This piece was written by Nate Mondschein, Cody Tannen-Barrup, Gabe Hayes, Zach Phillis, and Chris Gere.
Some movie stars light up the room with their charisma. Others seem supernaturally imposing. Some can make you laugh with a look, or weep with abandon with a shrug of their shoulders.
But no movie star can do it all quite the same way as Nicolas Cage.
Throughout much of the early aughts and 2010s, the cultural consensus surrounding Cage seemed to misunderstand him as little more than a direct-to-streaming human embodiment of cocaine. His early and occasional career accolades (irreconcilable with his more contemporary flops and outlandish money grabs) were regularly explained away as flukes, or flash-in-the-pan performances.
It was not until his celebrated turn as the truffle hunting protagonist of 2021’s Pig, that the idiosyncratic, Oscar-winning Ghost Rider seemed to earnestly redirect the narrative, reminding his detractors that he still has plenty of gas left in the thespian tank.
For those of us more intimately familiar with the Cage filmography, however, Pig was simply another miracle in a long and diverse line of cinematic wonders. We who have followed the Cage career arc closely know all too well his ability to deliver a transformative, heart-wrenching performance at the drop of a hat — but that’s only one of Cage’s talents.
To honor this week’s release of Cage’s latest film, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (in which the actor will be portraying a fictionalized version of himself), five members of the MMH extended family (including three co-hosts and one frequent guest from the Burritos and Other Less Important Things podcast) and worshipers at the Church of Cage have gathered to celebrate what makes Nic tick — and more specifically, which five of the actor’s distinct archetypical skill-sets we are the fondest of. So without further ado, we present:
THE FIVE STAGES OF NIC CAGE
As a man who once said he doesn’t like the word “acting” because it implies lying, Nicolas Cage inherently imbues every role with a certain degree of drama. “I don’t act, I feel,” isn’t the self-seriousness one might expect from somebody who dresses in full steampunk wizard garb to become Balthazar Blake, but for those familiar with the oeuvre of Nicolas Cage, his wholehearted commitment to even the silliest roles has become somewhat endearing. However, his dedication to B-movies is seen by some as wasted potential.
The discourse around Pig (2021) — a fantastic film with a beautifully quiet performance from Cage — would imply a return to form, but he’s always been there. He just hasn’t been playing the game. The talent (and the unbearable weight of it, or whatever) has been undeniable since he took home an Academy Award for his performance in Leaving Las Vegas (1995). And, after receiving only one subsequent nomination from The Academy (2002’s Adaptation.), including his conspicuous absence from the ballot this year, it might be fair to assume he has no interest in the pageantry of the award circuit.
Watching his work in Leaving Las Vegas, it’s easy to see how Cage was once seen as the next big thing in Hollywood. The way he strikes the balance between contemptibility, deep sadness, and charming vulnerability aids in turning a very difficult-to-watch film into something bordering on sweet.
Adaptation plays as an absurd meta-comedy, but it’s the dramatic moments that earned Cage his nomination. Once again, there’s a sweetness to the characters he portrays, though they aren’t necessarily likable on the page. Donald has the naivety and enthusiasm of a Labrador retriever, while Charlie’s overt neuroses are countered with deep undertones of caring — specifically for Donald, despite how he treats him.
In Matchstick Men (2003), Cage has another difficult assignment as a conman who steals money from vulnerable people and occasionally verbally abuses his newfound daughter. The entire film hinges on the believability of that relationship, and that’s almost entirely in the performances.
Pig is decidedly less bombastic, but it highlights in bold what makes Nicolas Cage such a great dramatic actor. We learn so much about truffle hunter and erstwhile chef Robin, not necessarily through what he says, but through how he acts and interacts.
The whole film feels like John Wick without the gratuitous violence simply because we can feel the anger bubbling underneath his stoicism. That anger stems from love for his stolen truffle pig — something that both looks extremely silly on paper and that Nicolas Cage makes the audience fully buy into in order for the emotional apex of the film to pay off.
The Harmlessly Stupid Degenerate AKA Comedi-Cage
Nic Cage is the funniest when he’s truly pathetic. When you can see the flop sweat glistening from his puffy face. When he’s clumsily stealing one of five identical babies while rocking a mustache I’m perpetually in awe of. When he can inject his own brand of charisma into degenerates of all types, balancing that tightrope of laughing at vs. laughing with.
Weirdly, Nic Cage hasn’t done too many pure comedies, but this side shines through in what I would consider his best (and Cage-iest) performances: his Academy Award-nominated double-act in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. It’s not quite the frenetic hillbilly chaos of Raising Arizona, but his comedic talents are on display throughout the film.
