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The Highs and Lows of Nicolas Cage

Looking back at the best and worst from our favorite madman.

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Nicolas Cage is one of the most maddening, incomprehensible, deeply strange, committed, passionate, unhinged, unconventional stars to ever reach A-list status. After starting out as a journeyman and dipping his feet into the waters of romantic comedy, his Academy Award for Leaving Las Vegas in 1995 cemented him as one of the notable actors of his time. The feverish way in which he approached every single role was admirable, if questionable at times given the projects in question. But in an industry that prizes buzzworthiness and the vestiges of “cool” over almost anything else, Cage is a madman in a movie star’s body. He’s one of the closest things America has to a Klaus Kinski type (more on the Herzog connection later), an actor whose very existence seems to suggest that he lives beyond any measurable or understood standards of what it is that makes a movie star.

This isn’t to say that he’s batting a thousand. In fact, quite the contrary. Much of the cult of Cage is built around some of his famously over-the-top performances in both good and bad movies, and without either of those elements he couldn’t exist. He inhabits a world between those of the revered Method actor and the B-movie ham, and it’s nigh impossible to conceive of him in any other way. In a recent interview with The Times, Cage acknowledged that he’s not entirely unaware of this perception, either.

I’m proud of the chances I’ve taken. They haven’t all worked, but I had a concept, and I’ve pushed for it. It’s probably annoyed a lot of critics and a lot of people who didn’t get in step with it, but I’m proud I did it. Tolstoy said something to the effect of, it doesn’t matter whether the response you get is love or hatred, because you’ve created an effect. What’s not worthwhile is when it sits there and people forget about it. But whether people love it or hate it, at least you’ve done something. That gives me some solace.

Whether you perceive him to be a genius or a punchline or both, his performances are almost always memorable, even in the most unbearable movies. And to honor this week’s release of the Christian action thriller Left Behind, we’ve selected the best and worst of his performances, as agreed upon by our staff. These are our essential Cage movies. His highs and lows. What’re yours?

-Dominick Mayer
Film Editor

High: Raising Arizona (1987)

raising arizona

 

Some may mistake Cage’s performance as Herbert “Hi” McDunnough as lazy, but those people would be making a mistake. A big mistake. Cage’s deliberately dopey Hi compels the audience to root for him, even when he essentially ruins his wife’s career, continues to rob convenience stores, and kidnaps a baby. Yes, despite all of his faults, Hi is the absolute hero of Raising Arizona. How does Cage pull off such a feat? You can point at the proper villains in the Coen Brothers’ breakthrough film, who make Hi look like a downright angel. They come in all forms: greedy (Gale and Evelle), manipulative (Glen), and Randall “Tex” Cobb (Leonard).

The surrounding company helps paint Hi in a better picture, but were it not for Cage, I’m not entirely sure the character would work. He gives Hi a soft-spoken, western drawl that comforts everyone from his wife, Ed (played to equal perfection by Holly Hunter), to the viewers watching from the comfort of their own trailers. It’s Cage giving a shit about a performance in which he appears not to give a shit that wins us over in a role best defined as slacker delight. – Justin Gerber


Low: Fire Birds (1990)

9dc372713683fd865d366d5d9ee810ba The Highs and Lows of Nicolas Cage

This is where the darkness begins. The shit job that paved the way for other shit jobs. The first dalliance with Disney where our young, hungry, and hunky hero first contracts the venereal disease of the soul that lies dormant for decades before erupting in VOD sores. Imagine this streak: Raising Arizona, Moonstuck, Vampire’s Kiss, Wild at Heart. Wow. The kid’s on fire. So what’s next? Fire Birds, aka Wings of the Apache … and it’s a real dick move.

What’s Cage’s motivation to put himself behind the cockpit of this obnoxious, yet fascinatingly heterosexual, rehash of Top Gun? Perhaps he was already knee deep with his bookies, or maybe he just had a Tom Cruise-sized itch to scratch. Regardless, there’s no excuse for this leftover Bush-era relic about a maverick Apache helicopter pilot battling Mexican drug cartels (somehow employing Russian whirlybird assassins who look like fat Sean Connerys to do their dirty work). In the role of, yeah, Jake Preston, Cage enters the film like a ketamine James Dean. But as he masters his new trillion-dollar war toy by overcoming a dramatically weighed eye dominance problem, wins over a too-good-for-this-shit Tommy Lee Jones, and romances a fading Sean Young through the lost art of panty snatching, the Cage awakens and almost pumps this Top Gun Xerox to campy watchability.The must-see for all Cage aficionados is an over-the-top flight simulator scene where Cage mistakes playing cocky for giving birth, and the way he Risky Business slides into a laundromat during his Sean Young nookie quest. But the movie’s as bland as the bubblegum his character insistently chews. It’s greedy. It’s artless. And it sows the seeds of the many mediocrities that come later. –Roy Ivy


High: Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

leaving las vegas

This Mike Leigh film has a number of problems, despite the countless award nominations bestowed upon it nearly 20 years ago. It has a weird story structure and is undone by unbelievable coincidences along with a bad, pointless Russian mob subplot. It’s as though Cage’s perfect performance stumbled onto set after a bad bender and sobered up quickly enough to get out. Every moment he’s on screen, we’re reminded of both how great he is as washed-up screenwriter Ben Sanderson and how bad everyone else is (Elisabeth Shue included).

