magazine, July 24, 2014.
Every genuinely shamanic séance ends as a spectacle unequaled in the world of daily experience. The fire-tricks, the “miracle” of the rope-trick or mango-trick type, the exhibition of magical feats, reveal another world—the fabulous world of the gods and magicians, the world in which everything seems possible… where the “laws of nature” are abolished and a certain superhuman “freedom” is exemplified and made dazzlingly present.
—Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy
The snakeskin jacket that Sailor, the protagonist of Wild at Heart (1990), wears at all times as (in his own words) a symbol of his individuality and belief in personal freedom came from Nicolas Cage’s own wardrobe. If I had to describe the phenomenon of Cage in one sentence, it would be this anecdote. The phrase is a declaration of American values but the tackiness of the outfit turns it almost into a parody of itself. This paradox is precisely the point.
A freewill, and freewheeling, Hollywood maverick, Cage seems to have been born a B-movie hero, with a gun in one hand and a driving wheel of a Chevy convertible in another, with sad eyes like those of a romantic film noir gangster, a voice monotonous and hollow like a sound of an old car rushing along the highways of the land of the free, the home of the brave, from Wilmington, North Carolina, to Las Vegas. Or wherever. The road itself is what matters in Wild at Heart, where the two lovers, Cage’s Sailor and Laura Dern’s Lula, flee from the latter’s mother across the South, with no particular place to go. Perhaps the quintessential Cage movie, David Lynch’s psychedelic extravaganza is imbued with references to American mythology, of which movement out west is a major part; there also is New Orleans, and an Elvis song, and The Wizard of Oz. For Sailor and Lula, the whole country is a yellow brick road, though it remains uncertain if Emerald City exists or if it’s possible to get there even if it does. The road movie is an ultimately American genre, L. Frank Baum’s book is its archetype; and archetypes are the stuff that Cage’s acting is made of.
Nicolas Cage is a self-appointed priest of American mythology. Shamans, as we know from Mircea Eliade, who wrote a book on the subject, usually assume a new name at initiation, and Cage did just that when he renounced the too-famous Coppola for a nondescript Anglo-Saxon pseudonym borrowed from a Marvel superhero. Early in his career, he conjured spirits of the past as a way of role preparation—when his uncle Francis Ford C. was casting The Outsiders (1983), Cage locked himself in a bedroom to stare at Charles Bronson’s portrait for two weeks as a form of trance (it didn’t work: Matt Dillon got the part, and Cage had to settle for a supporting appearance in 1983’s Rumble Fish). In another movie by uncle Francis, Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), Cage imitates his childhood hero, James Dean, albeit as a parody: as the protagonist’s love interest, he dons a forelock and mutters and whines his way through dialogue. In Wild at Heart, of course, the spirit of Elvis himself descended upon the actor, and who else since the King could say the word ‘baby’ in this Elvis manner if not Cage as a good-hearted southern lowlife? Cage and Dern’s acting in that film is pure emotion, a passion that no one can tame, including themselves. In one scene, they stop their car for a wild rock-and-roll dance on the roadside because—and that’s the film’s story in a nutshell—they just can’t help it.
Stanislavski held that imitating another performer is something that no actor should ever do; Cage, who quotes extensively from theorists of acting in interviews, must be aware of that belief. He has not, however, ever been consistent in his use of the Method, even of Lee Strasberg’s American variety of it, employing instead only some of its aspects as he sees fit. For instance, in addition to his séances with movie stars of yore, Cage develops a background for his characters; some of his preparation stories have become Hollywood legends. On the set of Vampire’s Kiss (1988), Cage, in character as a deranged Manhattan yuppie, infamously ate a live cockroach; before shooting of Leaving Las Vegas (1996), in which he played a suicidal alcoholic writer, the actor went on a two-week drinking binge (which, of course, is another form of trance).
These two films represent two polar opposites in Cage’s acting range. Eccentricity of Vampire’s Kiss leads us somewhere beyond taste, good and evil, or the pleasure principle. Cage portrays a successful literary agent who goes gaga believing that he’s become a vampire; the actor wriggles, makes faces, shrieks, runs amok—in other words, acts like a Jerry Lewis version of Mr. Hyde. The movie ends up in a gray area between a dark comedy and a drama—a completely serious film could be earnestly produced from the same script without even changing the dialogue, but in such case it would probably be quickly forgotten. Yet Vampire’s Kiss, which you’re never sure how to react to, is a cult classic that even managed to enter the Internet folklore as compilations of the film’s Cagiest moments and specifically as that overwhelmingly expressive image widely known as ‘You Don’t Say Face.’ Leaving Las Vegas is the complete opposite, an example of nuanced acting which assumes some operatic qualities but remains credible enough to provide a counterpoint to the overly turgid style of Mike Figgis’ melodrama. Contrary to what you might expect, Cage does not activate his exalted insanity mode—his character is dignified, albeit a desperate drunk, a loser, and in Las Vegas, a city that embodies vulgarity and excess.
