In “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,” Nicolas Cage tackles one of his most out-there roles yet: a capital-A Actor named Nicolas Cage, who’s adored by fans all over the world for the intensity and eccentricity he brings to his work. Here’s a man who once pulled two of his teeth for a part (“Birdy”), but had the good sense to stop short of actually chopping off his hand to play Cher’s hot-blooded brother-in-law in “Moonstruck.” This was before he had all his teeth redone, replacing the devilishly crooked smile that was his signature for the gleaming white grin and flaming wig of “Ghost Rider.”
Somewhere in the metaverse, a parallel reality exists where Cage’s big comic-book movie would have been the lead role in Tim Burton’s “Superman Lives.” That’s a disaster averted, according to screenwriter Kevin Smith. In any case, Cage had already become an international megastar by appearing in back-to-back Jerry Bruckheimer movies (“The Rock” and “Con Air,” later followed by a high-adrenaline remake of “Gone in 60 Seconds”), which in turn made him bankable enough to attract at least two decades’ worth of unbelievably bad paycheck projects. During this time, it’s not clear what, if anything, would have led Cage to turn down a part. And yet, no matter how lousy the result (from “Season of the Witch” to “Dog Eat Dog,” the disappointments far outnumber the keepers), there’s no denying that Cage gives it 110%.
In the history of Hollywood, has there ever been a more dedicated over-actor? Whether it’s ripping his shirt off on “Wogan” or eating a live cockroach on command, Cage comes across like the id unleashed, keeping his fans on their toes while remaining true to his craft. Unlike Marlon Brando, a fellow ex-Method actor who started phoning in his performances after a certain point, Cage has never let his commitment flag. With “Massive Talent,” we now know the star is in on the joke. Let’s see where it ranks in the pantheon of wild-and-crazy Nicolas Cage performances.
Like Mickey Rourke and Mel Gibson, Cage works more often than he should (judging by the generally low quality of the output, at least). But he’s gotten more discriminating in recent years, choosing projects that simply wouldn’t have worked with any other star — movies like haunted-funhouse horror “Willy’s Wonderland” and apocalyptic Western whatsit “Prisoners of the Ghostland.” The same could be said for “Pig,” a late-career comeback role for Cage in which he takes the most preposterous of revenge-movie premises (a reclusive ex-chef abandons his cabin and goes on a big-city rampage after hooligans kidnap his porcine companion) and renders it sincere and almost zen-like. Cage, who looks like his “Con Air” character spent another quarter-century in solitary confinement, accomplishes the feat of emotionally grounding this barely-there sketch by taking it seriously. As a result, so did audiences, making this his most critically acclaimed gig since “Adaptation.”
Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
The movie that won Cage an Oscar makes inspired use of the actor’s penchant for unpredictability. Cage plays Ben Sanderson, a washed-up Hollywood screenwriter who’s decided to drink himself to death. “I don’t know if I started drinking cuz my wife left me or my wife left me cuz I started drinking,” he tells a bartender between rounds. After torching half his possessions and setting the rest on the curb in trash bags, Ben drives out to Sin City, sipping straight from the bottle the whole way. He nearly runs down an escort (Elisabeth Shue), who takes pity on the guy, not so much enabling his self-destruction as offering him comfort on the way down. The film’s Cage-iest scene occurs in a casino, where Ben attacks a cocktail waitress and overturns their blackjack table in a scene renegade director Mike Figgis shoots from above, as if the meltdown were captured by hidden cameras.
Younger audiences don’t know the real Cage, on account of the fact that he’s spent the last three decades making mostly action movies (what the market wants, apparently). Before that, he was one of Hollywood’s sexiest stars. From the bad boy in “Valley Girl” to the maudlin officer in “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin,” Cage makes a great romantic lead, and he’s never been more seductive than in this otherwise terrible love-triangle drama. Cage plays a tortured artist with long hair and a Louisiana accent who just might be talking about himself when showing off one of his canvases: “I really captured the brutality of fact here,” he says. “I feel good about it. I didn’t use drugs.” Rejected, he has a meltdown in his studio, shredding his canvases and slathering his (also shredded) body in paint. (The movie also features unforgettable cameos by Steve Buscemi and Joe Pantoliano, the latter as a cringe-worthy gay stereotype.)
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Wild at Heart (1990)
Sexier still — but also less convincing, given the way director David Lynch frames the entire movie in ironic air quotes — is Cage’s turn as Sailor Ripley, an Elvis-talkin’, James Dean-walkin’ love machine in a snakeskin jacket. In one of the movie’s more memorable lines, Sailor insists the getup “represents a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom.” And who better to embody that spirit (along with the way the character is really a composite of mass-marketed pop icons, bottled and sold to American consumers) than Cage? To wit, after smashing a man’s head to smithereens in the opening scene, Sailor and his girl Lulu (a wonderfully on-his-wavelength Laura Dern) hit the road, sparking an over-the-top subversion of everything from lovers-on-the-run movies like “Badlands” to Cage’s iconic performance as the numb-skulled amateur thief in “Raising Arizona” just three years earlier.
With the aid of wind machines and a little well-timed slo-mo, John Woo can make anyone look cool. But Cage takes the cake, stepping out of a Cadillac and onto the tarmac with a pair of gold-plated pistols holstered behind him in what is arguably the summit of Hollywood high-concept filmmaking. Cage embodies first psychotic criminal mastermind Castor Troy and later the ultra-serioso FBI agent (John Travolta) who agrees to a risky/ridiculous face-transplant procedure, going undercover in a maximum security prison to … well, you get the picture. Cage’s first scene finds him disguised as a priest, but not really, since he calls so much attention to himself, butting into a performance of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” Cage starred in “Con Air” that same summer, surrounded by weirdos (Cyrus “The Virus,” anyone?), whereas Woo gave the star as much room as he wanted to steal the show.
