Is Nicolas Cage the Greatest Actor of His Generation?
It takes a very special actor to turn the alphabet into an aria of weirdness. And yet, there’s Nicolas Cage, looking young and handsome in a 1980s Italian power suit, losing his cool after being told a contract has been misfiled. This is, naturally, an unforgivable sin. So how does this man on the edge demonstrate his rage? By screaming the alphabet: A! B! C! D! As he shrieks his way through, yes, all 26 letters, the volume increases and the movements ramp up to something that resembles either an interpretive dance or an Italian wiseguy having a seizure. It ends with Cage, arms crossed and in full toddler-temper-tantrum mode, declaring, “I’ve never misfiled anything. Not once! Not one time!“
This jaw-dropping display is from Vampire’s Kiss, a.k.a. the 1987 movie where the actor ate a live bug on camera, and a strong contender for what we’ll call “Peak Cage.” Maybe you’d go with that movie’s chomp-the-cockroach scene instead, because #Method. Or possibly the declaration that a snakeskin jacket is a symbol of his individuality and belief in personal freedom, all uttered in a single breath, in 1990’s Wild at Heart. Our personal pick is the opening shot of Leaving Las Vegas, the 1995 drama about an alcoholic writer drinking himself to death that won Cage his only Oscar to date, when he saunters down a supermarket’s liquor aisle, boogieing to some song only he can hear, filling up his shopping cart with random bottle after bottle after bottle. It’s ridiculous and sublime, poetic and nonsensical, giggle-inducing and soul-destroying all at once.
Every Nicolas Cage fan has a handful of these moments, ones in which the self-proclaimed “California Klaus Kinski” stops you in your tracks and makes you reverently mutter, “Wow.” Not every Nicolas Cage fan would sucker the iconoclastic star into going to a desert island under false pretenses, however, which is the premise behind The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, the meta-comedy that hits theaters on April 22nd. Featuring Cage as an exaggerated, fictional version of himself — the role he was born to play! — the movie features the 58-year-old actor accepting a $1 million offer for a billionaire’s birthday-party appearance. The host, played by Pedro Pascal, is the world’s biggest Cageaphile. He’s also an international arms dealer who is in the C.I.A.’s crosshairs. Cue espionage, physical comedy, an LSD trip, impromptu family therapy and a gunfight involving the gold automatic pistols from Face-Off.
It’s a particularly great moment to worship at the alter of Nicolas Cage. His work in last year’s Pig, an intimate character study about a reclusive master chef in search of his prize truffle-sniffing pet, garnered him some of the best reviews of his career. Age of Cage, a book by Rolling Stone contributor Keith Phipps that dives deep into Cage’s work, just hit shelves. And then there’s Unbearable, which mines a rich legacy of “Peak Cage” intensity in the name of both laughs and an affectionate tribute. Whether it’s the beginning of another Cagenaissance is uncertain, but it feels as if we can finally reassess what’s been a long, strange 40-year trip without forcing him into being a fulltime genius or a punchline.
Cage has been declared both, and believe us when we say that it hasn’t always been easy to be a die-hard fanatic of his work. But there was something unusual about him from the moment you saw his young, scruffy punk rocker in Valley Girl (1983), hot enough to be a teen-comedy dreamboat material but just enough of an oddball to scrape against the typical hunk-with-heart-of-gold conventions. You immediately wanted to see what this guy would do whenever he showed up onscreen.
For the next 12 years, he’d ping-pong between leading-men roles — is there a more hopeless romantic in 1980s movies than Ronny Cammaeri, the one-handed, opera-loving baker who sweeps Cher off her feet in Moonstruck? — and lunatics. Occasionally, he’d hit the bullseye right between those polar opposites, and for every interesting mistake made in that interzone (his voice in Peggy Sue Got Married, which Cage claimed was inspired by Gumby’s horse, Pokey), you’d get something like his walking, talking Looney Tune in Raising Arizona, or his off-brand-Elvis in Wild at Heart. Who else could pull off the latter’s perfect melding of sex appeal, retro-cool postures and rebel-without-a-clue sincerity in a way that fit with David Lynch’s surrealist road movie? Who else could turn a line like “You filthy piece of white…trash?” into a question and still make it work?!
