The polarising actor sends himself up in his new film, The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent, but there’s more to him than shouty B-movies
Is Nicolas Cage a great actor or a bad one? I’m quite sure I have no idea. He won an Oscar, but then again, so did John Wayne, who couldn’t act to save his life and always played himself.
Cage’s uniquely blustering, uneven style has as many detractors as fans and has made him a kind of cult figure destined to exist outside the Hollywood mainstream.
And in his latest film, he gleefully adds to the general confusion.
Released today, The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent is a spoof action comedy in which Cage plays, well, Nicolas Cage. Or rather a washed-up, histrionic version of himself, who is on the point of quitting acting when he accepts an invitation to travel to Mallorca to attend the birthday of a superfan.
He’ll be paid $1m for his trouble, but there’ll be plenty of that because the superfan is a supervillain, connected to a ruthless crime boss.
In The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent, Cage reveals what we already knew: he has a sense of humour. During the film’s hectic progress, he refers to himself constantly in the third person, discusses his “nouveau shamanic” acting style, and generally takes the rise out of his public persona.
At one point, while watching the 1994 film Guarding Tess, he observes himself interacting with Shirley MacLaine and winces visibly when his character suddenly starts shouting. Cage has rattled Cage.
It’s all good fun and the film reinforces one undeniable truth about Cage: he is a fearless actor who is always ready to take risks.
His free-form and almost jazzy approach to his craft has not always won the admiration of his peers.
In 1999, Sean Penn said: “He’s not an actor, he’s a performer”. This is rich, coming from a man who never met a scene he didn’t yearn to chew and, in ways, Penn also misses the point.
Naturalism can be a hiding place, something Cage has the courage to avoid, as Ethan Hawke acknowledged in 2013. Cage, he said, was “the only actor since Marlon Brando that’s actually done anything new with the art”, having moved away from “an obsession with naturalism into a kind of presentation style of acting”.
Bravery of this kind risks spilling over into absurdity, and Cage’s CV is littered with howlers.
Funny thing though: no matter how bad the film is, he is always interesting and the mere sight of him on a screen is enough to cheer you up. Cage is never boring because neither you nor he are ever entirely sure what he’s going to do next.
If the Cage in Unbearable Weight is a construct, so in a sense is the real one.
Because Cage was born Nicolas Kim Coppola and is a member of a great and influential film dynasty.
Francis Coppola is his uncle, Talia Shire his aunt, Sofia Coppola, Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman his first cousins.
His father was August Coppola, the distinguished literature professor; his mother Joy Vogelsang, a dancer and choreographer.
As Nicolas grew up, culture, showbusiness and especially cinema were everywhere around him: he would later recall being shown macabre Weimar silent classics such as Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari by his dad when he was just five.
“We’d watch,” he said recently, “and I’d have nightmares. But then I grew to love it.” He would be greatly influenced by the flamboyant acting of Max Schreck and Conrad Veidt.
At Beverly Hills High, he appeared in a few school plays, but has frequently pinpointed the precise moment when he realised acting was for him.
“I started acting because I wanted to be James Dean,” he said, recalling in particular a first viewing of East Of Eden.
“I was 14, I was at the New Beverly Cinema and I said ‘Oh, no, that is exactly how I feel. Oh my God, I have to do this’.”
Given his background, he had some natural advantages at his disposal, but was determined not to exploit them.
After making his film debut at 17 with a small role in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, he decided to change his name to Cage.
“I needed to change my name just to liberate myself and find out I could do it without walking into a Hollywood casting office with the name Coppola,” he said later.
Still, being a Coppola did help. In the early 1980s, Uncle Francis cast him in three films: Rumble Fish, The Cotton Club and the comic fantasy Peggy Sue Got Married, in which he co-starred with Kathleen Turner. Though Cage and Turner did not hit it off, the film was a cult hit and led to bigger things.
