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The lazy metallic stare, the aura of a wannabe rock star, for a while Nicolas Cage was the most sought after actor in Hollywood. Since his debut in 1982 in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Cage has appeared in over ninety movies. The eighties were a playground for the nephew of Francis Ford Coppola, starring in such classics as Birdy, Peggy Sue Got Married, Moonstruck and Coppola’s own underrated The Cotton Club. However, twenty-one of those movies he has appeared in, were all made in the nineties where every few months a new Nic Cage flick would drop. For a while it was a steady stream of quality performances meshed within entertaining movies. Big budget epics such as Con Air, The Rock, Snake Eyes and even the far-fetched Face Off hold an undeniable charm due to his performances.
As the millennium dawned, things took an odd twist in Cage’s momentum, when a more hit-and-miss aspect became prevalent in the actors career. Perhaps it was the curse of the abandoned Superman Lives which dogged his career. For every great performance there was sadly some truly horrendous movies. When he hit a creative mark such as 2003’s Matchstick Men (Ridley Scott) he would slide down again with missteps such as the 2006 run of Ghost Rider, The Wicker Man remake (15% Rotten Tomatoes), and 2008’s Knowing. Then Cage would return with a cracking performance such as in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans only to coast downhill in Trespass and the awful Seeking Justice (both 2011).
Choosing five films which show a diversity of his actual acting ability, not solely relying on action or explosive sequences was not an easy task but here they are, presented below. From surrealistic adventures to a full submergence in comedy, these five pictures show exactly what he is capable of when he is on form, and not obsessed with comic book characters.
#1. Raising Arizona (1987)
Not only is Raising Arizona one of the finest movies by The Coen Brothers (O Brother, Where Art Thou), it is also their funniest by far. Without doubt Nicolas Cage makes this movie the joy that it is with his charming, hapless and heart of gold performance as H.I. “Hi” McDunnough. H.I leaves his life of crime behind to settle down with police officer Edwina (Holly Hunter). When the couple learn they are unable to have children, the obvious answer to steal one of the ‘Arizona Quints’, a quintuplet of sons born to a locally famous family. That triggers more bank robberies, a bounty hunter from literally hell, and escaped convict John Goodman who all converge to become part of this unique comedic adventure.
#2. Wild at Heart (1990)
This epic by David Lynch (Twin Peaks) sits on the fence of good movies. While the heavily invested parody of The Wizard Of Oz flows confusingly through Wild At Heart, in reality it is a hard watch. When it hit the cinema in 1990, most audiences left mid-point, finding the narrative too perplexing to be enjoyable. The crooning Chris Isaak theme tune perhaps the most commercially successful aspect of the movie. That aside, the performance by Cage is electrifying as he saddles up in this twisted road movie. An early incarnation of that stylistic, open-top vehicle, and subgenre that would dominate the nineties (U-Turn, Thelma & Louise, True Romance). All the while Cage’s character is wrapped in the Elvis-styled snakeskin of Sailor Ripley, who elopes with girlfriend Lula (Laura Dern) saving her from her ‘wicked witch’ mother. Wild At Heart follows their adventures as the couple out-man-oeuvre bounty hunters, gangsters and Harry Dean Staunton.
#3. Red Rock West (1993)
Directed by John Dahl (Dexter), Red Rock West was the sleeper hit of 1993. It sinks somewhere in between a black comedy and a farcical noir which sees Cage as drifter Michael Williams who finds himself in Red Rock West, Wyoming. Williams becomes mistaken for a hit-man sent to kill the wife of local bar man Wayne (J. T. Walsh). In need of cash, Williams goes along with the charade and finds the doomed wife of Wayne’s Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle). She then offers Williams even more money to kill Wayne. The tension is balanced with the humor of the situation, as Williams wants to drift again with the cash, but he is stopped when the actual hitman “Lyle from Dallas” (Dennis Hopper) arrives on the scene. Looking for his money and to carry out the mission he’s paid to do Lyle, Wayne and William’s play a game of cat and mouse with Suzanne as the cheese. In the finale, Cage’s character departs with nothing more than what he arrived, but with his life.
#4. Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
A complete change of direction in Mike Figgis twisted take on Pretty Woman. Leaving Las Vegas was a box office hit, a dramatic and slow-paced outing, but when speaking about Nicolas Cage this is a performance that won him a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for best actor, respectfully so. Cage plays Ben Sanderson a Hollywood screenwriter who drives from Los Angeles to Las Vegas with the intention of drinking himself to death. Here, he finds a tarnished savior in Elizabeth Shue (Sera), a similar broken soul intent on saving Sanderson. Leaving Las Vegas is a no-holds-barred view and narration of addiction, the humanity bot Cage and Shue inject into their characterizations are something which stays with the viewer long after the credits roll.
#5 Adaptation (2002)
Sandwiched in between Windtalkers and Sonny, Adaptation sees Cage excel in the dual role of twins Charlie and Donald Kaufman. This multi-layered masterpiece by Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) is a positive and inspiring cinematic delight which takes twins who are the opposite but connected by more than just blood. As one brother, Charlie the confident and outgoing one, helps his shy, introverted twin Donald overcome writer’s block to finish a screenplay to an impossible book, Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief. Typical of Jonze, though, there are the questions to ponder: do both twins exist? Is one the split personality of the other? What is perceived is real is not necessarily always the case, and this movie will simply warp your imagination further. Of course, Cage takes on the role with grace and acts out of his skin.