In this article we’re going to try to answer three questions.
- Why does Nicolas Cage make so many movies?
- Why, lately, do most of them stink in ice?
- Where did his sideburns go?
Nobody cranks out movies quite like Nicolas Cage. In the past ten years, the 49 year-old actor has churned out 25 feature films – almost all of which have received tepid reviews and mediocre box office responses, at best. Every movie looks like the last. Single-word thrillers like Next, Knowing, Trespass, and Stolen. Occasional forays into the fantastical with Ghost Rider, Kick-Ass, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and Season of the Witch. The adventuresome National Treasure Series. Lending his voice to the animated Astro Boy and G Force.
Most frequently, Cage is a two dimensional anti-hero in a fast-paced, 90 minute thriller. It’s as though the actor has turned acting and moviemaking into an assembly line job. Maybe he was meant to work at the factory? Each of these movies feels like an idea which could have been executed as a better film by more skilled directorial or writerly hands. It isn’t Cage that ruins the films, is it? National Treasure is a subpar Indiana Jones. Ghost Rider’s flames are luke-warm in comparison to other superhero flicks like the Batmans or even Spider-Mans. The animated features are second-tier. Sometimes it feels like a Cage production is a dealing with Disney on acid. But it didn’t always used to be this way.
There was a time when the actor who wore an apron for Fast Times at Ridgemont High didn’t buy funeral pyramids, or dinosaur bones, and didn’t sue his business manager after going nearly bankrupt. Is a mismanagement of funds or alimony payments part of the reason that Cage has become a machine making back-to-back “paycheck” films? Probably. You can always follow the dollar. But, you can always peer behind the curtain, too, and seek the underlying motivations for such irresponsible behavior and fiscal chicanery.
One thing is for sure – somewhere, Cage took a wrong turn. But which came first – the chicken or the Cage? Did the actor start making bad movies because he was going broke, or did he start acting irresponsibly because he was making bad movies? Because in his pock-marked career, there sure are some good flicks. Even some great ones.
Remember Raising Arizona? What other glassy-eyed, perpetually bed-headed, hapless protagonist could you picture in that role? Or what about Adaptation? Cage’s role as the twin brothers Charlie and Donald Kaufman are nothing short of brilliant. Turns in other films like Matchstick Men and Lord of War come to mind; the former has Cage prone to horrific panic attacks as he deals with chronic anxiety and social phobias, the latter pits him as a narcissistic international gun dealer grappling with an immigrant’s inferiority complex. Bringing out the Dead was an incredible film with Cage’s character an utter mess, purple rinds under his eyes, sallow and haunted. And lest we forget the brilliant Leaving Las Vegas. No one plays a suicidal drunk like Nicolas Cage.
…Wait, are we seeing a pattern here? Maybe we are seeing two patterns. Cage seems to do well as a deeply flawed character with the hounds of hell at his heels. And these types of characters exist in films crafted by gifted writers and directors.
Ok, let’s do this. Let’s break Cage’s career apart into three realms. One, the most recent churn-em out, cookie cutter movies by more or less no-name directors we’ve already noted. Two, what we haven’t acknowledged yet: the slew of mid-nineties actioners usually produced by the then Simpson-Bruckheimer team, mostly from the mid-90s, like Con Air and The Rock and Face/Off, back when action movies sort of mattered. And then three, films we’re talking about now where Cage plays a character who is a miserable wreck of a human being, and the director at the helm is one of the most talented in the field.
Consider: Wild At Heart. Cage is Sailor Ripley, an outlaw with a severe identity crisis; he thinks he’s Elvis. Director? David Lynch. Raising Arizona, Cage is a pushover whelp, used by his wife to kidnap a baby, and unable to stand up to the ex-cons who come and mess everything up. Writer and Directors? The Coen Brothers. Who brought out the dead in the Paul Schrader scripted drama about an ambulance driver in NYC? None other than Martin Scorsese. And Adaptation? The talented Spike Jonze.
It’s as though, like with Adaptation, there are two Nicolas Cages. Maybe three, but the third one has all but died out – giant action extravaganzas packed with other stars like Con Air or The Rock have gone bye-bye. Just two Cages remain, like Charlie and Donald Kaufman. And one of them is dying, too.
