Why I Love Nicolas Cage
"Did I ever tell ya that this here jacket represents a symbol of my individuality, and my belief in personal freedom?"
Nicolas Cage is fearless. He is one of the best actors of his or any other generation. Not since Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver was someone so adept at expressing the scary and low down side of life. He is also adept at small, subtle romantic roles. Nicolas Cage is someone who, even in bad movies, always brings his A game. He takes chances that few actors ever take, especially in otherwise stock movies. Compare him to another great actor, Robert DeNiro, and see how boring DeNiro can be. Nicolas Cage is never boring. It doesn't matter if the film is a standard action romp, he will still treat it like he's working for a surreal auteur like David Lynch.
We're going to do something a little unusual with this Why I Love article, and take you through twenty of Nicolas Cage's best performances. I will try my best to express why they are so damn special.
Twenty great Nicolas Cage performances
1. Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Peggy Sue Got Married was directed by the great Francis Ford Coppola. It is a tremendously sweet, romantic comedy which has more than a bit in common with Back To The Future. Peggy Sue is magically transported back to high school to re-live her life in a way that puts her mistakes right. Nicolas Cage plays Peggy Sue's highschool sweetheart in a way that only he could do. He plays Charlie as a free spirit, and someone who you would love to spend an evening drinking with. There were reports on set that Francis Ford Coppola, Cage's uncle, was so angry at his acting choices to perform the role with a ridiculously high voice that the two got into a physical altercation. This would become Nicolas Cage's approach to acting. He would step out and make daring, audacious choices even in the simplest of movies. Peggy Sue Got Married is a brilliant, touching film, with both Kathleen Turner and Nicolas Cage turning in wonderful performances. If you like your movies sweet, funny as all hell and with two brilliant acting jobs, this is the movie for you.
2. Raising Arizona (1987) Directed by The Coen Brothers
Nicolas Cage has performed for some of the best directors of all time. Raising Arizona is his one movie with the legendary Coen Brothers and it is a classic. In Raising Arizona a childless couple who cannot have children decide to kidnap a baby from a rich family. Raizing Arizona is on a shortlist for funniest Coen Brother movie, not least because of Nic's hilarious and touching performance. Big shout out to Holly Hunter too who is excellent and plays off of her on screen husband brilliantly.
3. Moonstruck (1987) Directed by Norman Jewison
The film for which Cher won an Academy Award. Yes, I know, that Cher. Well she entirely deserved it, as this is not only the greatest work of her career - music included - but it is one of the sweetest, funniest damn movies ever made. Nicolas Cage is incredible here as the brother of Cher's fiance, who lost his hand in a bread slicing accident. You can tell from this description that the movie doesn't exactly take itself so seriously, but don't let that fool you into believing that there is no depth to the story. It is an incredibly wise and insightful movie about love and family. The script written by John Patrick Shanley, which he also won the Oscar for, is exquisite from start to finish. Nicolas Cage delivers a performance as touching and funny as any of his career. If you want to laugh and switch to crying, this is the movie for you.
4. Vampire's Kiss (1989) Directed by Robert Bierman
The first great crazy performance from Nic on this list, and boy is this a good place to start. I wouldn't be surprised to discover that this influenced Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho as the two have a lot in common. After seemingly having a run in with a vampire, Peter Loew's life implodes in terrifying and hilarious ways. Watch this video of Nic expressing his displeasure at some misfiling. It is truly the greatest reading of the alphabet ever to be seen on screen. The line between crazy funny and crazy scary is examined in depth here. Think of watching someone crazy on a bus or a train. The way they are talking is just slightly off. You can't quite put your finger on what it is that makes them abnormal. Those who behave in divergent ways to others can appear funny at first glance, but then something snaps and they are suddenly the scariest goddamn people alive. Nic has made a career of these kind of performances and Vampire's Kiss is a seminal movie in that regard. Watch it and get not just knee deep in a pool of electrifying and mind bending energy.
5. Wild At Heart (1990) Directed by David Lynch
David Lynch called Nicolas Cage a fearless actor. He was right. There is no performance on this list that surpasses Wild At Heart for its fierce heart and savage violence. Bad Lieutenant comes close, but it is in Wild At Heart that Nicolas Cage best displays his incredible range and commitment to acting. Sailor loves Lula and Lula loves Sailor. Then he beats a man to death with his bare hands and is sent to prison. When he gets out, they begin an adventure across the country that will be filled with terrifying and beautiful things. Nicolas Cage here is erratic, full of well earned pride in his personal freedom, and generally batshit fucking crazy. There is no performance more entertaining on this list than Wild At Heart. David Lynch is probably my favourite director, with Sofia Coppola being a close second, and he turns in a predictably gorgeous picture. The film holds up incredibly well to re-watching, for Lynch's surreal and otherworldly skill behind the camera, and for two excellent leading performances with Nic and Laura Dern, long time favourite of Lynch. Oh and Willem Dafoe as a villain who is nearly, nearly up there with Frank in Blue Velvet and BOB in Twin Peaks for scariest, most deranged sort.
