National Treasure, by Dan Piepenbring

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February 2022 Issue [Reviews]

National Treasure

The ecstatic cult of Nicolas Cage

Collage by Dakarai Akil. Source images © Alamy

[Reviews]

National Treasure

The ecstatic cult of Nicolas Cage
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Discussed in this essay:

Age of Cage: Four Decades of Hollywood Through One Singular Career, by Keith Phipps. Henry Holt. 288 pages. $27.99.

Last fall, hoping to draw weary crowds back to the multiplex, AMC Theatres enlisted Nicole Kidman in what it dubbed “the biggest advertising campaign any theatre chain has ever made.” Solemn to the point of absurdity, the ad finds Kidman extolling the cinema as a temple of catharsis, where we go “to laugh, to cry, to care. Because we need that, all of us.” At the movies, she says, trying to emote through features stiffened by cosmetic work, we are “not just entertained, but somehow reborn together.” But there is no “together”: Kidman sits alone, flanked by empty rows of leatherette seats and lit by the flicker of Jurassic World. Here, she tells us, “our heroes feel like the best part of us,” and “heartbreak feels good.”

As Kidman mused on the transformative power of the cinema, did her thoughts alight, however briefly, on Nicolas Cage? It’s possible. They co-starred in Trespass, a home-invasion thriller derided as one of 2011’s worst movies, and, ironically, one of the first marquee-name films to be released on streaming services at the same time it debuted in theaters: a harbinger of the silver screen’s decline. Or maybe she remembered a moment in 2013, when she and Cage received top honors at Tianxia Yingcai Cultural Media Co.’s Huading Awards, appearing personally in Macau to accept their Best Global Actor and Actress trophies—heralding the rise of a Chinese box office that altered Hollywood. More than anything, Cage should have come to mind because he embodies the tradition that Kidman and AMC both aspire to, at least in theory. If moviegoing is an act of ritual purgation, Cage must be its high priest, his performances a kind of ecstatic self-flagellation through which we’re cleansed—or, to use Kidman’s term, reborn.

As befits a Best Global Actor, Cage has, for forty years onscreen, delivered performances of such furious spectacle that they transcend the humanity they represent. To see him react is to wonder if you’ve ever really felt, or could feel, anything so deeply, and if you’d want to. Anger? He sells it by the avalanche. Watch in Matchstick Men as he butts in line at the pharmacy. His “inner trembling,” as Roger Ebert called it, turns to outright spasms as he faces down a man who dares to question him: “Have you ever been dragged to the sidewalk and beaten until you—pissed—blood?!” Passion? Look no further than Wild at Heart, where, reminiscing in a smoky barroom, Cage caresses his chin and says, “Man, I had a boner with a capital O.” Sadness? See him in Vampire’s Kiss, hands clasped, face pursed, wailing that most literal of lachrymose words: “Boo-hoo! Boo-hoo!” Yes, this is why we go to the movies, to see a grown man disfigured by emotion and emotion disfigured by a grown man. Cage has played many a hero, and if, as Kidman maintains, such heroes “feel like the best part of us,” we have some soul-searching to do. Can it be that this blubbering, boorish caricature is among the better angels of our nature?

I’ll offer an emphatic yes. There’s something stalwart, commendable, even comforting about Cage’s presence, something that reaches past entertainment toward tangled questions of talent and excess. His acting is too much, not just in tenor but in sheer volume. Since 1986, he has appeared in at least one film a year and sometimes up to six, bringing his total to well over one hundred. This ubiquity, combined with his trademark intensity, can make him seem like a permanently erupting volcano. At this point, it would be more disturbing if he went dormant. His increased output has brought what’s often called a cult audience, a euphemism suggesting that his fans are mere ironists, feigning love for the objectively unlovable. Can anyone truly admire an actor who has been attached, in the span of a few years, to such obvious paint-by-numbers fare as Rage, Dark, Primal, and Outcast? Sure, he’s won an Oscar—for Leaving Las Vegas, a movie derived from a novel that also became a Sheryl Crow song—but that was almost three decades ago.

Cage’s detractors find poetic justice in the fact that much of his recent work has gone straight to video on demand, with no theatrical release. An actor coasting on his larger-than-life performances has been denied the chance to appear larger than life. The shift from theaters to at-home streaming has launched a thousand Norma Desmond references (“I am big, it’s the pictures that got small”), but in Cage’s case the line is frighteningly apropos, and he’s all but quoted it himself. “I want movies to be an event,” he said in 2011. “I don’t want [them] to get smaller and smaller.” And yet here we are: a bona fide star who believes in absolution on the big screen is all but shut out of AMC Theatres.

