In defence of… Nicolas Cage
THERE are some things everybody loves; there are others everybody has seemingly agreed to hate. I’m George Jones, and I’m here to tell you why you’re wrong.
Nicolas Cage, am I right? He’s terrible. His name has become a byword for bad acting, worse films, and the sacred art of losing one’s shit. But is he really that bad? Personally, I think that not only has Cage been in some incredible films, he’s also a very accomplished actor. Let’s start our reassessment with his most famously awful film, the anti-masterpiece that is The Wicker Man.
That is, undeniably a terrible film, and its failure is compounded by the fact that it’s a remake of a stone-cold classic. But it’s not just a bad film. The Wicker Man, much like Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, is a film so bad that it’s actually fun to watch, purely as comedy, and the main reason for that is Nicolas Cage’s performance in the lead role. Watching the film, it’s pretty obvious that Cage knew he was in something dreadful, and there was no way he could change that, but what he could do was make the difference between any other bad film and a film so hilariously awful that it would become legendary.
And that’s what he did. Throughout his career, not one of Nicolas Cage’s films has been made worse by his presence, a claim few other actors can make. And he’s played a lead role in several genuinely excellent films, from the exploitation cinema of Drive Angry and the popcorn action of Con Air and Face/Off to the intense, “serious” work he’s done in such films as Joe, Leaving Las Vegas and Lord of War.
Now, I’m not claiming that Cage is a versatile actor. He basically has two notes in his range – brooding loner (8mm) and scenery-chewing lunatic (Face/Off). Still, that’s twice as much versatility as Morgan “Black Yoda” Freeman, or Jack Nicholson (who did so well as RP McMurphy that he decided to continue playing him for the rest of his career). Hell, Tom Hanks has played the wholesome, all-American Everyman for most of his career, and he collects Oscars like some kind of specially-trained monkey that’s been trained to steal and collect Oscars (if you’re wondering why someone would train a monkey to steal Oscars, I have two words for you – Leonardo DiCaprio).
And when Cage is good, he’s really good. Leaving Las Vegas is one of the most heartbreaking films I’ve ever seen, largely down to Cage, who perfectly captures the instability and self-loathing of his character. In Werner Herzog’s remake of Bad Lieutenant, Cage wisely avoids the temptation to mimic Harvey Keitel’s take on the main role, and instead makes it his own in the best way possible; and in Con Air, Cage’s mullet alone is more badass than half of the so-called action stars on the planet.
Nicholas Cage may not be a great actor, but he is a good one, and his considerable talents are often ignored simply because he acts in a different style from most Hollywood actors. He has his own unique, expressionist style of acting that is more akin to something you might see from the Lurking Truth theatre company than the Stanislavskian approach that is almost universally favoured today. In fact, watching Cage act opposite more conventional co-stars is often reminiscent of the great clash between the styles of Marlon Brando and Vivienne Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire.
The main reason people dislike Cage seems to be that he stars so often in really, really bad films, and admittedly it is hard to defend someone who’s played a lead role in Left Behind, Bangkok Dangerous and Kick-Ass. But here’s the thing – Nicholas Cage has said in the past that he picks his films based largely on how much fun they’ll be to make, rather than how good he thinks they’ll turn out to be.
Can anyone really blame him for that? I mean, he’s a person who has managed to make a living doing what he loves, in the most fun way possible, while helping to create great art and hours of entertainment – what’s not to love? Is that not how everyone would live their life, if they could?
I’m firmly of the opinion that the popular view of Nicholas Cage as a figure of ridicule is simply down to the fact that people are too quick to judge him on his worst work, and unwilling to appreciate him at his best. Hopefully, in time, his reputation will recover and his talents will be recognised by the filmgoing public.