All in the risk

'Mandolin' marks latest twist in Cage's varied career

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Whether actually eating a cockroach for “Vampire’s Kiss,” portraying the darkest recesses of alcoholism in “Leaving Las Vegas” or reinventing himself as a thinking, action hero in “The Rock,” throughout his career Nicolas Cage has shown an unflagging courage in his acting choices.

It is for this risk taking and commitment to character that Cage is honored with ShoWest’s first ever Distinguished Decade of Achievement in Film Award.

While the actor has stretched his range with diverse performances, perhaps his greatest career leap is shortly to come in the romantic period epic “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.”

The film, skedded for release in August, depicts Cage as the titular Italian captain who, during the World War II occupation of a Greek island, falls hard for a beautiful, previously engaged woman, played by Penelope Cruz.

Adding to the anticipation for the film is that it is director John Madden’s first project since his 1998 hit “Shakespeare in Love” and is lensed by two-time Oscar winner John Toll (“Braveheart” and “Legends of the Fall”).

Cage, who nabbed an Oscar for “Las Vegas,” recognizes that “Mandolin” may redefine the scope of his acting abilities.

“I felt I was missing the experience of working in a romantic, period film and even doing a movie where I was not an American,” he says, and admits to a new preference for working on projects based on books. “You’re using your own imagination but it’s being guided by the novel itself, the writing itself, which can stimulate you. It can give you great ideas.”

The source material is the 1994 book by British novelist Louis de Bernieres, which has sold 1.5 million copies in the U.K. Its 1940s setting is the Greek island of Cephalonia, where an entire period village of 10 buildings was constructed on a picturesque peninsula, no doubt a substantial portion of the film’s $50 million budget.

Madden’s respect for Cage’s bravura performance style is both eloquent and laudatory.

Nic Cage is an actor. He is also a star, but the order is significant, and the two terms do not always coexist,” Madden says. “His choice of roles is a testament to his determination to live dangerously, to explore as many genres as he can and to test himself against unusual material.”

Writer Shawn Slovo, whose own father headed the banned Communist Party in apartheid South Africa, has depoliticized Cage’s character in her script.

“Corelli is a man whose country goes to war and is conscripted,” she says. “He’s not a fascist. He’s not a communist. When your country declares war, you don’t not fight.”

Romanced by pic

Slovo’s adaptation had to compensate for the character of Corelli not appearing in the first third of the de Bernieres book, as well as the historic and less-than- romantic brutality of the German forces, which slaughtered thousands of Italians upon their arrival in 1943 Cephalonia.

Madden amplifies what Cage brings to the lead, describing Corelli as “an irresistible man: irreverent, funny, hedonistic, utterly spontaneous, less interested in the mechanics of war than in the melodic intricacies of his mandolin, preferring to train his men to sing Puccini than to fire weapons.”

Adding to his arsenal of talents, Cage learned to play the title instrument and conduct music with an authority that would read onscreen.

Cage says he called upon the spirit of his grandfather, noted conductor and composer Carmine Coppola. “I would try to convince myself this was somewhere in me, in my background, in my history, in my genes.”

The grand sweep of “Mandolin” has been likened to “Doctor Zhivago” by Tim Bevan, co-founder, with Eric Fellner, of London’s Working Title, which is producing along with StudioCanal, Universal and Miramax. What remains to be seen is whether the film will do as much business, and attain as many accolades, as the more recent romantic epic, “The English Patient,” Michael Ondaatje’s book-turned-film that was likewise a love story overcome by the ravages of the WWII.

Madden sees the similarity but thinks “Mandolin” will play a sweeter tune than “Patient,” which won the 1996 picture Oscar.

“Its strength is its uniqueness, and with Nic Cage and Penelope Cruz playing the leads,” he says, “we think the movie can reach across the demographic boundaries of male and female, of arthouse and wide audience appeal.”

TITLE (distrib, year)
The Rock (BV, ’96)
Face/Off (Par, ’97)
Gone in Sixty Seconds (BV, ’00)
Con Air (BV, ’97)
Moonstruck (MGM, ’87)
City of Angels (WB, ’98)
The Family Man (U, ’00)+
Snake Eyes (Par, ’98)
Peggy Sue Got Married (TriStar, ’86)

It Could Happen to You (Sony, ’94)

8MM (Sony, ’99)

Honeymoon in Vegas (Col, ’92)

Leaving Las Vegas (MGM, ’95)

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (U, ’82)

Guarding Tess (Sony, ’94)

The Cotton Club (Orion, ’84)

Raising Arizona (Fox, ’87)

Valley Girl (Atl, ’83)

Bringing Out the Dead (Par, ’99)

Kiss of Death (Fox, ’95)

Fire Birds (BV, ’90)

Wild at Heart (Samuel Goldwyn, ’90)

Amos & Andrew (Col, ’93)

Shadow of the Vampire (Lions Gate, ’00) (as producer)+

Racing with the Moon (Par, ’84)

Trapped in Paradise (Fox, ’94)

Rumblefish (U, ’83)

Red Rock West (Roxie, ’94)

Birdy (TriStar, ’84)

Vampire’s Kiss (Hemdale, ’89)

The Boy in Blue (Fox, ’86)

Deadfall (Trimark, ’93)

$1.14 billion

+ gross as of Feb. 25, 2001
* in millions of $
Source: ACNielsen EDI/Variety