There’s always the internet. While the 138,000 Cage devotees in the r/onetruegod subreddit may not regard him as an actual deity, their dedication is deep. Cage speaks to people—screams at them, really. Above all, fans cherish the moments when he tears his hinges off and melts them in a crucible of raw pain. These outbursts are known as “Cage rage,” or “going full Cage.” A master of gesture, Cage expresses himself with such violent purity that his crack-ups can thrive online without context. In GIF form, they’re just isolated freak-outs, looping in perpetuity, yours to laugh at or laugh with, yours to deploy in the group chat when the salad spot gives you romaine instead of mixed greens.

Though Cage has since accepted his fate as a votary of VOD (it reminds him of watching TV movies from the idyll of his living room carpet), he’s less sanguine about his memeification, which he calls “frustrating.” He is fiercely thoughtful about his work, and he comes by his apoplexy honestly. He’s called his style “Western Kabuki” and “nouveau shamanic,” a deliberate abandonment of naturalism indebted to everyone from German silent film stars to André Breton to Woody Woodpecker. To critics, these are sham attempts to intellectualize an approach that has all the subtlety of self-immolation (which, incidentally, is how his character dies in Between Worlds, while smoking a cigarette, no less).

But Cage calibrates his dysphoria with athletic precision, and its psychic toll is high. In 2018, while promoting Mandy, which absolutely qualifies as full Cage—he spends a good deal of the film covered in blood, and at one point chugs a bottle of vodka in a garishly wallpapered bathroom, clad in tighty-whities, by turns roaring and crying—he explained his process to Esquire, sounding like a boxer whose beloved coach has just died before the big fight:

[I’ll] find something that breaks my heart, and I won’t share it with anybody. It’s a secret that only I have . . . I feel it in my fingertips and I feel it in my throat and then I let it go, because I don’t want to leave it in the locker room. Now we’re 10 minutes out, and then we’re five minutes out, and then I go into a trance, and then it’s very, very quiet and I don’t let anyone get in my face, and I go somewhere in a corner or wherever it is and I start psyching up . . . And then it’s time, and it’s “Action!” . . . And I don’t know where I am and I know that I’m not faking it and I know that it’s embarrassing and I know it’s naked and I know it’s uncomfortable, but it’s coming out.

Orson Welles once said that “big acting” calls for “power, real explosive power, but never the explosion.” Cage has made his name on the explosion. Not the heaving, high-octane blowout of an action star—though he has had his share of those—but something with a long, slow-burning fuse of seriocomic dread. Most of us, at our sweatiest, will never summon a fraction of his mania, but we can recognize it in ourselves. To go full Cage is to give in, like a screaming baby on an airplane, to that vast part of us that does not understand why we’re here, why we have bodies, and why it all seems to go on forever, though it’s over so quickly. If the results are sometimes laughable and puerile, well, so are we.

I would wager that Cage hasn’t seen all his movies. Maybe no one should: maybe no good can come of such prolonged exposure to the brink of the void. I’ve watched more than two dozen, and though I recommend the experience, I struggle to say what it’s done to me. Keith Phipps, a longtime critic for The A.V. Club, has absorbed the whole of the corpus, from Adaptation to Zandalee, and lived to write about it. In Age of Cage, he eschews biography for filmography, setting the actor against the vicissitudes of an uncaring Hollywood to reveal much about both. “Simply by persevering, he’s seen it all, and his movies capture the face of a changing industry,” Phipps writes. He argues that Cage has followed the zeitgeist into its most lurid precincts while retaining some shred of—dignity? No; the camera always steals that in the end. But Cage has remained ineluctably himself, charting a course through genres, stock characters, budgets, tropes, and target demographics that preserves his “abstract and more ontological fantasies,” as he once phrased it. Plainly put, he’s stayed weird. His success in this can seem almost unfair. One reason he’s ended up in critics’ crosshairs is that he looks like he’s having too much fun out there. “I know it’s not hip to say it,” he said upon accepting his Oscar, “but I just love acting.” How many of his contemporaries, caught in the gears of the insatiable machine, could say the same?

