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Unlocking the Cage

Sarah Helm takes a deep dive into the life and career of the ‘riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma’ that is Nicolas Cage

CFS is taking a well-earned rest before it launches its 54th Season in September. Jubilee celebrations completed, all was quiet… too quiet…

And then, like saying The Candy Man’s name five times in front of a mirror (and on doing so, an awful shock awaits any Sammy Davis Jnr or Gene Wilder fans…), it happened.

On the orders of great leader, the CFS chair, Paul Vates, this issue of View from the Helm will feature a deep dive into the life and career (to paraphrase Churchill) of the ‘riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma’ that is …(DA DA DAAAAAA!) Nicolas Cage. (And if that build up seems a bit far-fetched, one would suggest that you haven’t been paying too much attention to the subject’s latter career choices…)

The actor, Nicolas Cage

So here we go – Coppola-da this…

Nicolas Kim Coppola was born on January 7th 1964, in Long Beach, California. His mother, Joy Vogelsang, was a dancer and choreographer, and his father, August Coppola, was a professor of Comparative Literature at California State University. Nicolas’ paternal uncle is director Francis Ford Coppola. Aside from Francis, Cage has many relatives working within the film industry, including his cousins (Francis’ children) – directors Sofia and Roman Coppola, his aunt (August and Francis’ sister) – actor Talia Shire – most famous for playing Adrian Balboa in Rocky, and actors Robert and Jason Schwatzman (sons of Talia) who are Cage’s cousins. Cage also has two brothers Marc, a radio DJ, and Christopher Coppola, a director.

An earlier attempt at breaking into the film industry ended prematurely in 1979. According to Logan Hill, writing in New York Magazine in 2009, the fifteen-year-old Nicolas begged his uncle to give him a screen test, with the promise of ‘I’ll show you acting’, the request was met with deafening silence in the car. It would be another four years before Francis took him up on the offer.

Cage attended Beverly Hills High, which boasts Jamie Lee Curtis, Richard Dreyfuss, Nora Ephron, Carrie Fisher and Angelina Jolie in its alumni, along with many others. After graduation, with acting, literally, in his blood, and inspired by the films of James Dean, Cage enrolled at UCLA School of Theatre, Film and Television to begin his journey.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Marvel-ous idea for a name changeNepotism will only get you so far. (Full disclosure – my neighbour’s cousin’s friend once got on public transport with someone who looked like John Cleese’s stunt double – it opened many doors. Well, the bus driver did at least…).

After a brief stint of parts in TV pilots, Cage was cast in a small supporting role in the future cult classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), still being credited as Nicolas Coppola. During the shoot, Nicolas was plagued by cast members endlessly quoting lines from his uncle’s films, sometimes with ‘amusing’ twists (what wags…), including ‘I love the smell of Nicolas in the morning’ (let’s hope it was his shower gel…). Fuelled by the desire to leave such hilarity behind him, and the determination to make it in the industry on his own merits, the ‘Coppola’ was discarded and a new name chosen, inspired by Luke Cage of Marvel Comics’ Power Man (no, nor me) and composer John Cage.

Evidently, the superhero theme stuck. Cage named his second son Kal-El (from his third wife, Alice Kim), which was also Superman’s birth name. (It certainly beats a time, a few years back, when every third boy you met was called Ollie…)

Valley Girl film poster

Taking the lead

Cage won his first starring role in the Romeo and Juliet inspired rom-com Valley Girl (1983). He missed out on a role in Coppola’s The Outsiders (1982), but went on to have a small parts in Rumble Fish (1983) and The Cotton Club (1984) before playing the romantic lead opposite Kathleen Turner in the critically acclaimed Peggy Sue Got Married (1987), all titles directed by his uncle.