Playing a hyper-meta interpretation of the film’s screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, as the human embodiment of the Panic Pete stress toy, as well as his fictionalized brother Donald, Cage is asked to give two distinct performances only physically differentiated by a receding hairline.
As Charlie, Cage has to embody all of the self-doubt of the genuinely talented screenwriter who is experiencing one hell of a spell of writer’s block. He frequently shame-masturbates to the women he meets in his real life that he’s too afraid to actually ask out. Cage personifies the real writer’s worst attributes, somehow convincing the viewer that an actor as genuinely charismatic as Nic Cage could possibly be this pitiful.
As Donald, Cage is harmlessly stupid, crass, yet confident and somewhat likable (a high degree of difficulty balancing act most recently pulled off by Simon Rex in Red Rocket). Donald manages to write an adored screenplay almost instantly, and immediately starts dating the indelibly likable Maggie Gyllenhaal. Charlie f••king hates Donald for most of the film — rightfully so, as the real Charlie Kaufman clearly wrote the two sides of his own conflicted inner-monologue as the distinct siblings.
Sharing the screen with co-stars Merryl Streep and Chris Cooper, Adaptation requires Cage to give two muted performances and allow Streep and Cooper to be the zany ones. This style of subdued comedic acting is tougher to pull off convincingly, requiring a tightrope act of being memorable and forgettable at the same time (shouts to Matt Damon’s Linus Caldwell), and in spite of his reputation as an over-the-top auteur, Cage’s restraint is one of his defining comedic characteristics.
This film simply does not work without an actor as singularly comedically talented as Nic Cage. I truly think Adaptation is the only answer for Apex Cage.
The Hirsute Seducer AKA Romanti-Cage
Amidst the many notable outbursts, physical contortions, and wild accents that exemplify Nic Cage’s other archetypes, one of the actor’s greatest gifts often goes overlooked: his ability to look unexpectedly hot.
There is, of course, no shortage of beauty in Hollywood. but it’s a unique gift to be surprisingly attractive — one that is essential to the success of the Romanti-Cage archetype. Unlike your more traditional romantic leads, Cage rope-a-dopes you with a crooked smile, a wispy unibrow, a jittery tick, and suddenly, you’re startled into realizing just how captivating his presence is.
Films like Raising Arizona and Wild at Heart showcase the furthest ends of his romantic eccentricity, while City of Angels mistakenly mutes it in favor of a more traditional (and unintentionally much creepier) leading-man approach. Valley Girl refracts his charm through an endearingly dim-witted teenage drawl, while Leaving Las Vegas weaponizes it to brutal dramatic effect. However, no film exemplifies Cage’s unique romantic capabilities like Moonstruck.
Hairy, unkempt, and bombastic, Cage swaggers his way through the 1987 comedy with an unhinged grace. He wails with dramatic fury at his prosthetic hand in a sweat-soaked tank top; he sweeps Cher off her feet while shouting “son of a bitch!” He proclaims love like a novocaine-drunk, geographically unmoored New Yorker.
He also knows when to clear the lane and let his screen partner cook. Cher’s Oscar-winning, perfectly over-the-top performance is rightly the engine that drives Moonstruck, and Cage masterfully reads when to dial back the madness and stare deep into his grits for the sake of the scene. It’s that ability to modulate and restrain (more often showcased in his dramatic filmography) that grounds his sequences of insanity and set him a notch above the other actors who simply play at unhinged charisma.
It’s been some time since Cage’s last proper romantic film (the profound, enduring love depicted in Pig notwithstanding), and that absence is felt even if it’s not discussed. But the recent resurgence of direct-to-streaming rom coms gives me hope that someday soon, we might once again be graced by the brilliance of The Hirsute Seducer. Then the world of cinema will be in balance once more. Then, we can finally rest.
The best artists are known for their periods of work. Like Picasso before him, Nic Cage’s artistic catalog can be aesthetically segmented. From 1996-2008, Cage was in 1000% my favorite of his periods: The TNT Hero phase.
His best work from that era has been on a constant loop on the titular network ever since, chopped up into bite-sized morsels by commercials. While that may interrupt the momentum of another actor’s films, it’s no problem for TNT Hero Cage, because these performances are often best distilled into the individual incredible moments that make them unique, revisitable, and unforgettable.
Originally, this category was titled “Goofy Nic Cage,” but I do not feel that that accurately describes the majesty and diversity of these types of performances. In Con Air, he pumps himself full of steroids and employs a wonderful accent to urge the other convicts to “put the bunny back in the box.”
It’s an adrenaline-packed ride that certainly does not ask any hard questions about incarceration. In Gone in 60 Seconds, Cage plays a car thief with a good heart. He also walks the line of being driven and unstable as the pressure mounts. Both films are peak Cage hair experiences, which cannot be overlooked.
