Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we examine the Academy Award-winning performance from Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas.
I can’t remember the last time I drank alcohol. Not because I don’t remember the date I quit — it was two weeks shy of the Twin Peaks: The Return premiere — but because I literally can’t remember it. In the year before I got sober, blackouts were an everyday thing. Even in that far-gone state, losing stretches of time while making excuses for why my consumption was normal, I still believed I had everything under control. This was the way everybody in their late twenties drank, right? You work hard so you can play harder, which I clearly thought meant chugging liquor in secret. I thought I was living life, but in actuality I was barely living at all.
That’s why when I tried to watch Nicolas Cage’s performance in Leaving Las Vegas after my first year of sobriety, I just couldn’t. From his character’s physical unsteadiness, stumbling and shaky, to his sudden outbursts of emotion, I was seeing my own experiences on screen, and it was deeply unsettling. Cage’s character, Ben Sanderson, was drinking and behaving just like I had been. His consumption is elevated to an operatic level by Cage and director Mike Figgis, where you wouldn’t be faulted for thinking it was a gross exaggeration of alcoholism. But as someone who had just survived the specter of addiction, my stomach was churning because Ben’s behavior felt all too real. For an alcoholic, Leaving Las Vegas is nothing short of a horror movie.
It’s so frightening because Cage’s performance expertly captures the psychological temperament and physical disintegration of alcohol addiction. Cage may have a reputation for unusual actorly choices and erratic tics, but his methodology is perfectly suited for fully embodying the grotesque presence of a man slowly, purposefully killing himself. His work in Leaving Las Vegas is staggering because it’s an unglamorous depiction of an addict at the end of their rope. But for Cage’s Ben, rather than asking for help, he ties that rope into a noose so he can hang himself.
Cage didn’t achieve this blisteringly real performance by using any of the acting methods I’ve mentioned in previous Great Performances columns. Always the outside-of-the-box thinker, Cage has, over the years, developed his own acting technique, which he calls Nouveau Shamanic. When he was working on Leaving Las Vegas in 1995, however, his method was likely still in its infancy. But the way he discusses Nouveau Shamanic today offers some insight into how he brought his terrifying drunk to life. As he told the New York Times in 2019:
“Laurence Olivier said, ‘What is acting but lying, and what is good lying but convincing lying?’ I don’t want to look at acting that way. Why not experiment?… Nouveau shamanic is nothing other than trying to augment your imagination to get to the performance without feeling like you’re faking it.”
It seems so simple, right? If acting is just professional pretending, Cage plainly chooses to take that one step beyond. The dynamism of his performances comes from this concentrated focus on making his imagination feel real, allowing himself to disappear both emotionally and physically into a character. Experimental acting is the aptest descriptor for what Cage does on screen. If it seems like he’s in another world from the rest of the ensemble in movies like Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans or Face/Off, you’d be right. That’s because he creates an alternate reality for himself that is vivid and alive, helping him ground any of his off the wall quirks. Everything is real to him, even if he often doesn’t seem real to us. He can be larger than life, sure, but his emotional presence never feels fake.
Since he was presumably still working out the kinks of this acting methodology when he was cast in Leaving Las Vegas, he bolstered his performance through extensive research on addiction encouraged by Figgis. He interviewed alcoholics and sought out their experience with Delirium Tremens, but the greatest source of inspiration came from his family friend: the proud drunk Tony Dingman. As Cage told The Independent:
“I just watched Tony. He would go on a bender and pass out, curled up in my trailer in a fetal position. And he would go into these amazing diatribes — and I would put that in the movie. I wanted to give Ben a sort of crumbling elegance.”
This elegance is best seen through Ben’s drunken confidence as he waxes poetic to Sera (Elisabeth Shue) and others on the Vegas strip. He cracks jokes, spouts Latin quotes about drinking, and tries to mold himself into the romanticized depiction of dependency that made writers like Charles Bukowski famous.
What this elegance actually shows us is who Ben was before he succumbed to addiction. Prior to his life falling apart, he was a successful screenwriter. In his lucid moments between the mania, talking to Sera as he walks the Strip, you can tell he had the assertive charisma necessary to be a Hollywood player. It’s what makes Cage’s performance all the more pitiable. We realize how much Ben has lost. It’s a sense of loss we see in Ben’s face when his boss fires him towards the beginning of the film. “We really liked having you around,” Mr. Simpson says as Cage’s eyes fill with terror and regret. He sobs, “I’m sorry.” In two words Cage masterfully personifies the shame every alcoholic keenly understands.
The most painfully realistic moment of Cage’s performance is also one of the quietest in Leaving Las Vegas. Throughout the opening montage of scenes, we’re given an idea of the scope of Ben’s addiction. After one particularly rough bender where he downed a pint of hard liquor in one agonizing swallow, he goes to a bank to try and cash a check. As the bank teller asks him to sign his name, he clasps his hands around his arms and shakes uncontrollably. Cage’s tormented physicality in this moment is one that any addict will recognize: he’s already going through withdrawals. He begs her to just cash the check without his signature because his hands are trembling so badly he can barely hold a pen. He tries to excuse his tremors by lying about a recent brain surgery, but he gives up and downs an early morning gin and tonic to steady his hand.
When he returns to the bank, we watch him dictate into a tape recorder everything he wishes he could say to the bank teller. It’s an out-of-time moment, where the audience is unsure if he’s actually speaking to her or if this is simply a drunk conversation he is having with himself. When he finally does show off to the teller how capable he is at signing his name, we once again get to see the person Ben was before alcoholism consumed his life. He has a silver tongue that’s been silenced by addiction; his words now nothing more than the pathetic rantings of a man on the cusp of throwing his life away.
This bank scene is the moment that made me originally turn the film off, because it was too much of a painful reminder of what I had just been through. I had been just like Ben, ashamed of the violent tremors that coursed through my hands. And much like him I also convinced myself the only cure for that pain was at the bottom of another glass. When I watched this scene, I knew that Cage’s performance was more than just pretending to be drunk; this was an actor who understood the nuances of addiction, and how to make that torture appear and feel alarmingly real.
How anyone can watch Leaving Las Vegas and still want to drink afterward is beyond me. The film is perhaps the best cinematic argument for why, as a society, we should remain hyper-vigilant to how we romanticize alcohol. Not every “wine mom” binge drinks like Cage’s character does, but every time we normalize any level of alcohol dependency, we enable one more person to indulge in an unhealthy relationship to booze. If anything, Leaving Las Vegas is a public service announcement, warning about how slippery of a slope “just one more” can be. It’s the most truthful and honest depiction of the harrowing descent of alcoholism ever committed to screen, and it’s because of Cage’s raw, fiercely committed performance.
In his Academy Award acceptance speech, Cage said, “I know it’s not hip to say it, but I just love acting, and I hope that there’ll be more encouragement for alternative movies where we can experiment and fast forward into the future of acting.” That love he has for this art form is apparent in his dynamic approach to embodying a character as flawed and complicated as Ben Sanderson. Not every actor is pouring themselves into their roles like Cage is, but his knack for daring experimentation is what has made him the iconic performer we know today. We may have fonder memories of his wackier roles in movies like Vampire’s Kiss and Mandy, but if you want incontrovertible proof of his immense talent, look no further than Leaving Las Vegas.