6. Honeymoon in Vegas (1992) Directed by Andrew Bergman
Honeymoon in Vegas may seem a bit too light, given the heavyweight, emotionally complex films that appear on this list, but don't let that put you off. Not only is Nic capable of delivering supremely intense turns, but he also has a light enough touch to entertain in a romantic comedy. This film, along with the beautiful It Could Happen To You, is a perfect contrast with some of the heavier material seen here. Some very funny scenes here, most notably the scene where Nic skydives with a plane full of Elvis impersonators.
7. Red Rock West (1993) Directed by John Dahl
If you read my blog, you will already know of my deep, lasting love for Noir. This is, along with Snake Eyes and Bad Lieutenant, a devastatingly cool and compelling Noir. Nicolas Cage seems born to be a Noir star. He has just the right amount of cynicism and style to pull off a role that Humphrey Bogart would have been proud of. Also it must be said that the film has two David Lynch friends, in Lara Flynn Boyle and Dennis Hopper, both of whom do an excellent job. Red Rock West has many brilliant twists and turns and some supreme tension that is payed off very well. It is one of my favourite neo-noirs. Two thumbs up, way up.
8. It Could Happen To You (1994) Directed by Andrew Bergman
It Could Happen To You is a very sweet, romantic film about a cop who wins the lottery and agrees to split the winnings with a waitress, when he is short a tip. This is the kind of film that a lot of people don't realize is perfect for Nicolas Cage. There are no zany acting decisions here, just a good hearted, honest, loving performance. Bridget Fonda is good here too, as is the alternately obnoxious and hilarious Rosie Perez. A perfect movie for a date with one you love.
9. Leaving Las Vegas (1995) Directed by Mike Figgis
Oh boy, this is a big one. This is perhaps the greatest single performance of Nic's career, where he plays an alcoholic bent on self-destruction. It is a devastatingly bleak, tremendously moving performance and won Nic an Academy Award for Best Actor. It is easy to see why. Leaving Las Vegas is about love between two people that is not based on good behaviour. Nic tells Elizabeth Shue's character that she can never tell him to stop drinking, and she respects that wish. This is a different kind of love than is often seen on screen. This is a love that understands that sometimes suicide is the only thing that can be done. Because of this very dark nature of the film, Leaving Las Vegas can be hard watching, but it rewards keeping a stoic disposition with one of the greatest performances in any film, ever. For those who think that Nicolas Cage is a joke, due to his love for big time action films, this is the one to watch to disprove that theory. A truly beautiful film.
10. Con Air (1997) Directed by Simon West
When asked why he chose to go for big time action pictures like Con Air, Nicolas Cage told a story where he was on holiday in an African country. He met some people who had a small, run down television and an old video player. They had a copy of Con Air. Nic was touched that they loved this movie so much and believed that the excitement and adventure to be had in good action pictures translates perfectly to other cultures. Con Air is my favourite Nic Cage action movie, beating out other good movies like Face/Off and The Rock. The film is a great, paradoxically big budget B-Movie. It is a romp and a good time. The film has a great concept: the world's most dangerous prisoners are being transported in a plane. The worst villain, John Malkovich orchestrates a takeover of the plane. The film has some really great performances, from Malkovich, a sublimely creepy Steve Buscemi, and of course Nicolas Cage as the hero Cameron Poe, who was convicted of manslaughter after beating a man to death who was threatening his wife. Cage is just a big ball of fun here. "Put the bunny back in the box." If you want a good, entertaining time, give Con Air a watch.
11. Snake Eyes (1998) Directed by Brian DePalma
Another film and another legendary director. Are you noticing a pattern here? Snake Eyes is a Noir that owes a lot to Key Largo. Both take place in the middle of a storm, where heroes and villains and those in between like Nic's character Rick Santoro, are forced to spend time together. Like Humphrey Bogart's character in Key Largo, Rick Santoro is a reluctant hero. He is someone who has long since abandoned the straight ahead path and is only really interested in doing things that benefit him. Snake Eyes is my favourite movie by DePalma, because of its amazing flair and deliciously crushing sense of style. Probably the most underrated movie on this list.
12. Bringing Out The Dead (1999) Directed by Martin Scorsese
Bringing Out The Dead was written by Taxi Driver and Raging Bull fellow Paul Schrader and there are a lot of common themes with these movies. Nicolas Cage plays an ambulance driver who is reaching his breaking point, after a long period of patients dying. Nic is tortured by these losses and doesn't feel like he has much to live for. Bringing Out The Dead is a heavyweight film and was received very well, particularly Cage's performance. One of the best Martin Scorsese films, and probably my second favourite after The Aviator. If this was a top 5 of Nicolas Cage movies, this one would be featured, no doubt. Nicolas Cage specializes in characters who are desperate and at the end of their rope, and this is one of his most impressive roles in his career. If you have ever felt like you just can't go on, this is the film for you. A beautiful, uplifting, devastating performance and film.