When Cage is the star, that all-eyes-on-him quality can work wonders, forcing everyone else in the cast to adapt to his energy while Cage takes charge (as in the godawful “Army of One,” in which he upstages even Russell Brand as God). But when he appears in a supporting role, the rest of the ensemble had better watch out, as Cage makes off with the movie, as in this abysmal thriller directed by his brother, Christopher Coppola. Yes, the siblings are nephews to Francis, of “The Godfather” fame, though you’d never guess filmmaking ran in the family from the all-around amateurishness on display here. Cage enters about 17 minutes in, wearing loud shirts, a shaggy mustache and terrible hair — later revealed to be a toupee. He snorts poppers and karate-kicks people at random, screaming “Hi-fuckin’-ya!” before making a very memorable exit (only to inexplicably revive the same character years later for “Arsenal”).
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)
Until now, we haven’t dedicated any time to discussing Cage’s repertoire of bizarro accents, like the menacing tough-guy brogue that comes and goes from this spirit sequel to Abel Ferrara’s notorious crooked-cop movie. (Now there’s a director who could make interesting use of Cage one day!) Truth be told, helmer Werner Herzog proves a pretty good accomplice to Cage’s go-for-broke plunge into the dark abyss of a post-Katrina police officer’s soul. With a hooker for a girlfriend and a nasty habit of snorting his way through half the drugs his colleagues have confiscated — which accounts for the iguanas he keeps hallucinating — Cage’s Lt. McDonagh is as far from “by the book” as they come. Witness the scene where he snatches the oxygen tube from an old woman’s nose to force the information out of her caregiver, before whipping out his Magnum and going all “Dirty Harry” on them both.
The Wicker Man (2006)
This demented and widely derided remake of the 1973 cult classic has more to it than its reputation suggests, although it’s no wonder people were so tough on it at the time: Cage is intentionally offputting as an alpha-male police officer who elbows his way in to a secluded island community, where women hold all the power — a dynamic borrowed from the bees they cultivate — and don’t take too kindly to his intrusive investigation. (Factor in that this version was made by gender-war provocateur Neil LaBute, and it’s all the more fascinating.) Cage rants and raves for a time, before the character finally snaps, punching one of these women in the face and stealing her bear costume for the fertility ritual. The movie was co-produced by shlockbuster shingles Millennium Films and Emmett/Furla Oasis, companies that bet on has-been movie stars and which have been feeding Cage bad material (like “Drive Angry” and “Stolen”) ever since.
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022)
In a way, playing dual roles in “Adaptation” — as screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and his sell-out twin brother Donald — could be conceived as a dry run for Tom Gormican’s meta action comedy. Cage plays not-exactly-himself but an actor named Nicolas Cage who indulges his biggest fan by agreeing to make a personal appearance on a private island. Cage (the character) calls upon an imaginary younger version of himself that only he (and we) can see, wearing the rebel uniform of a white T-shirt and leather jacket, who psychs modern-day Cage up for a challenge whenever needed. In the movie’s most memorable scene, that means making out with himself, after which his personal cheerleader announces, “Nic Cage smooches good!” It’s another meme-worthy moment in a career of unforgettable excess, although the movie turns out to be tamer than advertised — less a lost Charlie Kaufman script than another Millennium-style action movie.
There’s always been something punk rock about Nicolas Cage, as the star pushed back on perceived ideas of “good acting” with subversive choices and an all-around more-is-more approach. Playing off the “Satanic panic” that swept the U.S. in the ’80s, this psychotronic revenge epic represents the apogee of excess, finding Cage bathed in blood and brandishing a gnarly hand-forged sword as Red, a logger who takes on a sicko religious cult after they burn his girlfriend alive. Between chainsaw battles and face-melting hallucinations, director Panos Cosmatos channels vintage giallo movies with his synth-metal score and deep-magenta palette. But Cage sells it, first by conveying his love for Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) in the opening act — this he does with an earnestness that tips into irony, revealing how dull his career would’ve been if he never flew off the handle — and later by dispatching the S&M-clad culprits one by mother-effin’ one.
Vampire’s Kiss (1988)
Believe it or not, this curious low-budget indie is the key to understanding Cage’s entire oeuvre. The actor had just come off the critical and box office success of “Moonstruck,” which wasn’t at all the kind of movie he wanted to be making. So he swung hard in the opposite direction with this biting social satire, in which Cage more than embodies an unstable New York yuppie who gets freaked out by a bat in his apartment and convinces himself that he’s becoming a vampire. (The movie is a clear model for Mary Harron’s “American Psycho,” in which Christian Bale’s character believes he’s a serial killer.) Cage’s Peter Loew is a despicable character, rendered all the more alienating by the actor’s arch mock-pompous accent and myriad tics, and yet, the actor succeeds in making him sympathetic even at his worst — and Peter does some pretty extreme things, from raping his assistant to swallowing a live cockroach.
The performance amounts to a bold expressionistic experiment — a rejection of so-called “realism” that dominates contemporary acting — as Cage channels the exaggerated body language and pantomime style of silent film actors (most notably Max Schreck in “Nosferatu”). Although he has since dialed back than tendency, it explains the way he walks, cocks his head and manipulates his hands in practically everything he’s done since. “See, ‘over the top’ is one of those things that doesn’t work with me, because I don’t believe in such a thing,” Cage says on the film’s commentary track. “I feel that it’s just stylistic choices, and this was obviously a choice to use grand gesture and go bigger.” The world didn’t understand it at the time, but go back (the film will be re-released on Blu-Ray this summer), and you’ll find the roots of a gloriously over-the-top-career.