The Tao of Nicolas Cage: ‘Raising Arizona’

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30 years ago Cage teamed up with the Coen Brothers to create comedy gold. Why haven’t they reunited since?

“That sumbitch. You tell him, I think he’s a damn fool, Ed. You tell him I said so – H.I. McDonnough. If he wants to discuss it, he knows where to find me: in the Maricopa County Maximum Security Correctional Facility For Men State Farm, Road Number 31, Tempe, Arizona! I’LL BE WAITIN’! I’ll be waitin’.”

Earlier this week the Coen Brothers’ screwball comedy Raising Arizona turned 30, which is pretty absurd, but whatever. Since the film did celebrate this recent anniversary I figure it’s as good a time as any to talk about what is my favorite Nicolas Cage movie.

Raising Arizona is one of those movies where the stars just come together and align perfectly; at least as far my personal tastes are concerned. Favorite actor? Check. Favorite director(s)? Check. Set in my home state? Check. Reference to underappreciated 80’s slasher? Check. John Goodman screaming? Check.

If you haven’t seen Raising Arizona that’s weird, but I’ll give you a quick breakdown of what it’s about. Cage stars as Herbert I. “Hi” McDunnough, a career criminal, but a very petty one. Hi typically robs convenience stores with unloaded guns, so not great but he’s not a bad guy. Unfortunately Hi just can’t seem to keep out of jail. Fortunately for Hi is constant run-ins with the law result in him meeting officer Edwina, AKA Ed (Holly Hunter).

Ed is responsible for taking mugshots of the recently arrested to her and Hi see each other quite frequently. Hi becomes quote fond of Ed and after seeing her crying one day because her fiancé dumped her he vows to go straight and be with her. And Hi sort of does. He gets a job at a machine shop, the two of them get a trailer and things seem to be going well. That is until they try to have a kid and realize that can’t because Ed is infertile.

Hi and Ed are devastated, especially Ed. They try adoption but that fails due to Hi’s criminal past. That’s when they hear about the Arizona Quints, born to Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson), a local furniture dealer that’s a bit of a celebrity in Arizona. Hi and Ed concoct a plan to steal one of the babies, because why should someone have five when they can’t even have one?

The role of Hi is a wonderful part for Cage. It requires a zany, off-the-wall and at times cartoonish performance and Cage nails it on all accounts. It’s the type of performance we don’t see much from Cage these days. He still gives big, larger than life performances, but few these days are done with a light-hearted comedic tone. Every time I re-visit Raising Arizona, which is quite often, I find myself desperately wanting to see Cage get back to his comedic side.

In my mind it’s no surprise that Cage worked with the Coen Brothers. On the surface they seem like a natural pairing. The work of the Coen Brothers has a very unique feel and some would say it’s a bit of an acquired taste. They constantly put weird characters on screen with bizarre hairdos and equally bizarre accents, and this is especially true when looking at their comedies like The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and of course Raising Arizona. A lot of these same things apply to Nicolas Cage. Logically they would make for a match made in heaven, right? Well, only kind of.

For years it killed me that Cage and the Coens never got back together. They were so perfect so why not reunite? After all the Coen Brothers have a history of using actors over and over again.

My first thought was that they haven’t really had a role that would suit Cage and I think that’s somewhat true. An argument could be made for O Brother, Where Art Thou? but that’s about it. I decided to some digging to try and find the true answer and when I did it all seemed so obvious.

I found an interview with the Coen Brothers on YouTube one day. I can’t remember what the interview was from, what it was for and sadly I haven’t been able to find it again, but I do remember the interviewer asking about Raising Arizona and working with Cage specifically. The question was geared in a way that made it sound like it was a difficult process.

Ethan, or maybe it was Joel, responded saying something about how it’s much better to work with an actor like Cage that you have to reel in a bit rather than work with an actor that you have to kick to get going. Of course I’m paraphrasing from memory but I think that was the gist of it.

Note: if you know what interview I’m referring to and can point me in its direction that would be greatly appreciated. I’d love to watch it again.

Outside of this interview that I could very well be wildly misremembering I haven’t been able to find much on what Ethan and Joel thought of working with Cage. Maybe I’m just bad at googling.

Cage for his part hasn’t said much either but I was able to find a few tidbits from over the years.

“Joel and Ethan have a very strong vision and I’ve learned how difficult it is to accept another artist’s vision. They have an autocratic nature.”

IMDb attributes this quote to Cage. I’m not sure when or where it was said but I’m willing to trust IMDb on this one. It sounds like something Cage would say and it makes sense.

On the Fargo documentary Minnesota Nice Peter Stormare shares a story about how he thought the “pancakes house” line was a typo. He thought it was supposed to be “pancake house.” When he brought this to the attention of the brothers they simply said, “We don’t make typos.”

Taking this little story from Stormare and combining it with the fact that the Coen Brothers are known to be pretty particular with their scripts, allegedly writing out every little detail including mannerisms and pauses, it’s easy to see where an issue could arise when working with Cage.

Cage is like a jazz musician, relying on improv to guide him through a set until he finds a groove he likes. He comes prepared and has a general idea of what he wants to do but he’s open to letting the vibe carry him. Ethan and Joel seem like complete opposites. They’re much more meticulous with their approach. When the arrive on the set they know what they want to shoot and that’s what they shoot.

These are two very distinct styles that directly conflict with one another. Both parties set out with the same goal in mind, and often times the final products share similarities, but two completely different paths are taken to get there. It’s easy to see why Cage didn’t become a regular for the brothers.

Of course I’m just using the little bit of information I have and making a guess. There could be any numbers of reasons why they haven’t tried to recapture that Raising Arizona magic. Just working out schedules can be extremely tricky. This is a topic I do think about a lot though, especially when watching Raising Arizona.

Will they ever work together again? Who knows. From what I can gather Cage likes Ethan and Joel, and Ethan and Joel like Cage. In a 2014 interview with The Talks Cage was asked about working with the brothers and spoke positively of them saying, “I’d seen Blood Simple and I really wanted to work with the Coen Brothers and I must have auditioned for Raising Arizona 10 times.”

So maybe there’s a chance. It’s something I would love to see. I think they’ve all done their best work together. But hey, if it never happens we’ll always have Raising Arizona.

My name is Chris Coffel and I usually write about Nicolas Cage. When I'm not writing about Nicolas Cage I'm usually thinking about writing about Nicolas Cage.