The enigma of Nicholas Cage

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In the Community episode “Introduction to Teaching”, obsessive film fanatic Abed Nadir pontificates upon one of the most eternal and polarising questions to have ever shaped popular culture: is Nicolas Cage good or bad? After binging several of his movies, Abed is driven hopelessly insane and maniacally raves in class about just how impossible it is to understand him. Recapping Cage’s illustrious career since 1981, it’s not hard to see why.

As one of pop culture’s biggest subjects of obsession, Cage’s career has undergone intense evaluation for having one of the broadest ranges of quality in all of cinema. One second he’s winning Best Actor for his heart-wrenching portrayal of an alcoholic, the next he’s churning out cheap DTV action movies low on plot and high in explosions. The internet’s fascination with him has reached a particular height with the hype for his latest film, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, in which Cage plays himself in a fictionalised portrayal. With Cineworld’s Cagefest now screening nationwide, a four-film marathon of some of Cage’s most popular films, it would appear there is no better time than now to truly get to the bottom of the Cage-meister’s wide appeal.

The sheer unpredictability of his wide range of acting leaves the audience never knowing what type of Nicholas Cage performance they’re about to get into

Clearing things up quickly as possible, I do ultimately believe Cage is a phenomenal actor. He’s often been prone to accusations of merely resorting to overacting, owing to how a majority of Cage’s roles can’t go without him performing at least one hammy outburst. But diving deeper into his filmography, there appears to be a certain depth to his hamminess that ensures Cage isn’t simply some one-note actor who just uses screaming at the top of his lungs to sell his acting. Rather, there is an earnest approach to his acting in every single one of his films I’ve seen: a unique kind of method acting where, in each character he becomes, he seems to adopt an entirely different type of body language, pronunciation and, most fun of all, facial expressions.  It’s not quite Daniel Day-Lewis level, but the sheer unpredictability of his wide range of acting leaves the audience never knowing what type of Nicolas Cage performance they’re about to get into, whether it’s action Face/Off Cage, romantic City of Angels Cage, or completely unhinged Ghost Rider Cage. 

Cage’s experimental acting style comes through even in his big-budget productions. A prime example of this would be the National Treasure series in which Cage plays eccentric treasure hunter Benjamin Franklin Gates. Everyone knows how corny the plots to these movies are, Declaration of Independence thievery and whatnot, to the point where they sound like D-List knock-offs. And yet, Cage deconstructs the part of the action hero archetype in such a campy yet realistic manner that you become genuinely invested in the story. Whenever he’s talking about any of these ridiculous ideas, he knows exactly how mad he sounds and yet, he embraces it in such a shameless fashion that I don’t think any other actor could have effectively pulled off. It’s such a bizarre concept for a film series, but it proves effortlessly enjoyable thanks in no small part to Cage’s performance, to the point where I’m actually quite sad over his recent comments that a third film seems unlikely. 

To raise a parallel, the infamously bad horror film Wicker Man is only remembered today for Cage’s absolutely insane performance. His bizarre antics within it, from punching women in a bear costume to screaming about bees in a scene now considered legendary meme culture, underline exactly how Cage’s unique skills can elevate any film he’s in. In a way, you have to respect Cage for his sheer openness in handling any project — good or terrible — and putting the effort in to make his performance as memorable and enjoyable as possible. Racking my brain, the only properly awful film Cage has been in would be the Rapture film Left Behind, and that’s solely because the writers made the crucial mistake of casting Nicolas Cage as the only sane man in an apocalypse.  

The writers made the crucial mistake of casting Nicolas Cage as the only sane man in an apocalypse.  

His more recent work with the acclaimed dramas Mandy and Pig indicate that Cage shows no signs of slowing down and is still the master of his craft, another indicator of his wide range through his subtler approach to acting in both films. Even his vocal performance as the overly serious Spider-Man Noir in Into the Spider-Verse was a scene-stealer, and that goes without talking about his self-aware cult of personality he’s built up in his everyday life, from naming his son after Superman to stealing a dinosaur skull. His public persona comes across as utterly bonkers without the added downside of being a Scientologist, yet he’s still revered as one of the nicest actors in Hollywood. If even Christopher Eccleston is calling you a gentleman, then you must be doing something right. 

And so, reviewing his colourful career, I ultimately found myself reaching the same conclusion as Abed did — that Nicolas Cage is inscrutable, an enigma that defies everyone’s expectations with an acting talent you can never quite pin down or typecast. But no matter what kind of film you’re about to see him in, regardless of whatever unexpected direction he takes his performance in, there’s no denying that you’ll be getting your entertainment’s worth. If the man can steal the Declaration of Independence, then he can definitely steal my heart too (and Palatinate’s cheesiest line of the year award goes to…). 

Image Credits: Gerald Geronimo via Flikr

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