13. Adaptation (2002) Directed by Spike Jonze
Some believe that Nicolas Cage's work in the 2000s isn't a patch on his earlier work. I do not agree. Seven of the top 20 come from work in the last seventeen years. This is one of the best: an audacious and hilarious movie about movies, specifically about how to adapt an unadaptable book. Here Nic plays two characters, brothers and screenwriters, Charlie Kaufman and his identical twin Donald. As with Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman's previous collaboration, Being John Malkovich, this is filled with meta musings. Nic gets to the heart of his characters here, playing them as entirely distinct individuals. Not since Jeremy Irons' performance in Dead Ringers, has someone so compellingly played two characters on screen. The film is very funny, with Charlie being a tortured artist and his brother being a successful hack. Anyone who has ever tried to write for a living will find something familiar and on point here.
14. Matchstick Men (2003) Directed by Ridley Scott
Ridley Scott is one of my favourite directors, so along with Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell and the brilliantly talented Alison Lohman, I was probably destined to love this movie. And I do. Nic plays an obsessive compulsive con man, who discovers that he has a daughter. Every tic and emotional detail is expertly expressed by Cage, and while he plays a pretty bad man, we relate to him and feel his struggle to overcome his issues and past to be a good father to his newly found daughter. Along with the great movie The Grifters, and David Mamet's House of Games, I adore the con man genre. There are some great twists here, with the closing twist being one of the best I have seen. Where as other movies would rely on that twist to sell the movie, here you are so invested emotionally in the characters that it works on a higher level. This is an Oscar worthy performance from Nic. He has an uncanny ability to embody his characters and to get to the very root cause of why they act the way they do.
15. Lord of War (2005) Directed by Andrew Niccol
Lord of War follows two brothers who decide to get into the arms trade. The brother of Nic Cage's character is played by the immensely talented Jared Leto, and the two have great chemistry on screen. Lord of War isn't a perfect movie, but the performances are so compelling that the film's shortcomings don't really bother. Nic is intense, tortured and all around complex. A minor hit, but a hit nonetheless.
16. The Weather Man (2005) Directed by Gore Verbinski
The Weather Man is a personal favourite, a quiet, gentle movie about a TV weatherman going through a mid-life crisis. It is well observed and frequently hilarious. I particularly enjoy Nic's inner monologue about why he enjoys giving cunnilingus. Michael Caine also stars as Nic's father, and is typically brilliant.
17. Knowing (2009) Directed by Alex Proyas
As is to be expected Roger Ebert got it right about Knowing. "Knowing is among the best science-fiction films I've seen -- frightening, suspenseful, intelligent and, when it needs to be, rather awesome. In its very different way, it is comparable to the great "Dark City," by the same director, Alex Proyas. That film was about the hidden nature of the world men think they inhabit, and so is this one." Yes, this is a film by the director of that classic Sci-Fi Noir, Dark City, and you can tell as the two have quite a bit in common. Knowing is a beautiful movie about faith and impending doom. It is as compelling and intriguing as say Take Shelter by Jeff Nichols. Nicolas Cage plays a professor who discovers that the world is about to end. There is so much anxiety and panic in this movie, and Nic plays it at just the right point between stoicism and desperation for his loved ones. A lot of people didn't get this movie when it came out, but I predict that it will endure for years to come. It is also wonderful to see Nic in a high quality science fiction movie, and I wish he would work with Alex Proyas again. A case of Nic starring in a big budget movie, but one with heart and brains.
18. Bad Lieutenant (2009) Directed by Werner Herzog
Bad Lieutenant by Werner Herzog is a better film than the original it took its name from. It is more emotionally satisfying, more terrifying and all around filled with better performances. If you had to pick one role which exemplifies Nicolas Cage's ability to play people detached from reality and full of rage and confusion, it is this one. It is a sublime bit of cinema, and one that provokes more than a few belly laughs, due to its dreamy surrealism and absurd humour. To the break of dawn! Nicolas Cage plays Terence McDonagh, a corrupt and extremely volatile policeman. The film is one of the great neo-Noirs, and it earns that title through harsh violence, sexual assault and general misanthropy. Another Oscar worthy performance from our Nic.
19. Kick Ass (2010) Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Kick Ass is in many ways, a silly movie. It is however a fun, joyous silly movie. Not least of which for Nicolas Cage's absolutely ecstatic, bombastic performance as Big Daddy. His conversation with Hit Girl about taking a shot to the chest, with a bullet proof vest is hilarious and oddly touching. You really believe in the characters because of the skill and craft of the actors. I really, really want to have a father like Big Daddy!
20. Joe (2013) Directed by David Gordon Green
Joe is my favourite Nicolas Cage movie and I just watched it yesterday. It is not his best performance, but it is very close. Nic is understated, while having moments of explosive anger. Those who think he lost it in the 90s are in for a shock when they see this movie. Nic plays Joe, a man who befriends a teenage boy, Gary, who is trying to support his family, including his alcoholic and violent father. Joe is about getting away from your past, discarding the toxic people in your life and being your own man, no matter what. It is a gentle, immensely touching movie with some shocking moments of violence. It made me cry, and remember my father who, while not violent like Joe, was similarly protective of me. If you have a Joe in your life, you're doing okay. Please watch this movie if you want to connect with your father. It will bring you closer and it will move you.