That fertile part of his early, singular career arguably peaks with Leaving Las Vegas, which adds pathos to his onscreen volatility and wins him the award that coronates him as Mr. Cage, Serious Actor. You felt like he could do anything now. Which made the transition to Nic Cage, Action Hero a bit confusing. The Rock (1996) essentially drops a typical Cage eccentric — the nerdy, Beatles obsessive Stanley Goodspeed — into a Michael Bay movie as a way of spicing things up. By Con Air (1997), he’s now the pumped-up main attraction. The final entry of his post-Oscar multiplex-spectacle trifecta, Face/Off (also 1997), gives him a lot of room to display his chops, color outside the lines and play a recognizable blockbuster type. (Types plural, technically.) Maybe this detour into shootouts and explosions would be the start of something wonderful: a career pivot that could encompass both the Method to his madness and the multiplexes all at once.
What happens next is a series of occasional highs and a whole lotta lows. He works with some name directors, like Spike Jonze (Adaptation., which deservedly nabs Cage a second Oscar nomination) and Oliver Stone (World Trade Center) and Ridley Scott (Matchstick Men). An attempt to do a Superman movie with Tim Burton falls apart; an attempt to do an Indiana Jones-lite franchise with National Treasure keeps him in the spotlight. When he finally plays a superhero courtesy of Ghost Rider, Cage mostly exercises what he’s called his “Western kabuki” (read: loud and unhinged) style of acting. If you’ve seen the “Not the bees!” meme from his 2006 Wicker Man remake, you know what we mean. Well-publicized financial woes, as well as a self-proclaimed need to keep busy, forced him to sign up in smaller films that went largely unseen or genre films that traded off his star power and this-performance-goes-to-11 outrageousness. “There is no ‘over the top,’” he’s been fond of saying in interviews over the past few years. “You show me where the top is, and I’ll let you know whether I’m over it or not, all right? I design where the top is.”
Then, over the last few years, people seemed to remember why they fell in love with Cage in the first place. It wasn’t like he ever left — you could still hear his voice in animated movies like The Croods, and Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, still find a diamond like the psychotronic revenge movie Mandy (2018) glittering in the dung heap. But it was as if viewers were seeing past the self-parody of his later, “out of the box” work and noticing something a little more dynamic waiting to come out. With Pig, Cage had a chance to press pause on the sound and fury and play someone quiet, numb, still wounded from tragedy and left adrift in a world that prized flashiness over substance. Art semi-imitated life, in other words, and you saw a whole other side of the star come out again. You were reminded it wasn’t all bug-eyed screaming and “scraaaaping at the doorrrrr” line readings. He’s a dynamic actor. He’s the equivalent of a Pixies song — the loud choruses complement the quiet verses, and vice versa.
“I think the culture is finally ready to reassess him,” Phipps says. “We’ve had our fun with the supercuts and the memes, but something like Pig reminds you that he’s a really great actor and not a joke. Those big, expressionist performances are what set him apart from so many of his peers, but the thing we love about his work is that the vulnerability and the humanity are always there. You really see it in movies like Joe and Pig, but it’s really in all of his work. You can see it in Valley Girl, and you can see it in his new movie. That’s the through line.”
Coming off the heels of that triumph, the time now feels right to give the public something like The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent — even if Cage has always been in on the joke, it always seemed as if viewers were laughing at him instead of with him. What could have been a mournful trip down memory lane for fans now comes off like a victory lap; having proving he can still bring an A-game, we can now watch him send up his exile on C-list-street sans pity. Seeing him onstage at SXSW in March, answering questions during onstage right after the premiere of Unbearable, you feel him reacting to the love in the room. It seemed to surprise him a bit. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll witness an older and wiser Cage do something like scream the entire alphabet one more time, and experience someone not trying to relive their glory days but reclaiming something old in the name of something completely different, demented and deserving of being called Peak Cage 2.0.