Peggy Sue Got Married was also notable for Cage’s performance, which he himself termed ‘surreal’, (although critics were less kind) donning a set of false teeth and a nasal tone for the role. Cage had reportedly turned down the part several times, only finally agreeing, if he could play Charlie as over the top. Thus, the first seeds of what would later be identified as Cage’s mega-acting method were sewn.

1987 would prove to be a vintage year for Nicolas Cage. Aside from Peggy Sue, he would be cast opposite Holly Hunter as petty-criminal H.I ‘Hi’ McDunnough in Raising Arizona, directed and produced by a promising young duo The Coen Brothers, and gave Cage the chance to show his comic talent.

The biggest break came with Moonstruck, playing Ronny Cammareri, a man who pursues a widow to whom his estranged brother is engaged. And the widow just happens to be Cher.

Cher won an Oscar for her role as Loretta Castorini in the Norman Jewison directed romantic comedy, with awards also going to Olympia Dukakis for best supporting actress and John Patrick Shanley for best screenplay.

Moonstruck’s success provided Cage with a Golden Globe nomination, and the exposure he needed to reach a larger audience and wider critical acclaim. He was on his way.

Vampire's Kiss film poster

Kiss of death

A spate of less successful features followed, beginning with Vampire’s Kiss (1989), a black comedy, and major box office flop, about a man who believes that he is one of the undead, and begins behaving as such. Even with the film’s premise, Cage was accused of over-acting and the movie has since become a cult classic, or bite-along, if you will.

1990 saw Nicolas and Laura Dern head a star-studded cast in David Lynch’s Wild At Heart. The romantic crime drama, about a couple on the run from mobsters, gave Cage the opportunity to channel his hero, Elvis Presley. Despite receiving fairly poor reviews, the film won the Palme d’Or at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival and Cage and Dern were widely praised for their strong performances.

The sub-Top Gun action film Firebirds (1990) and straight-to-video erotic thriller Zandalee (1991) followed. Things picked up again with the comedy Honeymoon in Vegas (1992), which earned Cage a Golden Globe nomination, and a slot as guest host on America’s Saturday Night Live, to promote the film.

Red Rock West (1993), Guarding Tess (1994) and It Could Happen To You (1994) all followed, and although they didn’t create major box office revenue, they certainly frequented the shelves of every video shop that this writer ever visited in the mid 90s.

Leaving Las Vegas movie poster

Finally Arriving

Fortunes changed again in the mid 90s. 1995 saw Cage win an Oscar for the role of Ben Sanderson, a suicidal writer with nothing left to live for, in the heartbreakingly bleak Leaving Las Vegas.

The film was nominated for four other Academy Awards, including best director for Mike Figgis, and best actress for Elizabeth Shue, as the sex worker with whom Sanderson ends his days. Cage’s performance, at once flamboyant and tragic, will stay with the viewer long after the last reel has ended, and proved without doubt what he is capable of.

His acting talent was further showcased in Scorsese’s Bringing Out The Dead (1999) and Ridley Scott’s Matchstick Men (2003).

The Rock movie poster

Last Action Hero

From the mid 1990s for about a decade, Cage became an action star, topping the bills of stellar casts in such Saturday evening classics as The Rock (1996), Con Air (1997), Face/Off (1997) (BTW, did it take anyone else 25 years and their own specialised film column before they realised that the title of Face/Off has a double meaning? It’s clever, see?… Asking for a friend…) Gone in 60 Seconds (2000) and the National Treasure films (2004 – 2007).

However, the arrival of Iron Man (2008) and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), helped to change audiences’ tastes, and the older genre fell out of favour. Himself a huge comic book fan, Cage has tried his hand at superhero films, with the Ghost Rider series (2007 and 2012) and Kick Ass (2010), in his filmography.

Joe movie poster

Smaller budget, broader canvas?

Another mixed decade followed, peppered with critically strong performances in films which did not trouble the box office top 10. Joe (2008), The Croods (an animation) (2013), Mom and Dad (2018), Mandy (2018) (and, somewhat disappointingly, no Barry Manilow on the soundtrack) and Color Out of Space (2019) were notable titles of this time, providing examples of Cage’s fluid and experimental acting styles.