Cher saw it and insisted on him being cast opposite her in Norman Jewison’s 1987 romantic comedy Moonstruck. He played Ronny, a one-handed baker, and the excitable younger brother of Johnny Cammareri, fiancé of the beautiful widow Loretta Castorini (Cher). During the shoot, director Jewison would criticise Cage for his performance excesses, but the actor knew exactly what he was doing: his Ronny perfectly elides with the film’s innate good-hearted melodrama. It was a brilliant performance and won him a Golden Globe.
The same year, he co-starred with Holly Hunter in the Coen brothers’ jaunty satire Raising Arizona, playing a convict who falls in love with a cop. The Coens are well known for their tightly structured, closely scripted films, an approach that was always going to trouble the freewheeling Cage.
He made constant suggestions about his character, which fell on deaf ears and afterwards, Joel Coen described Cage as “less an actor than a force of nature”.
In Wild At Heart (1990), Cage found a kindred spirit in David Lynch, who allowed him and co-star Laura Dern free rein to develop and interpret their characters Sailor and Lula, lovers adrift in a landscape of crime and suffering.
What those three films showed was a natural gift for comedy, but through the 1990s, Cage would resort to it seldom, as he moved instead towards action hero territory.
One could argue, though, that there was inadvertent comedy in his work on films such as Red Rock West, The Rock and Con Air, one-note thrillers that seemed a poor fit for this winningly eccentric performer. An action film needed wit, a touch of subversion, for Cage to seem at home in it, the perfect example being John Woo’s Face/Off.
In 1995, Cage found a suitable vehicle for his talents in Leaving Las Vegas, Mike Figgis’s grim drama about a drunken Hollywood screenwriter who comes to the desert city to kill himself.
Ben intends to end it all through the medium of alcohol, but meanwhile falls in love with a Las Vegas sex worker (Elisabeth Shue). Their relationship formed the touching heart of a film that ultimately refused to give in to cheap sentiment, and Cage richly deserved the accolades — including an Oscar — that came his way.
An Oscar win can transport actors into Hollywood’s sunlit uplands, where they get to pick and choose the plum roles and avoid the faintest whiff of B-movie squalor.
But that doesn’t sound much like Cage, who instead responded to the Academy’s approbation by plunging himself into film after film, without any apparent interest in their quality.
There was the odd good
one, of course, like Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out The Dead, but by the mid-2000s, Cage was knocking out four films a year, each more forgettable than the last. Why all this frantic productivity?
“I certainly have a work ethic,” he told The Guardian’s Hadley Freeman in 2018.
“I’m the first to arrive and the last to leave. But also, I think my children are to thank for that.” Cage has two sons and another child on the way with his fifth wife Riko Shibata, who is some 30 years his junior.
And as Cage has pointed out, just because a film is ordinary, that’s no reason to phone your performance in. “When I was doing four movies a year, back-to-back, I still had to find something in them to be able to give it my all,” he said recently. “They didn’t work, all of them… but I never phoned it in. So if there was a misconception, it was that. That I was just doing it and not caring. I was caring.”
I believe him, and I think Cage has a sort of greatness, but a greatness so specific that it can oscillate between splendour and absurdity, sometimes in the same performance.
But when he finds the right script, the right director, something special happens.
Like in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Werner Herzog’s inspired crime thriller in which Cage played Terence McDonagh, a New Orleans cop who injures his back while rescuing someone during Storm Katrina and becomes a drug addict.
Cage’s method techniques are well known: on Leaving Las Vegas, he hired the alcoholic poet Tony Dingman to be his ‘drinking consultant’. And for Bad Lieutenant, he compulsively snorted saccharine to get himself into the mindset of a drug addict.
“I think I really freaked Werner out a bit,” he said afterwards, “which then freaked me out because you really have to have gone way out to freak out Werner”.
Leave it to Cage, a free spirit in an age of corporate creativity, dull conformity, and an actor worth watching no matter what dross he happens to be in.
The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent is in cinemas now