Stephen Lee Naish is shaking the Cage to discuss the often memed actor and his originality.
Lindsay Gibb, National Treasure: Nicolas Cage by (ECW Press, 2015) 144pp.
ECW Press’ Pop Classics series is providing compact and concise books on cultural obsessions and making claims for returning forgotten pop culture artifacts to their rightful place. In its short existence the series has published books on the cinematic trash of Paul Verhoeven’s 1995 film Showgirls, a treatise on the pizza loving reptiles, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, revisited Elvis Costello’s seminal debut record My Aim is True, and uncovered David Lynch’s dark television series Twin Peaks. Whilst these short books revel in one particular pop culture text, it is Lindsay Gibb’s National Treasure that defines the entire existence of actor Nicolas Cage as a cultural milestone, taking in his entire film catalog and his life as a whole. It is a fair and required assessment. Cage has been a prominent force in film for four decades, starting out as a young actor in the 1980s under the guidance of his uncle, the esteemed director Francis Ford Coppola in films such as The Outsiders, Rumble Fish, The Cotton Club and Peggy Sue Got Married. He made a name for himself as a credible, though somewhat deranged leading man in Raising Arizona, Moonstruck and Lynch’s Wild at Heart, and won an Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of a suicidal drunk hitting the skids in Leaving Las Vegas. He then turned macho action man during the mid-1990s with performances in films such as Con Air and Face/Off. Cage’s early career could be seen as a lesson in diversity and guile.
However, since he starred in 2006’s remake of The Wicker Man, Cage has been playing a patience testing game by prominently providing off-kilter performances in schlock supernatural action flicks (Drive Angry, Ghost Rider, Knowing) grim crime dramas (Seeking Justice, Stolen) hokey historical duds (Season of the Witch, Outcast), and lending his vocal talents to a bunch of animated kids movies (Astro Boy, The Croods). This isn’t to discredit the last decade of Cage’s career as a filmic farce. The films themselves may not be of high-calibre but the performances are always worth witnessing. He has on occasion over the past decade pulled magnificent, and seemingly effortlessness performances out of the bag. His role in Werner Horzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans was a master class in stunted rage. His quiet turn as the title character in 2013’s Joe, proved that subtlety does exist in his arsenal of acting skills. Even Cage’s twisted turn as the violent superhero Big Daddy in Kick-Ass mixed crazed over performance with quiet tender moments.
Lindsay Gibb’s book makes for an accomplished case study in Cage’s duel status as cult actor who appears in indie art films and A-list celebrity who stars in mega-budget blockbusters. It is this duality that occupies the first half of the book. Cage’s deftness as a fine character actor in one instance and his performative and overreaching style in another has meant there is audience confusion to understanding his work. This is why as Gibb explains in her introduction: “the general, easy consensus was that Nicolas Cage sucked. He chose bad film roles. He was a straight-to-video-caliber actor.” It’s easy to pigeonhole Cage as a “bad actor” when the majority of his performances are destabilizing, quirky, and bordering on insanity, but as Gibb continues it is this facet that makes Cage “the best – and, more importantly, most interesting – actor in America” and one whose “back catalog is ripe for re-evaluation by film and culture writers” I for one can’t disagree with this. Every time a new, usually straight-to-streaming film pops up on Netflix that stars Cage I’m hooked in because no matter the content of the narrative, or the other actors involved, Cage will provide an ‘interesting” turn. As Gibb further explains, Cage “refuses to be reduced to an either/or proposition and instead embraces the contradiction” of his own persona.