Born Nicolas Coppola in 1964, Cage is the son of August Coppola, a comparative literature professor (then at California State University Long Beach), and Joy Vogelsang, a dancer and choreographer. His father put on continental airs and had a thing about touch. The single novel he wrote, The Intimacy, tells the story of a Vietnam veteran who wears a blindfold so he can experience the world by hand. At San Francisco’s Exploratorium, Coppola built the Tactile Dome, where, as Cage explained to Playboy, “You crawl in total darkness and feel your way through sponges and netting and you fall into two tons of birdseed or land on a waterbed”—roughly analogous, then, to his method of getting into character. His mother, meanwhile, had schizophrenia, and she spent years in institutions undergoing shock therapy. Vogelsang “went through these episodes of poetry,” Cage said, “beautiful but scary.” Her illness sent him into flights of fantasy—he wanted to climb inside the family television—and her shadow falls over much of his work, explaining his affinity for characters who look terrorized even when they’re doing the terrorizing. “I’ve stolen from my mother a lot,” he said in 1990. “A lot of my characters’ behaviorisms come directly from my mother.”

Cage attended Beverly Hills High, a proving ground for future movie stars. Though his family lived next to a Porsche dealership, a professor’s salary afforded little in the way of 90210 glamour, so Cage took the bus while the football players tooled around in sports cars. One classmate recalled him writing “an eight-page paper from the perspective of [a] Cro-Magnon man waking up in a cave”—an early glimmer of his tendency toward atavism. His father’s brother, Francis Ford Coppola, happened to be one of the most revered directors on the planet. After his parents’ divorce, when he was twelve, Cage started spending time at his uncle’s lavish Napa Valley estate, fanning the flames of resentment. Surrounded by wealth that didn’t belong to him, he knew what he needed to get even with Coppola and the rest of the world: luxury homeownership. “It’s just sort of unfortunate,” he later told the New York Times, “that it was revenge that fueled much of my ambition.” The ingredients were there from the first, then. Payback, cavemen, mental illness, an exploratory crawl through the dark: the starter for the Cage sourdough.

Cage’s uncle gave him his big break in 1983, casting him as a sidekick in Rumble Fish. He was still Nicolas Coppola then, and subject to immediate charges of nepotism. If he wanted to soar on his own merits, it was time to jettison the family ballast. He chose his pseudonym as an homage to two Cages, John and Luke (no relation), the latter a blaxploitation-era comic-book character with bulletproof skin who worked as a “hero for hire.” Which is exactly what young Nicolas became, of course—but the Cage rattles for more obvious reasons. Seldom has an actor seemed more trapped inside himself, pacing his cell, plotting his run at the jailer.

In Valley Girl (1983), his first lead role and his debut as Cage, he’s already defined by nervous confinement. A romance set at the height of the uptalking, galleria-shopping, like-totally-for-sure era, the movie positions Cage as the pungent antidote to vapid consumerism. It’s fascinating to study him, here and in his other early films, as he learns to parcel out his idiosyncrasies. As Randy, a punk from L.A. proper, he seduces the titular Valley girl in time-honored fashion: by crashing her friend’s party, beating up her prom date, and spending the night in a sleeping bag on her lawn. Cage gives off shrapnel blasts of insolence—when someone asks him if a movie is in 3D, he replies, “No, but your face is”—but his eyes, framed by woolly, pensive brows, are genuinely lovelorn. Though Randy is outsized, he’s believable; we’ve met his kind before.

The same cannot be said of Charlie, Cage’s next star-crossed lover, from Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), also helmed by Coppola. Cage told his uncle—whom he calls simply “Uncle”—that he wouldn’t take the part unless he could go “far out”: “I want to talk like Pokey from The Gumby Show.” And so he does, donning false teeth and a pompadour immobilized by hairspray. His performance nearly got him fired (Uncle intervened), and his co-star, Kathleen Turner, couldn’t recall it without cringing. But Phipps defends Charlie as “memorably vulnerable,” and it’s true—he’s as guileless as someone in a gold lamé blazer can be. Peggy Sue, played by Turner, has gone back in time to her high school days, a doo-wopping paradise of the late Eisenhower era. She’d married Charlie, her sweetheart, who turned out to be a dud, and now she has to decide all over again if he’s the guy for her. Cage’s adenoidal cartoon is a projection of her past, and she can see his foibles now as she couldn’t then. He’s a boy squirming in a man’s body. In one scene, Peggy Sue tries to convince him to make love in his Chevy, its seats nearly as squeaky as his voice. She asks him to take out his “throbbing thrill hammer,” her forwardness giving him such a jolt that his eyes bug out and his lips distend. He looks like a hooked largemouth bass. “You mean my wang?” he says.

