Cage Rage, and knowing that it’s in the chamber means not having to use it all the time. It’s not what he does, it’s knowing what he’s capable of.

Antonin Artaud, in calling for a new theater, wrote:

Every spectacle will contain a physical and objective element, perceptible to all. Cries, groans, apparitions, surprises, theatricalities of all kinds, magic beauty of costumes taken from certain ritual models; resplendent lighting, incantational beauty of voices, the charms of harmony, rare notes of music, colors of objects, physical rhythm of movements whose crescendo and decrescendo will accord exactly with the pulsation of movements familiar to everyone, concrete appearances of new and surprising objects, masks, effigies yards high . . .

All or nothing, in other words, go for broke. Be not a mere novelty, keeping the seat warm for the next tin god, be a sensation. An artist who gives the impression of being stretched to the limit in every performance is ultimately offering a rejoinder to the audience’s attempt to fob him off as a lone eccentric or their tendency to confuse success with sophistication. There’s no such thing as stooping too low or failing high art if you keep the crowd dizzy on their feet. In Snake Eyes, Cage’s Rick Santoro protests that, “It isn’t lying! You just tell them what you did right, and you leave out the rest.” And of course, in Wild at Heart, Sailor Ripley’s snakeskin jacket (from Cage’s own wardrobe, incorporated into the script by a game-for-anything-outrageous David Lynch) is “a symbol of my individuality, and my belief in personal freedom.” Dig the jacket; seek the fiction; ignore the man. Nothing could be more counter to the present appetite for authorial indiscretion than to heed D.H. Lawrence’s invective to “trust the tale” and salvage the art from the disheveled life of its maker. Which is why any attempt to look Cage in the eye is doomed to backfire; the chicken hypnotizes you. But it doesn’t mean people haven’t tried to put Cage in a box.

The future Nicolas Cage was born on January 7, 1964, third son of Francis Ford Coppola’s brother August, in Long Beach, California. He dwelt largely in a fantasy world, particularly after his parents’ divorce in 1976, his happiest childhood memories being of watching television, though he would graduate to expressionist films like Nosferatu (Cage later produced 2000’s Shadow of the Vampire), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and The Golem. He was expelled from school at age ten, determined that he would become an actor after seeing James Dean in East of Eden, and, after studying at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, talked uncle Francis into giving him supporting parts in Rumble Fish, The Cotton Club, and Peggy Sue Got Married, by which point Nicolas Coppola had shrewdly altered his surname. Better a cartoon character than a fortunate son.

This is the kind of biographical dross you can expect from Keith Phipps’s Age of Cage, a sort-of-profile of the actor, told film-by-film, that uses Cage’s changing fortunes to chart the ebbs and flows of the film industry from the early ’80s to 2021—an odd choice, since it treats its subject as indicative instead of exceptional. As a result, Age of Cage is more list than book, and sticks to the “fallen angel” narrative, privileging pap like It Could Happen to You from the actor’s salad days over the more downbeat schlock, where he seems much more at home. It remains wedded to the format of web content and never comes close to confronting the Cage enigma. The book does, however, manage a handful of genuine insights and some fun trivia, like revealing that the “bête noire” of Cage’s career was Eric Stoltz. It is pleasing to imagine the florid star of The Fly II as insufferable gatekeeper.

There are also great selections from Cage’s always-baffling self-assessments, as when Phipps quotes from a road diary published in Details:

I am not a demon . . . I am a lizard, a shark, and a heat-seeking panther. I am one watt above darkness. I am a glow-in-the-dark rollercoaster. I am a hard-on. I want to be John Denver on acid playing the accordion; I want to drink Jack Daniel’s while driving my Corvette off the Grand Canyon. I am the frog you never kissed. I am a sinner looking for some peace. I believe in the sword that gives life. I am a family man and a bachelor. I don’t believe in God but I’m afraid of Him. So I’ll pray.

Well, that explains that. It takes a certain amount of self-knowledge to so openly court oblivion on the page. Around this time, Cage also took off his shirt during an interview on UK talk show Wogan while doing karate moves and cameoed in the movie Never on Tuesday, leering from behind a giant prosthetic nose. The “heat-seeking panther” won’t be pigeonholed as anything as pedestrian as a National Treasure because crazy is its own country. Perhaps it’s to the book’s credit that Age of Cage doesn’t try harder to deconstruct Cage; giving us what we think we desire is the business of making movies. See: The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, directed and co-written by Tom Gormican, a recent cash-in on the Cage resurgence as filtered through the guffawing fun house mirror of the internet that does away with biographical insight in favor of lighter-than-air lampoonery.

Cage’s career is a barbaric yawp, a categorical triumph of style over substance.

By leaning in to the internet’s cheap facsimile of Nicolas Cage as punchline, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent ensures its own disposability. Nicholas Cage plays a dialed-up caricature of himself named Nick Cage: divorced, in debt, refused the lead in David Gordon Green’s latest picture, Nick is a frustrated father more than willing to play a Mallorcan drug lord’s birthday party for cash. The movie opens with a conceit where Nick is regularly accosted by his double, the crazed movie-star Cage, polar opposite to the beleaguered sad sack we’re supposed to mistake for the real thing. But this schtick quickly becomes tiresome, and the movie mostly abandons it.

Notably, Cage has never seemed more uncomfortable; playing himself seems the only occasion where his instincts betray him. His co-star, Pedro Pascal, appears to be having the time of his life, out-hamming Cage in a part where Pascal has to be little more than the straight man or antic sidekick—say, the snooty bellhop who suspects an orangutan is living in the hotel or secretary to a teenager who becomes president. Other than him, the best scenes in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent harken back to better Cage pictures, like a shot from Con Air or the collection of props that Pascal’s super-fan hoards in his island fortress. You will likely have as much fun watching the movie as you convince yourself you will, but no more. It’s not better than watching him host the History of Swear Words on Netflix (in which we learn that “fuck” makes up 71 percent of the cusses he’s wielded onscreen). Cage usually knows better than to flatter his fans by giving them what they expect. We line up to be bamboozled.

If you have nothing to say, you may as well shout. Cage’s career is a barbaric yawp, a categorical triumph of style over substance, almost nihilist in its empty extremity (the thing about emptiness being that you pencil yourself in to fill the gap). And if movie-goers watch Nicolas Cage with the same kind of smug irony with which they dissect intricately poor movies like The Room, they’ve taken the wrong lesson from his filmography. Cage offers an articulate nada, something untaught, impossible to explain, mimeograph, sanitize, or resist. He’s too in touch with his own mayhem to be caught merely trying his best. And, as senior-showboat Sean Connery tells Cage in The Rock, it’s losers who whine about their best.