Gibb uses the example of films such as Face/Off and Adaptation as further case studies in this strange duality. In both films Cage provides a duel performance. In Face/Off he plays criminal mastermind Castor Troy and then has to embody the character of Sean Parker, the cop chasing him down as the two emissaries switch places. Within one film we see Cage’s contradiction. Castor Troy is the manic superfreak that Cage embodies in films like Vampires Kiss and Raising Arizona, whilst his performance of Sean Parker is more quiet, sensitive, confused and vulnerable. In Adaptation, Cage portrays real life screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and also plays his fictional twin brother Donald. Again the duality of Cage emerges. Charlie is the artistry screenwriter trying to adapt a bestselling novel about orchids to the big screen, whilst Donald writes a script with high octane car chases, violence and sex. It is this strange and uneasy balancing act between the two versions of Nicolas Cage that has led to his perceived unreliability as a credible actor and why a vast majority of critics and pop culture junkies dislike or discredit him. Gibb explains: “We lash out at Cage because we’re frustrated that he refuses to meet our expectations.” And this is absolutely true of him. We’ve seen his greatness, we know what he’s capable of, Cage knows it too, but giving us subdued realism is not in Cage’s interest as an actor. In fact his own persona doesn’t really allow for it as Gibb unpacks further by pointing out that
Cage is noted for his sleepy-yet-expressive eyes and the cartoonish malleability of his face. He uses these assets, along with his lanky frame and highly controlled physicality, to combine opera and silent film-style acting, using exaggerated movement and emotions to create characters that keep audiences guessing.
And there is often good reason for these hyperrealist performances. Cage wants the audience to know and understand that movies need not represent the real, and that weird and eerie things can occur in the dreamscape of cinema. Gibb uses the disturbing rape scene in Vampires Kiss as a prime example. At this point in the film, Cage’s performance has become so destabilizing and bizarre that “the audience can handle the disturbing action because there is no doubt that these are actors and this is a movie. The critical distance allows us to appreciate the performance without enjoying what the character is doing.” Sometimes only for a moment Cage shakes us out of a film’s narrative by screeching out a wild yell (Face/Off), pulling an Elvis style hip shake (Wild at Heart), or, as pointed out in the text of National Treasure, shaving (Gibb counts nine instances), but these little nuances are enough for us realise we are watching an actor, not a character.
The next part of the book moves away from Cage;s film work and into the arena of Cage’s life and his status as a living meme, arguing that in some respects life imitates art: “As a famous actor, he constantly exists in unnatural situations. It might be playing a guy who thinks he’s a vampire or a man who is turning into a flaming skull, or playing himself in the midst of his stardom.” Nicolas Cage plays eccentricity in his life and on screen and this is why he has become an internet meme. There is no context to his performances in his movies or in his public life and any situation the internet can place him in makes total sense because he himself has placed his own image in so many bizarre situations. Gibb explains that Cage “has managed to position himself in so many different settings across his career that we want to put him in rocket boots holding a keytar next to a basket if kittens.” Yes, that is how weird these memes can get!
Although Cage is not the manipulator of his own image he is in some respects the architect of its creation. He has invited us to interpret him and you get the impression that Cage is happy with the results. As his performances have broken through the narrative of a film, Cage has also moved beyond the idea of simply being just an actor in a movie. Gibb explains that “Bringing Cage outside of his movies and into other forms of media shows that Cage’s relevance to us goes beyond his own creations.”
Gibb concludes the text by stating that “If art is fundamentally about generating a reaction, then Cage has been more successful than most actors.” This is absolutely true. Critics and audience reactions to Cage can be full of praise or deeply unfavourable. There is rarely a middle ground. Recent films that Cage has starred in can be poorly directed, shoddily edited, badly scripted, yet Cage’s performance is always noted in either the positive or the negative for their utter lunacy and weird nuances. It has become an anticipated trait and it has to be commented on. “Cage” as Gibb concludes “has never been afraid to look like a failure. He doesn’t want to be cool, he wants to be creative.” It is this fearlessness that is Cage’s true claim to genius. He has allowed for the audience awareness that performance is everything and that the worlds created within film do not require realism but a version of hyper reality that transcends real life. Gibb’s book raises the points of Cage’s genius in a convincing manner, but it is still up to the reader to embrace the madness of Cage’s work for what it is: an intensive artistic experiment in merging art and life. Cage may or may not be the greatest actor, but he should be praised for being, at the very least, an original one.
Stephen Lee Naish‘s writing explores film, politics, and popular culture and the places where they converge. His essays have appeared in numerous journals and periodicals. He is the author of U.ESS.AY: Politics and Humanity in American Film (Zer0 Books) and Create or Die: Essays on the Artistry of Dennis Hopper (Amsterdam University Press). He lives in Kingston, Ontario with his wife Jamie and their son Hayden.