This bears no resemblance to life, but it inhabits gawky adolescence in a way that even real gawky adolescents don’t. Cage has compared himself to an expressionist. Americans won’t tolerate such high-mindedness from our boldface names, but he’s not wrong—he works by externalizing interiors, and the seamier those interiors are, the better. The pinnacle of his expressionism came in Vampire’s Kiss (1989), which Cage described as his “laboratory.” Here he synthesized the weapons-grade plutonium of tics and tirades that would fuel his career. As Peter Loew, Cage became the ur-yuppie: a hard-partying, Paul Smith–wearing literary agent who believes he’s becoming a vampire. Real or not, Peter’s condition inflames his sense of entitlement. He accosts his secretary, Alva, chasing her into the bathroom and later assaulting her in the basement. He murders a woman at a nightclub by biting her neck. He eats a cockroach; he eats a pigeon; he’s sexually aroused by a bat. By the end, he’s standing in a bloodied shirt on a street corner in Chelsea, holding a wooden stake and begging someone, anyone, to drive it through his heart. In the movie’s most notorious scene, Peter leaps to his feet to recite the alphabet for the benefit of his long-suffering psychiatrist, demonstrating how easy it should’ve been for Alva to locate a file. At first, he seems to puke up the letters—think of the way British people say book—but somewhere around q, he starts to bark them like a Great Dane who smells danger. He pumps his arms, his necktie swinging like a pendulum. His affected, highfalutin accent is from his father; the fluid agony in his limbs is from his mother.

In 2019, after Cage was recorded drunk-groaning “Purple Rain” at a Los Angeles karaoke bar, he described it as “primal-scream therapy.” This alphabet scene, set in a therapist’s office, suggests that his film career has served the same end. Without work, he’s said, “I’m just going to sit and order two bottles of red wine and dissolve, and I don’t want to be that person.”

Vampire’s Kiss is a tour de force of rabid solipsism, but even those who admire it feel the need to add an asterisk. This is because Cage is funny—funny in a broad, goofy, vaudeville way that makes us anxious about his sincerity. Comedy usually signifies detachment, but he uses it as an adhesive; it’s as if he can’t fully bond to his characters until they’re streaked with humor. Compared with most movies from 1989, Vampire’s Kiss has had staying power. People still watch it, write about it, and circulate clips from it, and yet few are prepared to admit that Cage’s performance is an unqualified success. It’s easier to cordon it off as a cult favorite than it is to accept that we’re laughing at a man’s personal, deeply conflicted impression of his pretentious dad and insane mom—poured into the mold of a parasitic misogynist—and that he wants us to laugh.

By 1990, Cage had a reputation. The Washington Post pegged him approvingly as “wild and weird.” Critics kept a watchful distance. “When an actor plays a freak you can still spot the feet-on-the-ground professional,” Pauline Kael wrote. “Cage doesn’t give you that rootedness. He’s up there in the air.” Still, after assured turns in Moonstruck, Raising Arizona, and Wild at Heart, he had designs on box office grandeur. It wasn’t at all clear that he was cut out to be a star. On set and in the press, he’d cultivated eccentricity. His publicist answered an early interview request by saying only that Cage, who was then basically unknown, “has a two-and-a-half-foot monitor lizard named Smokey.” In a travel diary for Details, he mythologized himself as “a heat-seeking panther,” “a glow-in-the-dark rollercoaster,” and “a hard-on.” He asked to have hot yogurt poured over his toes to prepare for a sex scene, and, making The Cotton Club, he smashed up his trailer and a street vendor’s remote-control car. Cage seemed determined to turn method acting into method trolling.

But he made it work. Those heavy eyelids of his were romance made flesh, and his voice was an asset. The California in it, never quite hidden, made him relatable even when he was running pitch-black. Words seemed to fall out of him at odd angles; David Lynch called him “the jazz musician of actors.” Listen to his off-kilter cadence when he says, in Wild at Heart: “Did I ever tell you that this here jacket represents a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom?” It’s the rhythm of a leading man, going somewhere and nowhere fast. In the Nineties, the roles—and the paychecks—got bigger, and Cage mostly colored inside the lines. His Sunshine Trilogy, comprising the rom-coms Honeymoon in Vegas, Guarding Tess, and It Could Happen to You, found him wearing “a face of absolute sincerity,” Phipps writes, in “a style that appears to have no artifice.” He followed those with Leaving Las Vegas, portraying a boozehound screenwriter; he wanted to be drunk on set, but settled for keeping an alcoholic poet on standby as his “drinking coach.” Then came a trio of high-grossing action movies, the best of which, John Woo’s Face/Off, was a spiritual successor to Vampire’s Kiss: Cage let himself off leash to play a terrorist sociopath, his motivation so obscure that Iago is an open book by comparison. At the end of the decade, against all odds, Cage was a household name.