In the National Treasure series, Nic tries on the metaphorical fedora of “intellectual treasure hunter.” The Iron Pen sequence in that film involves some of the finest leaps of logic ever shown in cinema. Cage is brave, decisive, intelligent, and unwaveringly patriotic in those movies, and they play as if Indiana Jones had a head injury.
That’s the true distillation of TNT Hero Cage: he’s the movie star that you got when you wanted 1980s Harrison Ford. You may have had the time machine, but he still said no. That’s when you call Cage. He is a wholly unique star. You do have to write into his contract that he must reign in a lot of the weirdness…but not all of it.
That is why The Rock is the best. It’s everything I have ever wanted from Nicolas. He gets to be completely weird, as in the scene when his girlfriend tells him she’s pregnant. “Well, gosh, kind of a lot has happened since then” is one of the purest moments of Cage Magic. His reactions to twitching dead bodies or his references to Elton John’s “Rocketman” are peak Cage snark.
He’s smart (just listen to him explain a lot of probably incorrect information about nerve gas), while at the same time able to settle his nerves and become the gun shooting, rocket launching, syringe-to-the-heart-jabbing hero. He’s both incredulous about the circumstances and incredible in rising to meet their demands.
That is why TNT Hero Cage is my favorite Cage. He dances on the edge of danger, and yet the purity of these characters’ hearts will always pull him back from destruction. They also all happen to be dope movies that I will watch — on TNT or off — from any starting point, at any time.
The Baron Of B-Movies AKA Bats**t Cage
While each archetype being highlighted here is crucial in understanding the complex tapestry of why we love Nicholas Cage and his movies, Cage’s ability to channel chaos in a performance is the secret sauce that makes us cherish him all these decades into his career.
There are several key ingredients that allow for these bats**t crazy performances to resonate organically. The first of which is the idea that no premise can go too far. Crafting these roles and circumstances is the most extravagant version of “yes, and…” in Hollywood. For example:
- A movie where a big-game hunter books passage on a freighter with his recently captured, extremely rare white jaguar and the two of them need to stop a special ops extraction of a political assassin on the same ship? Greenlit.
- A Las Vegas magician who can see 2 minutes into the future is the only hope of stopping a nuclear bomb from destroying Los Angeles? Sign me up.
- A psychedelic action horror film where a reclusive logger needs to avenge the kidnapping of his girlfriend by a religious cult and a demonic biker gang? Instant classic.
The ridiculousness of these premises wouldn’t work the same without the essence of Nic Cage himself. The urban legend of his life not only serves as fodder for some of the internet’s most entertaining listicles, but also blurs the lines between the ridiculousness of the characters he portrays and how ridiculous of a character his real-life persona seems to be. By fostering this feeling of art-resembling life, audiences are invested to go on these wild rides.
The best of the best bats**t Nic Cage is made possible because of Cage’s proficiency at maximalism. Sometimes, a fine point brush is the best tool for painting a picture. However, for Cage, a devil-possessed mining crane can get the job done as well.
Cage’s utility belt is often equipped with a nonsensical accent, a made-up sounding name, and a GIF-worthy one-liner. Fueled by literal and metaphorical lines of cocaine, these characters truly go into overdrive. Add onto this the quintessential “Nic Cage face” with that look in his eyes and the tilt of his head and you are really cooking for an uncaged performance.
via Twitter @cjmow
Speaking of faces… 1997’s Face/Off is the epitome of this archetype. As one of the most bats**t movies of the 90s, featuring one of the most bats**t characters of all-time, this may be over the top cinema at its finest. It has everything you ever truly needed: uncomfortable quotes about eating peaches, a custom set of gold-plated Springfield M1911-A1 guns with gold inlaid grips, solid metal prison magnetic gravity boots, and a piteousness of doves.
However, the true bats**t triumph comes with the freakiest of Fridays, where circumstances lead to Nic Cages’ Castor Troy and John Travolta’s Sean Archer having surgical procedures that literally swaps each others’ faces onto the other’s body allowing the characters to assume each other’s identity and actors to inhabit each other’s personas.
via Blue-Ray Forum
Though our chaotic King’s reign at the box office may not be what once was vast and mighty, he still holds the honorable titles of The Baron of B-Movies, The Prince of PVOD, and The Regent of Ridiculousness with two to five movies that scratch this itch available each year.
You can find more writing from Cody and Nate here on MMH.
You can find more movie thoughts and things from Zach, Chris, Nate, and occasionally Gabe on their podcast “Burritos And Other Less Important Things (aka BAOLIT)”, where they will have a Nic Cage centric episode coming soon.
You can also find them at their respective Letterboxds: