Do you remember a time when Nicolas Cage was not a caricature? Think hard. I know you can do it. You might have to scroll back through some of Cage’s screen credits on IMDb to refresh your memory, but there was indeed a time – and really it was not THAT long ago – when Cage was actually, kind of, maybe … a good actor. The guy won an Oscar, after all. While that is not a guarantor of greatness, Cage actually deserved that win for Leaving Las Vegas.
And before that? I present to you Rumble Fish, Raising Arizona, Moonstruck, Peggy Sue Got Married … hell, there’s a lot to be said even for the sappy comedies like It Could Happen To You and Guarding Tess. The point is: Cage was a pretty good actor. He had some turkeys mixed in, including the entirely confusing Vampire’s Kiss, most famous for his remarkable recitation of the alphabet, but those were often the exceptions rather than the rule. In his post-Oscar career, he was in Adaptation, The Rock, Lord of War, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. He did some good movies. He did some enjoyable action flicks – I still dig Con Air, Face/Off and Gone In 60 Seconds. He gave good performances in which he was not 100% batshit crazy.
So what the hell happened to Nicolas Cage? Cage was always one of those actors who probably needed to be reined in by his director (again: Vampire’s Kiss). He has a tendency to ham it up like pigs are going extinct. But when he is reined in – or when his craziness is well-directed – he can be charming, funny, intense without bringing the crazy. Raising Arizona could have been crazy-Cage, but instead it was just a great Coen Brothers film and Cage fit it perfectly. It saddens me, then, that his name has become a by-word for badness.
The guy brought it on himself, of course. I think it all began with the National Treasure franchise, but there were the seeds of it in The Rock and Con Air. Those crazy eyes, that freaky grin, that intense, mad acting style right out of a pantomime. The Wicker Man remake remains one of the most WTF films in existence, in a close running with Battlefield: Earth. But Cage has now reached the point where he pretty much only has to attach his name to any film and we immediately think that it’s a massive pile of WTF. The problem is we’re usually right.
Some, but by no means all, of Cage’s problems can be blamed on the financial difficulties he got into awhile back. It appears that he pretty much took anything that would get him a paycheck, and it shows. But unlike Michael Caine, who also appeared in some truly terrible motion pictures over the year with the sole goal of making money, Cage has failed to retain any kind of thespian status. Instead he’s become a joke.
This has happened to other actors, though very often as a result of personal problems (Mel Gibson) or indulgence in crazy belief systems (Tom Cruise, John Travolta, and Will Smith is beginning to push it). Cage, as far as I can tell, is not wallowing in badness because he can’t get any other work, or because he’s wondering what would Xenu do. He’s simply saying yes to every movie he’s offered. Some of those movies, like Bad Lieutenant, are brilliant, while others are just mind-numbingly terrible.
It’s a terrible thing when good actors go bad. Some of them, like Nicky, do it because they need the money; others do it because they have managed to jam their heads so far up their own asses that they can no longer see the light. Success did in Marlon Brando, who came to believe at that he was a great philosophical light. Richard Burton always thought of himself as a writer – and if his letters to Liz Taylor were any indication, he most certainly was not. Johnny Depp is a modern-day actor who has slowly begun descending to the dark side, turning to more of a caricature of himself than the proper actor that he’s always been. I have my worries about Robert Downey Jr. Actors are always at their best when they accept the fact that they are actors and not philosophers, writers or artists. If they value their profession and value what they produce, they can go far and remain likable. They also seem to wind up giving better performances, even in bad films.
I hold out hope for Nic Cage, despite the fact that he has five films in pre-production (according to IMDb), including Left Behind and National Treasure 3. I still think he’s capable of making a good movie or two, simply because he doesn’t appear to have gone the way of Will Smith or Brando. He doesn’t believe that he’s better than his profession. In some ways, I wonder if he doesn’t think that he’s actually worth less than he is. This is a guy capable of much more than punching women and screaming about bees. He just needs to be reminded of that.