That unflagging pace has its price. Taking in so much unadulterated Cage, a connoisseur begins to get a sense of déjà vu. In the first minutes of Face/Off, for instance, Cage gives a full-tilt gyration of his head like someone rocking out at a Black Sabbath concert. The identical move shows up early in Zandalee. Likewise, in Wild at Heart, after he bludgeons a man to death on a brass handrail, Cage bows his head and juts his arm out, pointing an acrimonious finger into the middle distance. You can see him do the same thing in Vampire’s Kiss, when he says, “Am I getting through to you, Alva!” What are we to make of this recycling? What are we to make of the fact that, on at least three occasions, Cage’s characters speak of the female anatomy as a peach, and that he definitely improvised at least one of these lines? (From The Rock: “Just amaretto cream and peach sorbet persuasion.”) If you take the view that acting is Cage’s way of exorcising his demons, what could be construed as laziness becomes something more endearing. Back in 1988, he said, “An actor is someone you see playing a character, and there’s a danger in revealing too much about yourself, because that gets in the way of whatever illusion you’re trying to create on film.” But I love to watch him precisely because he reveals too much about himself, and it only contributes to the illusion. More than anyone, he seemed to know that, in the blockbuster era, as stars outshone the movies that made them, the suspension of disbelief could be turned on and off like a faucet. People wanted a good story, but they also wanted to see him, and with a bit of cunning he could turn his roles into uncompromising vehicles for his neuroses.

It’s a privilege to be able to behave this way. That audiences have accepted it—enough to make Cage the forty-sixth highest-grossing movie star in the world—is a minor miracle. His peers, particularly women and actors of color, haven’t been so fortunate. In 1995, the same year Cage released his Oscar-winning Leaving Las Vegas, Elizabeth Berkley appeared in Showgirls, Paul Verhoeven’s acid satire of the same city. Berkley’s performance can only be called Cagean. Her eyes blaze, her dancing reads as semaphore; a feeling of overkill, unsettling but necessary, pervades her every move. The film destroyed her career. In deviating from realism, Cage alone got the benefit of the doubt.

The public’s patience with him wore thin, too. He became a known quantity, his once-novel hamming dismissed as rote. As his tabloid exploits glazed him in the surreality of his characters, he was celebrated and lambasted in equal measure, sometimes in the same breath. There was his profligate spending: two castles, a private island, an allegedly haunted mansion (“ghost front property,” he called it), a pyramid-shaped tomb in New Orleans, a dinosaur skull. There was a blink-and-you-missed-it marriage, his fourth, entered drunkenly. There was his insistence on eating only those animals that are “dignified” in the way they have sex, such as fish and birds. And there was the time he awoke at 2 am to confront a stranger eating a Fudgsicle in his bedroom, naked but for Cage’s leather jacket. Through all this, the parade of films marched on. Some, such as Adaptation, Bringing Out the Dead, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, and Mandy, were as singular as anything he’d done, but consensus held that Cage’s life was the best Cage movie.

Sean Penn, as early as 1998, said that Cage was “no longer an actor” but “more like a . . . performer.” He let the word hang in the air, and Cage took the intended umbrage. But the distinction is meaningless, as Penn well knew when he accepted his Oscars for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role. Indeed, part of the joy of watching Cage is that he’s made acting and performing more synonymous than ever. For an actor intent on hearing the music in his work—someone who played bongos on the set of Leaving Las Vegas to hone his line delivery—the job title is a matter of semantics. This year Cage is set to star in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, a metacomedy in which he plays two versions of himself, young and old, who bicker about the pitfalls of celebrity as the elder Cage chases a big payday from a Mexican cartel boss who loves his work. Phipps calls it “a meditation on stardom and Hollywood self-absorption.” Self-absorption, self-awareness, self-parody: if anyone can hit the trifecta it’s Cage, who reaches for the zenith and the nadir with the same hand.

Phipps has a deft sense of these highs and lows, but he doesn’t touch—and I can’t blame him—the question of what Cage stands for. That Wild at Heart line about the snakeskin jacket, the one that represents his individuality and his belief in personal freedom, may be the best clue. Phipps uses it as an epigraph. Tellingly, the jacket actually belonged to Cage, so its appearance in the film really does testify to his individuality—as does just about everything in his movies. Hollywood venerates the individual, and his great joke has been to rub our noses in the cult of the self, taking it to its hysterical terminus. Somehow, this has required an enduring sensitivity. “I’m not very comfortable in life,” Cage once said. And doesn’t it show? He’s now fifty-eight, and the day may come when his rage is all used up, and to go full Cage, he must go somewhere altogether new. Since he’s vowed never to retire, I look forward to watching him then. It may yet be that, to borrow AMC Theatres’ phrase, his heartbreak feels good.

 is working on a history of ketamine.


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