Few names conjure up as vivid an image of wildly over-the-top, scenery chewing acting than that of Nicolas Cage. In fact, YouTube hosts multiple compilations with worn titles like “Nicolas Cage Losing His Shit” featuring dozens of clips from a slew of different movies, spanning his whole thirty-year career.
While it’s certainly true that watching Cage do flamboyantly odd things is quality entertainment, it’s also true—if all-too-oft forgot—that the man is a talented, legitimate actor. It’s nice to have a reminder. Here, then, are six performances where Nicolas Cage displayed subtlety and nuance:
Lord of War
Andrew Niccol’s gun-running yarn may have teetered uncomfortably on the brink of squandering an interesting premise through bland execution, but none of that fault was the leading actor’s. Cage, who also co-produced, starred as Yuri Orlov (a composite of several real people), who parlayed a series of opportunities into a career as an international arms dealer.
Cage’s Orlov is, even by less-extroverted actors’ standards, a quiet, inscrutable characterization. This is not to say that he passes through the movie entirely quietly—this is, after all, Nicolas Cage—but in spite of the twin millstones of uninspired direction and the useless, embarrassing Jared Leto as his miscast brother, Orlov holds the center of the film through Cage’s comparatively quiet gravitas.
Peggy Sue Got Married
Cage wasn’t tasked with carrying this one, a romantic comic fantasy directed by his uncle Francis Ford Coppola and starring Kathleen Turner as a woman who ends up transported back to her early 60s high school years. But that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t effective as Turner’s estranged husband, to whom she finds herself inevitably drawn.
In spite of the inevitability of everything being what initially weighed oppressively over Turner at the beginning of the movie, by the end the idea seems a lot more acceptable, which is due in large part to the charming, shockingly normal turn by Cage in the role of her once and future husband.
Although the late-career paycheck genre film for which Cage overacting is now legendary, Kick-Ass nonetheless features one of the great “quiet Cage” roles, wherein he plays the mostly taciturn father-mentor Big Daddy. With the movie’s heavily stylized comic book-derived design, parade of British actors doing broad American Mafioso accents, and Chloe Moretz brutally murdering people, Cage (in what was by far the film’s best joke) was the most sane person in sight.
This despite, you know, he being the one who trained Chloe Moretz to brutally murder people. The lone moment of Cage-ism (i.e. scenery chewing) is his death scene. He certainly chomps the set with ferocious hunger in that moment, but he earned it in his almost ascetic underplaying for all his previous screen time.
Another slightly counterintuitive choice on the surface, since his character has a fake hand (the sort of weird character choice that turns into the fulcrum for his craziness in “loud Cage” mode) and doesn’t exactly underplay. But that’s not the point with Moonstruck. It’s a big, unabashedly corny, floridly stylized picture where people fall in and out of love and have life-changing realizations and all that kind of thing.
If anything, Cage’s intensity fits right in with the overall aesthetic, and as with Peggy Sue Got Married, his primary job as a supporting player is to make it believable that the heroine would fall in love with him. In that regard his work in Moonstruck is a notable success (even if, as competition for Cher’s heart, Danny Aiello’s dorky would-be fiance isn’t exactly fierce).
Charlie Kaufman’s worlds are so weird and heightened that the last thing you’d think they need on top of the pile is the actor whose name is synonymous with weird and heightened. Even worse, don’t let Cage play two different roles, that’s just enabling.
Of course, it all worked out, and Cage turned in two marvelous, distinct performances as the fictionalized Charlie Kaufman and the even more fictionalized Donald Kaufman, the embodiment of the kind of facile, populist writing that Charlie both abhors and secretly envies. In both roles, Cage keeps right in harmony with the greater tone of the movie as a whole, and not only that—more as Charlie than as Donald—serves as an anchor, despite his wildly phobic, neurotic nature. Cage’s work in Adaptation serves as a terrific reminder that “underplaying” and “boring” are nowhere near synonymous, in the right hands.
Red Rock West
The ne plus ultra of “quiet Cage.” John Dahl’s wildly entertaining, utterly ridiculous (in the best possible way) neo-noir stars Cage as a gentleman who, without the existence of bad luck, would have no luck at all. Soon he’s run afoul of the late J.T. Walsh—tangentially, quietly one of the greatest character actors the screen has known, and one whose appearance always heralded incipient good things to come in a movie—and fallen genitals-first upon Lara Flynn Boyle and irked Dennis Hopper by pretending to be Dennis Hopper (this being one of the best displays on record of why getting Dennis Hopper mad at you was really stupid).
Noir shenanigans of the most delightful kind abound. And Cage, once again, holds the entire thing together with quiet, beefy resolve. Even the scene where he semi-loses his shit is kind of restrained. Such a fun movie, this. And not a hive of beeees in sight.