These smaller films enabled Cage to have more freedom to choose the roles he was interested in, as opposed to Hollywood blockbusters, without feeling the pressure from the studio juggernauts.

After all, despite his movie star credentials, Cage is fundamentally an actor and needs to go where the work is.

Speaking to Variety in 2021 about the difference in approach, he said:

“On independent movies, you have more freedom to experiment and be fluid. There’s less pressure and there’s more oxygen in the room.”

Adaptation movie poster

Meta the devil you know

Never afraid of risk taking, Cage became an art-house success in the Andy Kaufman penned and Spike Jonze directed meta-comedy drama Adaptation (2002). The film saw Cage playing both Andy Kaufman and Kaufman’s fictitious twin brother, Donald, while they are trying to write a script for the seemingly unfilmable work of nonfiction, The Orchid Thief.

Cage has also lent his voice talents to two animated features: Teen Titans Go! To The Movies (2018) and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), both of which take a loving sideways swipe at the superhero genre in a fresh yet knowing way.

Most recently on our screens, has been The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022), an action comedy co-written and directed by Tom Gormican. Cage, playing a washed-up version of himself, accepts a $1 million offer to appear at a superfan’s birthday party. The ‘easiest gig ever’ takes a sticky turn when the fan is revealed to be a criminal mastermind and the CIA hire Nic to tackle him head on, by channelling his most iconic movie roles.

Cage discussed the role, speaking as the guest editor for IMDB:

“This movie was an opportunity to return to comedy in a great big way. Somewhere along the road Hollywood seemed to have forgotten that I can do comedy, even though I did do movies like Raising Arizona and Honeymoon in Vegas, and it was just nice to get back to being able to play with the genre again.”

Ghostland movie poster

Flying back to the light

The post-pandemic world, with films now being premiered both on streaming services and cinema screenings, has provided Cage with a welcome career resurgence.

2021 saw an eclectic range of roles, including Prisoners of the Ghostland (marketed with the tag line – ‘The Wildest Movie I’ve Ever Made’), Pig (discussed last issue) and Willy’s Wonderland, about the murderous events taking place at an abandoned family entertainment centre.

Cage’s character of the Janitor does not really speak in the film. Many might wish he had adopted this method for the adaption of Louis de Bernieres’ much loved novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2001), where despite being of Italian descent, Cage’s accent gives Jared Leto in House of Gucci (2021) a run for his money.

Next up, Cage will be seen in the horror comedy Renfield, playing Count Dracula – which could be seen as his role of a lifetime. It’s scheduled to hit screens in 2023 and will mark Cage’s return to working on big studio pictures.

Don’t marry your idols…

Nicolas Cage has tied the knot five times. Cage’s first marriage was to Patricia Arquette, in 1995, which lasted for six years.

Cage is famously a big Elvis fan, and married Lisa Marie Presley in August 2002. The pair filed for divorce 107 days later. Perhaps a fridge magnet from the Graceland gift shop would have been a better option than this particular trophy wife. That said, marriage number four, to Erkia Koike was annulled after only four days. (Where is Liza Minelli when you need her?)

Cage is currently married to Riko Shibata, and the pair became parents to Lennon Augie (named after John Lennon and her grandfather, August – it’s a pity that he had no access to any strong, female role models…), making her Cage’s third child, after Weston and Kal-El.

Nic Cage as Superman

So there you have it. The man, the myth, the quandary that is Nicolas Cage, whom David Lynch described as ‘the jazz musician of acting’.

Whether you love his work, or find him, frankly, a little bit much, it is refreshing to have a major player who is still willing and able to make bold choices in the film industry, and continues to support independent projects.

Nicolas Cage, in all your guises, we salute you

See you at the movies!


Information about the Chiltern Film Society can be found HERE

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