Is Nicolas Cage – last seen drinking a celebratory beer from the skull of his enemy in Drive Angry – the major American actor of the past 30 years?
While there is no scientific metric for determining this status, a new late-night retrospective at TIFF Bell Lightbox highlighting the eccentric actor’s career suggests it’s at least within the realm of possibility. Where other contenders like Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington have striven for respectability, Cage has followed his own wobbly muse for better and for worse. And with Cage, these two extremes are always inextricably linked.
It's interesting that the series omits the film that would superficially firm up the case for his greatness: 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas, a contemporary lost-weekend tale that won Cage a best-actor Oscar. But while his focused, sympathetic performance as a downward-spiralling drunk is impressive, it’s not really classic Cage. That designation is reserved for roles roomy enough to accommodate the actor’s impulsive acting style – or else characters inflated beyond their initial dimensions by Cage’s berserk star persona.
It’s arguable that Cage never topped his early triumph in Robert Bierman’s modest New York gothic Vampire’s Kiss (1989), which is the unpolished jewel of TIFF’s series. Filmed after Cage had established himself as a likeably hangdog romantic in the Coen brothers’ mighty Raising Arizona (1987), the film is in some ways a precursor to Bret Easton Ellis’s controversial novel American Psycho, which borrowed its central conceit: A moneyed Manhattan yuppie loses his mind in the midst of the high life. In the case of literary agent Peter Loew, this means becoming convinced that he’s a vampire, and Cage commits to the character’s mental transformation, donning plastic fangs at a nightclub and scarfing down a live cockroach. No visual effects were involved.
Vampire’s Kiss shored up Cage’s reputation as an actor without limits, attracting visionary directors like David Lynch ( Wild at Heart) and Brian De Palma ( Snake Eyes). But Cage wasn't a box-office draw until the unexpected turning point of The Rock (1996), a behemoth smash-’em-up that benefited greatly from Cage’s frazzled line readings.
Where the macho stars of the 1980s had favoured grunting understatement, Cage was a new kind of action star: the alpha weirdo. Con Air (1997) and Face/Off offered only mildly diminishing returns, and kicked off a period in which Cage seemed to take every part thrown his way – becoming, in effect, Hollywood’s first above-the-title character actor.
Cage’s late period has had only a few “official” triumphs, like his virtuoso work as mismatched identical twins in Adaptation (2002), but it’s replete with gnarly triumphs. Neil LaBute’s hysterical 2006 remake of the classic British horror film The Wicker Man is by any standard a terrible movie, but Cage salvages his dignity by channelling his apparent aggravation with the production into his performance. By the time his character starts beating up his female co-stars and shrieking about the stupidity of their evil plan, it feels as if the demented dialogue is coming straight from his gut.
And then there’s his work in Werner Herzog’s gonzo thriller Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans (2009), for which Cage received mostly uncomprehending reviews from the mainstream press and a best-actor prize from the Toronto Film Critics Association.
In interviews, Herzog said his mandate in directing Cage was to “let the hog loose,” and the actor goes hog-wild, assaulting co-stars and the audience with a performance of lunatic inspiration tinged with tenderness. Staring down gun-toting drug dealers and imaginary iguanas with the same unblinking ferocity, Cage achieves an actorly redemption that surpasses even that of his corrupt, drug-addicted character. It’s enough to make you want to raise a toast to this unique, fearless actor. In a goblet made from a human skull, of course.
Bangkok Dangerous: The Cinema of Nicolas Cage runs at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox till April 7.
Special to The Globe and Mail