Leaving Las Vegas is a fixture of the Nicolas Cage argument that revolves around the question if he is a good actor or not, especially since he won an Academy Award for the film. It is not his only role of this low-key variety: there’s also an ideal American hero, a military vet drifter in Red Rock West (1994), and a macho tank-top-action-man in Air Con (1997; same character, different manner), and a sullen criminal mastermind in Lord of War (2005), where all the eccentricity falls to Jared Leto, and a bearish Texan lumberjack in Joe (2013). All these performances are not Cage’s most beloved—naturalistic quality acting doesn’t get view counts on YouTube. His best acts are those where he transcends the normal: a feat that not every actor can accomplish. Nowhere this is more evident than in John Woo’s seminal action flick Face/Off (1997): Cage is a hyperactive megalomaniac crackpot who in the absurdly far-fetched premise trades physical appearances with an FBI agent; as a result, his character is for the most part of the movie played by John Travolta whose handling of the supervillain does not even come close to over-the-top spectacular Cage of the first few scenes.
Cage’s characters often come from, or end up in, a different dimension. This can be played out quite literally, as in Ghost Rider (2011), a ludicrous but awesome fantasy about a biker from hell (literally from hell), in the supernatural horror Pay the Ghost (2015), or in Martin Scorsese’s acid noir Bringing Out the Dead (1999), where Cage is a melancholic paramedic in the mean streets of an otherworldly version of Manhattan, populated by psychos and phantoms. A Scorsese-Paul Schrader collaboration, Bringing Out the Dead is a spiritual sequel to Taxi Driver, but while the earlier film is somewhat distanced from Travis Bickle’s troubled psyche (the voice over and the ambiguous finale notwithstanding), the later one is narrated, as it seems, right from inside the protagonist’s mind, his vivid hallucinations playing a major role in the plot. A metaphorical another dimension, that of a character’s consciousness, is also a motif in Cage’s filmography: see Matchstick Men (2003: a con man suffering from several mental conditions) or Adaptation. (2002), where Cage was cast to portray screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s stream of consciousness.
In a way, he always plays introspection: the affect, not the effect. Cage acts, indeed, like a shaman that, during his rites, does not pretend to be in another dimension by mimicking gods and heroes but actually believes that he’s there. That’s the only way to establish oneself as a medium between the worlds of humans and that of spirits, or—same thing—between every day and cinematic realities. Such behavior doesn’t always appear life-like, but then neither does, say, expressionist art, or most modern art for that matter. Unsurprisingly, in Vampire’s Kiss Cage drew inspiration from expressionist actors, Conrad Veidt (of Dr. Caligari’s fame) and, of course, Max Schreck, the original Nosferatu. Like expressionists, Cage aims for bigger than life. Some of America’s most esteemed Method actors also did that—Dean, for one, or Brando, whose style in Last Tango in Paris is what would be considered overboard if Cage acted in a similar manner in a hypothetical remake. (All things considered, a remake of Last Tango is unlikely, but unlikely remakes are Cage’s specialty. A film that couldn’t be remade with Cage as the lead hasn’t been done yet.)
Overacting is also Cage’s personal lifestyle, a hyperbole of Americanness. Having named himself after a comic book character, Cage did the same with his own son, Kal-El (Superman’s original name when he lived on Krypton). He married his idol’s daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, for three months, which made him Elvis’s son-in-law (Cage has also been in two more marriages). He has a history of alcoholism, police trouble and tax evasion, owns or owned an absurd number of Rolls-Royces, fifteen residences around the world, a jet, and a dinosaur skull. This is a style of an Old Hollywood movie star; it’s not done anymore. For a while, Cage had in his possession a castle in Bavaria—perhaps consequentially, it was during that time that he was hired to star in the woefully underrated Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009) by Werner Herzog, a Bavarian for whom the anachronistic megalomania of his castle-loving compatriot Ludwig II had always been a model. Cage, for the film’s purposes, became what Klaus Kinski used to be for Herzog—the German actor, by the way, was not unlike Cage not only in his decidedly unrealistic style but also in his career choices, yet a discourse of standup comedy jeers had never formed around the psychopathic star of Aguirre most of whose 136 acting gigs were exploitation and trashy B-movies. As far as royalty goes, Cage in Bad Lieutenant is not as much a Ludwig as a Richard III on cocaine—he even has a limp: different from Harvey Keitel in the original film, Cage gives a Shakespearean tragic sensibility to the titular corrupted cop who, as his levels of drug consumption increase, is falling into an altered state of consciousness. Fits of rage alternate with euphoric hazes, now and then the lieutenant hallucinates, as if transcending to the other side of reality: “His soul is still dancing,” he says to a gang lord, demanding a finishing shot.
It makes perfect sense that Herzog’s loose remake of Abel Ferrara’s New York story was set in New Orleans: where else if not in the Deep South, the birthplace of jazz, the heart of American darkness that has inspired so many Gothic writers and filmmakers. In Wild at Heart, Sailor and Lula also pass that city, a place where haunted houses still exist (Cage has owned one, of course), people go by French names, wear flower-patterned shirts and seem to practice sorcery; this is where things begin to go wrong for the two fugitives. Cage placed himself there in his Southern Gothic directorial effort, Sonny (2002): a cameo as a pimp, wearing a yellow jacket and a blond wig. Louisiana is still the best place for shamanism, which is reflected in the term that Cage has coined for his acting method, nouveau shamanic: unnecessarily French and, oh, so American in that.