Cage’s portrayal as a full-blown alcoholic comes with the shortest of backstories, but just enough to tell us what led him down the path of destruction. What makes his story that much more tragic are his relationships. His secretary doesn’t look at him with anger but pity. A Hollywood executive actually gives him a more-than-generous severance package. Cage goes “full Cage” but with depressing undertones and uneasy aftermaths. His tremors and cramps from withdrawal are something we rarely see on screen. Sanderson is a doomed character, and despite all of his boorish, slovenly behavior, we sure wish he wasn’t. That’s all thanks to Cage. –Justin Gerber


High: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2000)

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It’s the finest two hours of his 21st century. The last time (and in my opinion, the best time) that Nic Cage goes balls-into a balls-out character that only he could play in a movie that couldn’t exist without him. As Terence McDonaugh, the titular bad lieutenant, Nic floors it down the road of excess as a man who goes from bad to worse to even worse; from cop to Quasimodo to cracked-out Nosfaratu and back again. But it’s not over-the-top. It surrounds the top, invades the top, and dares the top to go higher. It’s psychedelic, and that’s an essential ingredient of this crazed, uproarious, soul-searching masterpiece.

A Herzog movie in cop movie’s clothing where the cop plot is treated like a garnish. All Werner wants to do is capture the ultimate bender of the id and the execution of the super-ego. And with Cage, he’s like a kid with his first electric guitar, or first Klaus Kinski. And he directs him like a lion tamer who doesn’t care if the audience gets eaten. It’s a gas. A lucky-crack-pipe-smoking, shoot-the-corpse-to-stop-the-soul-dancing, terrorize-the-elderly hoot with a laugh-out-loud deus ex machina that audiences expecting a Nic Cage cop movie didn’t get (my audience was stonefaced and confused). It’s risky, it’s weird, and it’s magic from an actor who’s not looking for a check. He’s experimenting with the perfect cohort, and we’re lucky to see it. He hunkers down in the sensory deprivation chamber of his mind until he reaches altered states. And he turns into an iguana. –Roy Ivy


High: Adaptation (2002)

movieposter The Highs and Lows of Nicolas Cage

As great Cage performances go, you can’t get much Cagier than a movie that lets him play two wildly different brothers, each of whom are manifestations of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s own neurotic personality, one of which is supposed to be a direct proxy of him, and whose troubles combined form the spine of Adaptation, one of the great films of the 2000s to date. Despite being at the center of a story that also concerns orchid theft, euphoria-inducing drugs, swamp critters, Meryl Streep playing an equally loose riff on real-life author Susan Orlean, and a scene in which Brian Cox deconstructs not only this movie but also most other movies as the film itself unfolds, Adaptation is always grounded by Charlie and his struggles to table his anxieties for long enough to write his masterpiece.

When Charlie is hired by a major studio to adapt Orlean’s The Orchid Thief for the big-screen treatment, he’s frustrated not only by a studio system that can’t understand his work and by his own inability to even finish, but by Donald, who understands the rigid three-act structure of traditional Hollywood, and renders it to hilarious perfection. Cage is every bit as morose and painfully sad as Charlie as he is dopey and excitable as Donald. Like Armie Hammer as the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network, he delivers two different performances in the same body. Donald is like a golden retriever manifested as human, while Charlie is a total mess, struggling through his self-loathing and Hollywood’s relative disinterest in his more acutely observed story. As showbiz satire, as a commentary on the writing process, and most of all as a showcase for Cage’s skills when given material he can truly disappear into, Adaptation is a rare kind of masterpiece. -Dominick Suzanne-Mayer


Low: National Treasure (2004)

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It’s still strange to think about how massive a hit National Treasure was. For all the convoluted “gotcha!” logic of the film and the fact that it’s essentially predicated on Nicolas Cage responding to claims he can’t steal the Declaration of Independence with a “naw, chill, watch this” from start to finish, the film made $173 million in the US and matched that worldwide to boot. It was a savvy strategy: before Sony could get their adaptation of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code into theaters, Disney struck while the iron was even hotter and offered the story of Benjamin Franklin Gates, a descendant of the founding fathers who discovers a map to the Templar Treasure on the back of the Declaration.

National Treasure isn’t the worst movie on this list, but it’s preposterously silly, Cage meandering through national landmarks with a permanent half-smile and an increasingly silly series of monologues designed to illustrate just how hyper-intelligent Gates is that end up having the side effect of making him insufferably smug at times. One longs for any kind of inspired weirdness when he has to deliver endless diatribes about subjects such as why there’s a pyramid on the back of a dollar bill, as rendered in detail. This installment on the “bad” side of our list isn’t totally Cage’s fault, given the writing he had to work with, but it’s still an uncommonly dull performance. -Dominick Suzanne-Mayer


Low: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010)

the sorcerer s apprentice15 The Highs and Lows of Nicolas Cage

Cage’s other Disney endeavor, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, did not in fact kick off a new franchise, as was the film’s clear aspiration. It seemed like a good idea at the time: rejoin Cage with National Treasure director Jon Turtletaub, use a beloved Disney property as a jump-off point, ???, profit. The problem was that the original Fantasia segment on which this film is (VERY) loosely based was not feature-length, and so Disney had to take creative licenses such as turning the apprentice into a nerdy scientist (Jay Baruchel) interested in Tesla coils and Cage into … well, a homeless man, apparently.

