Nicolas Cage: Hollywood’s greatest maverick, or it’s worst talent waster?



This week sees the release of “Justice”, in which Nicolas Cage plays an Average Joe dragged into a vigilante gang to seek retributive justice against criminals who evade punishment by normal means blah blah blah blah blah. It sounds, and looks, like the kind of unimaginative, mainstream tripe that Cage seems to have made his trademark in recent years. “Knowing”, “Next”, “Season of the Witch”, “Bangkok Dangerous”. Universally bad films. And the less said about the shockingly bad “Wicker Man” remake, the better.  Did any of you bother to go and see them? And did any of you emerge from the cinema feeling even remotely entertained, never mind enriched?

                And yet, I can’t bring myself to write Cage off. Of all the Hollywood A-listers (and despite these movies, he is still an A-lister, commanding a $12m fee for “Justice”), he has perhaps the highest proportion of duffers on his CV (both critically and commercially), but he has something that the likes of Cruise, Smith, Willis etc don’t; he is a prodigiously talented, Oscar winning actor with a maverick streak that still, amongst all the shite, makes him worth watching.

                After appearing in his uncle Francis Ford Coppola’s “Rumblefish”, he changed his name from Coppola to Cage to avoid accusations of nepotism, an early indication of that refusal to play the game the usual Hollywood way. He then made a name for himself specialising in edgy, outsider roles such as “Vampire’s Kiss”, (in which he showed his Method commitment by eating a live cockroach), “Red Rock West”, “Birdy” (again going Method by having a tooth pulled without pain relief) and, most notably, David Lynch’s classic “Wild at Heart”, still arguably his defining role. Even at this point, though, Cage refused to be type-cast, and was willing to subvert his edgy image by playing the romantic lead in more light-weight works like “it Could Happen to You”, “Honeymoon in Vegas” and “Moonstruck”. He also showed incredible comic timing in the Coen’s “Raising Arizona”, delivering what remains one of the funniest performances in any Coen’s movie. Cage has said “I want to be able to play every part imaginable. I want to play the hero, the villain, the geek, the bully.” David Lynch described Cage as “…a jazz musician of an actor, totally unafraid.”

                In 1995 Cage truly hit the big time with his heart breaking portrayal of a doomed alcoholic in Mike Figgis’ “Leaving Las Vegas”. His performance bravely avoided all the clichés of such parts, drawing as many laughs as it did tears, and Cage rightly won his first Oscar. At this point, he could have had his pick of any project. So what did this Oscar winning dramatic actor do? In typically contrary fashion, he decided to team up with Bruckheimer and Bay and make a big, loud, dumb action movie-“The Rock”. This was the first in a trio of such films, followed by “Con Air” and “Face/Off” which established him as one of the top action movie stars. But Cage could never be the typical action leading man, as demonstrated by his knowing, irony imbued performance in “Con Air”, while “Face/Off” contains just about the wildest lead performance you’re likely to ever see in a film of that nature.

                Just as he appeared to have himself pigeon holed as an action man, Cage decided to pay and angel in the romantic drama “City of Angels”, before going off the leash again in De Palma’s“Snake Eyes”. Since then, his output has been, to put it kindly, patchy. The opening list of films should be enough to finish the career of most actors. But even in amongst the crap, he still has the ability to surprise us. His brilliant double performance in “Adaptation” earned him another Oscar nomination, “The Weather Man” and “Lord of War” are both underrated, and 2009 brought a brilliant support role in “Kick-Ass”. Best of all though, that same year was Werner Herzog’s “Bad Lieutenant”. What sounded like the worst idea ever ended up being the year’s most unexpected gem. Herzog truly turned Cage loose, and he delivered an unhinged, hilarious and disturbing performance. So how does he follow it? He makes the family comedy “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. Followed by the dire “Season of the Witch”, which leads us up to “Justice”. But write Cage off at your peril. If his career had proved anything, it’s that he is always capable of suprising us. This could be for the better or for the worse. His next film may well be the worst movie ever made, or it might win him another Oscar. With this man, you just never know.

I’m at the point now where I know I’m doing something right when a movie gets mixed reviews, because then I’m not in the box. I don’t want to make it too easy for people and I don’t want to make it too easy for myself. I want to try something unusual. I feel good about the bad reviews because I feel like I’ve affected them on some level” he said recently, and this seems to sum up his approach. He can be truly infuriating at times, but he is always watchable on some level, sometimes for pathos, sometimes for unintentional hilarity. Is that not somehow more interesting than the bland predictability of the success of Cruise and Smith? Or than the self-worthiness of someone like Sean Penn?  Cage simply does what he wants, regardless of the effect it may have on his career. In an industry filled with leading men who slavishly play the game, there is something to be said for that.  Although there is no excusing that “Wicker Man” remake.

 So, is Nicolas Cage Hollywood’s greatest maverick, or it’s worst talent waster?

  1. I think debt and the dollar sign are the real factors here! It’s why it’s so hit and miss. He is a film whore!!!!

    I sat through ‘Season of the Witch’ halfway in I wanted to kill the projectionist, then make the long trip to hollywood and murder all the cast and crew. Given the current climate, we should not have to pay or be exposed to this horseshit.

  2. Its hard to forgive him for all the crap, despite an enduring soft spot for him for Leaving Las Vegas. He just started to believe his own publicity.

    Maybe it is the debt and the dollar factor – who could resist. In fact if anyone wants to do an even worse remake of The Wicker Man, I’m up for the Brit Ekland role!

  3. I don’t think the debt factor can explain his choices. He made bizarre choices long before his recent debt issue, and took a huge pay-cut in order to make Bad Lieutenant. I think he likes to suprise, but also has poor quality control.

  4. Soory for dreadful spelling error in penultimate paragraph. That is obviously meant to say “play an angel”, not “pay and angel”. How embarrassing.

  5. i think the overriding factor is actually the fact he cannot act. He has all the emotional range of a wooden hat stand- one of the worst actors ever. Mind you the casting for misguided Wicker Man remake would have been perfect ……if he’d of played the Wicker Man

  6. Von Pip,
    He often gives dreadful performances, but to say he can’t act is ridiculous. His performance in leaving Las Vegas remains one of the most touching, yet unsentimental portrayals of alcoholism ever seen. His double performance in Adaptation in phenomenal. He’s hilarious in Raising Arizona, and brilliant in WIld at Heart.
    Say what you want about him, but to say he actually can’t act is just inaccurate.

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God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.