To be hip in 2010 means you tweet, own some sort of Apple product and hate Nicolas Cage. There’s perhaps no greater spectator sport for everyone from movie buffs to Sean Penn (who once derided him as a “performer”) than savaging the man born Nicolas Kim Coppola, who co-stars in Kick Ass.
He’s a hack and will take any role handed to him, says popular sentiment. He long ago lost touch with his greater acting gifts and is now content to sleepwalk through paycheck after paycheck before blowing them on a wasteful lifestyle that once, reportedly, saw him bid six figures for a dinosaur skull.
There’s one valid point buried within that litany of complaints: Cage is not always the wisest selector of projects. In an ideal world, there would be no need for claptrap like Bangkok Dangerous, National Treasure: Book of Secrets or Next.
But we don’t live in an ideal world, and lazy, underwritten Hollywood fare is not going away — it’s going to 3D. If Cage doesn’t make it, someone else will.
So I say be thankful. Be thankful that — through some crazy combination of serendipity, happenstance and (let’s face it) nepotism — a gangly, manic, unrefined man-child became one of the biggest movie stars in the world.
He’s made some legitimately top notch movies and given several timeless performances. An undercurrent of profound sadness, manifests in his hyper-expressive eyes and upfront sensitivity, runs through his best work, be it the love struck, out of his element fool at the heart of Raising Arizona or the crumbling alcoholic at the center of Leaving Las Vegas. To those films, one could add Adaptation, The Weather Man and Matchstick Men.
His career would live on for those accomplishments, but they don’t set him apart from his peers. Rather, Cage is such a unique talent because he has clearly taken to heart Pauline Kael’s famous declaration: “movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them.”
There is no actor in Hollywood more adept at transforming trash into art, at taking the mundane and charging it with feeling. Cage has done so time and again, in movies large and small, from his early days as a young, brash upstart through his ascent up Hollywood’s Mount Olympus.
Watch him in Vampire’s Kiss, putting on an affected rich boy drawl as he succumbs to the curse of vampiredom, or transforming Neil LaBute’s ill-conceived Wicker Man remake into a masterpiece of hyperactivity, and you’ll find the rarest phenomenon: an actor who never just takes a paycheck. He’s bent to make every movie work as best he can, often flopping horrifically in the attempt. If he senses shortcomings in a script, he’ll compensate for them by shifting further and further away from convention, disappearing into a frenzy of verbal diarrhea and mad gesticulation. Beneath the madness lies a genius showman, an actor bestowed with that most valuable of gifts: he’s always passionate and never, ever boring.
Cage turned the part of Sailor in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart into an extended Elvis impersonation, complete with an earnest “Love Me Tender” cover. In Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans he adapted a mannered gait, slurred his speech and stumbled through the film’s nightmarish urban vision with such conviction that director Werner Herzog claims to have thought the actor was actually using drugs. Your eyes are affixed to Cage throughout as you wonder what he’s doing and where he’s going, as he, in a fit of psychosis, propels the film through some narrative shortcomings.
To be that fearless one must be blessed with a rare sort of confidence and conviction: the acceptance of failure as a consequence of ambition and the willingness to invite scorn for doing things your way. It’s the stuff that great artists are made of.