One thing is for absolute certain: Nicolas Cage is fucking nuts. His stark eccentricity lends itself well to the countless memes and odd mixture of awe/mockery that follows his every move. What we know about his very weird private life adds to his strange, hilarious legend. And then there are the movies.
If you look through the filmography of Nicolas Cage, you’re quite simply stunned. Few Best Actor Oscar winners have a resume so varied. Filled beyond the bursting point with excellent performances, and roles so impossibly bad in how they were actualized, you can’t believe we’re talking about the same actor. One of the jokes about Cage is that he seemingly doesn’t say no to anything. That is almost certainly true.
Look through the seventeen movies he has done between 2010 and 2015. It helps to keep in mind that Cage managed to burn through tens of millions of dollars on wackjob impulses, which may have compelled some of his film choices. Even so, he has been throwing himself into a variety of roles with fanatical enthusiasm for most of his career. Some people think he’s a bad actor. I disagree. I just think he’s made a lot of career mistakes. Unfortunately, since there are probably close to a couple dozen such mistakes, it’s easy to assume one or two things. Either he is in sharp decline, owing to the opinion that he doesn’t care about his work anymore, or he was never a very good actor to begin with.
I don’t think either of those things are true. While he might be in decline, there is the odd gem to be found in his most recent films, suggesting that he is still as good an actor as he has always been. It also suggests that he still cares about his work. He’s just insane. Combine that with his willingness to seemingly appear in any movie that is willing to pay him. What you’re left with is one of the most infuriatingly uneven careers in the history of cinema.
But it’s also a fascinating career. It is filled with exceptional performances from an actor whose worst crime is perhaps overexposure. If you’re willing to jump around, you are going to find that Nicolas Cage’s career has covered a variety that is far more impressive than he gets credit for. He is distinctive, and he is particularly good at playing neurotic, deranged personalities. To me personally, none of that translates to a bad actor.
I can easily make the case for Nicolas Cage. What I had a hard time with was limiting the selection to just five films.
No, I’m serious.
1. Raising Arizona (1987)
By the end of the 80s, Cage began to establish a reputation for guys who could run for mayor of a population-of-one fringe town, and possibly win. Raising Arizonais not just a gem in the long list of amazing, important movies from Joel and Ethan Cohen. It also features one of the best Nicolas Cage performances of all time.
Cage’s H.I. McDunnough is a fuckup, but he’s a fuckup who means well. He remains committed to doing the right thing, and trying to make sense of the world around him. He occasionally fails at these things, but his energy and enthusiasm keep him going. Cage’s understanding of this lends itself well to his performance, making the character likable and relatable in equal measures. His work here is memorable, even a little frantic, but it never goes too far over the top.
2. Vampire’s Kiss (1989)
This is a good example of Cage going so far over the top, you would imagine he’s off to scream at the sun for giving people cancer. Yet it works. The basic premise of this movie, in which a man suspects he is becoming a vampire, after having a one-night stand (the underrated, beautiful Jennifer Beals) is pretty forgettable.
The movie retains a surreal charm after so many years because Cage apparently decided that absolutely nothing was off limits, in terms of what he was willing to do to express his character going completely out of his mind. You can make the argument that Cage is wildly overacting here, but I would make the counter-argument that sometimes, that really is the best way to go. Cage’s unique brand of insanity would grow tiresome as the years went on, but here, it’s perfect and absolutely necessary.