In the hands of a great director, and with a great script, playing a deeply flawed character, like Little Junior Brown in the 1995 remake of Kiss of Death, Cage is memorable and often even amazing. Then, in the throwaway films like Drive Angry and Seeking Justice, Cage is a cardboard cutout, much like the films themselves.
Is he a “true actor” who needs to be molded by the story and the director in order to shine? Or is something else going on here?
In looking at the Cage movies to come – Kick Ass 2, Wild Side, Outcast, Left Behind – it seems like we are in for more of the same forgettable “thrillers” of the past ten years. Hiring Cage guarantees at least some semblance of decent box office numbers. He probably doesn’t have to do too much in a film like The Expendables 3, except show up and get paid. And speaking of showing up – it’s known that the actor requires three trailers on set – this is stipulated in his contract – one is where he has his mobile gym, and the others are for sleeping and entertaining.
And there’s something about his sideburns. I know it may seem like a stretch, but think about this: Not since Gone in 60 Seconds has Nick sported burns. At some point the notion must’ve gotten into his head that they don’t look good. So, every movie since, Cage doesn’t have them. His hairline doesn’t even bear the subtle hint of them. No. His hair is sheared right above ear level in every single movie. They say he is self-styled in this way.
Is he a little bit nuts, do you think? He should’ve been a billionaire by now, with the number of films he has done. But then there’s that financial mismanagement and alimony to consider. Okay, but why would such a bankable star not recoup losses making top quality films? He’s done it before. Why keep cranking out mediocrity? Why one throwaway flick after another? Why live life perpetually in your three trailers, pumping iron, shaving your sideburns vigorously, saying your pat, formulaic lines, and never stopping? Yes, he needs to buy back some of the houses and valuables he sold in order to pay off the IRS, but there’s got to be a deeper reason. Is he too hard to work with? Too inconsistent in his performances?
The head-shrinkers have a word for it. It’s called Pathological. Here’s my theory: Cage, born Nicolas Coppola, nephew to Francis Ford Coppola, changes his name as a young man. He picks something action heroish, but still with the “C,” to keep a little tie to his heritage. Name change or not, he gets a few opportunities the rest of us probably wouldn’t. After a tiny role in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Cage’s first noteworthy role is in Rumblefish, directed by – you guessed it – Francis Ford Coppola. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with a little nepotism.
Next, though, Cage goes to work on Racing with the Moon, brought on board by Ridgemont High star Sean Penn. Nothing much happens until a couple of years later when Cage gets another chance to act in a memorable film, one that will finally put him on the map. This is Peggy Sue Got Married and it’s directed by…yep, Uncky Francis. You can see why Cage changed his name. Raising Arizona follows, and the rest is history.
So, in his early days, Cage was nurtured and molded by great directors, starting with his own uncle. He was given juicy roles where his primary concern was likely not to screw them up. The early successes steer Cage toward his time as a bonafide action star in the Simpson-Bruckheimer films. During that era he is trading off to work on that ilk of films where he is able to shine, films made by talented people which feature depraved and troubled characters – the ones where he is hitting around the mark at some deep truth within himself – that he is an anxiety-ridden pushover whelp at heart, a man with an identity crisis, his soul cleaved in two.
But all of the success these truth-mining performances bring, along with the big billboard successes of the action films goes to Cage’s head. Inevitably, he gets the swollen “actor head” and starts with the quirky habits – one can only imagine. Now his career starts to take the shape of a man obsessed. A man running from something. The “important” films are less and less (the ones in which he plumbs his own psyche to produce some decent work) and now replaced with titles like Next (as in, “Let’s get on it with it, keep moving, onto the next set!”) and Seeking Justice. Is little Nicolas Coppola seeking some of his own justice? Maybe he’s still trying to find out who he really is. After all these years he’s still trying to prove he can do it on his own, he can still be the Cage.
Maybe that name has some psychological implications he is only now beginning to understand.
(But probably not, because he is pathologically busy working and thinking about buying another pyramid.)
What happened to Val Kilmer?