The film was buried not only by the unfortunate decision to release it only two days before Inception became the definitive cultural juggernaut of summer 2010, but by the odd lifelessness of the whole thing. Much like John Hammond before them, Disney spared no expense at any level, but aside from one memorable sequence involving a series of mirror-based teleportations, there’s nearly nothing about their would-be franchise film that’s particularly memorable. And in a film that could really use a man of Cage’s manic skills, you’d think he’d be offered more to do than growling his way through endless exposition and staring furtively from beneath one of his many notorious hairpieces. -Dominick Suzanne-Mayer


Low: Season of the Witch (2011)

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By now we all knew of Cage’s financial foibles, but he hadn’t quite hit the gutter yet. Still slightly bankable, and still lovable after Bad Lieutenant and Kick-Ass, fans had good reason to expect a good time from Season of the Witch. But there’s no wattage in the Cage bulb in this dull, dull, dull … oh my God it’s just one of the most boring movies ever made. You’d think Dominic Sena would bring some hyperactive, faux-Bay flair to this snoozer about knights escorting a Black Plague-carrying witch to the safety of a monastery. You’d even think Cage would get off on going medieval on these witches. You deserved a Wicker Man-esque freak-out of Cage bellowing, “WITCHES!!! WITCHES!!!”

But no, he plays this thing uncharacteristically sullen, emitting not a single kilowatt as he slogs from one green screen to another as this cauldron of cold soup drags along. Ron Perlman tries to add some Perlman gruff to his role as the sidekick, but Cage bogs it all down by denying us even a single shred of frenzy. His performance is like a sad, old hooker who just lies there, refusing to grunt out even a single kegel for those who trotted out to one of his increasingly rare theatrical releases. But all that matters is he got paid, and he didn’t have to leave Louisiana to sleepwalk through one of his worst films. –Roy Ivy


Low: Trespass (2011), Seeking Justice (2011), Stolen (2012), The Frozen Ground (2012), Rage (2014), etc.

trespass poster The Highs and Lows of Nicolas Cage

These movies exist, whether or not you’ve ever heard of them. Honest-to-God films that feature everyone’s favorite madman Nicolas Cage in a starring role. Have you heard of them? If Trespass had the same cast and crew in the mid-‘90s, we’d be looking at a $100 million grosser (co-star is Nicole Kidman, director is Joel Schumacher). Sadly, the movie came out in 2011, a time when everyone involved was a little more weathered and more than a little played out. The Frozen Ground co-stars John Cusack, Rage has the actress who basically took over for Jennifer Garner for the final season of Alias, and Stolen has a really bad poster. Seeking Justice is yet another reminder that Nicolas Cage likes to make movies in Louisiana. No joke! Look at the movies he’s made in this decade alone. Just about everything is shot in Shreveport or New Orleans. He’s the real Ragin’ Cagein’.

It isn’t entirely fair to say Cage doesn’t care just because a movie he stars in is either delivered straight to VOD or has a short shelf-life in theaters, but numerous Razzie nominations back me up on this and obviously do not do him any favors (numerous nominations, but no “wins”). –Justin Gerber


High: Joe (2013)

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“It’s time to get back on the horse,” I imagine Nicolas Cage saying to himself when approached by fellow comeback craver David Gordon Green for the Southern Gothic bummer of Joe. “You know what, hold my calls for a few months,” he tells his haggard personal assistant. “I gotta live in this role for a while, and I’ve got a real beard to grow.” Acting … really fucking acting his heart out for the first time in years, Cage comes back from the dead in the role of an ex-con trying to make good. Actually, he’s just playing a dog trying his damnest not to be a dog, and it borders on goddamn triumphant watching the Academy Award-winning actor bury the bones of his indebted alter ego.

The movie isn’t perfect. In fact, it’s downright annoying at times, as Green bogs down a somber character study with cartoonish villains (save for the real-life homeless, and real-life dead Gary “G-Dawg” Poulter). But watching Cage become a surrogate father figure as he tries, and repeatedly fails, to reign in his criminal impulses turns the film into an entrancing tightrope act. As Cage fans, we want to see him go wild. But as Joe fans, we’re dreading the moment he finally comes unglued. This movie has no commercial appeal. It’s not rewatchable. It’s no fun. It’s a return to form in many ways, but it’s unlike anything he’s done before. It’s a passion project, and that passion shows. Plus, it’s a nice touch that Joe’s into death metal, and I’m assuming that Pantera shirt is Cage’s own. –Roy Ivy

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