Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.
Starting out his career with his more famous Coppola surname, Nicolas Cage appeared in a number of popular films, though he was seldom seen as great prior to his work in Moonstruck, which re-defined his pre-Oscar career. From Moonstruck through to Adaptation. and his Oscar-winning performance in Leaving Las Vegas in between, Cage was a hit-or-miss actor who had plenty of hits and plenty of cash grabs, but hardly the execrable career that would follow after his Oscar win. After his box office success with National Treasure in 2004, his career took a decidedly downward turn with numerous disastrous performances in throw-away films peppered with the occasional well-regarded flick like Kick-Ass or Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. With almost 100 credits in his almost 40-year career, a dud here or there is to be expected, but with roughly 40% of his films coming from the 22-year period between his cinematic debut in 1982 and his last major box office triumph in 2004 (National Treasure) and the remainder from 2004 through 2020, a 16-year period, it’s safe to say that Cage no longer cares about what he stars in and we’re certainly not likely to see his career choices improve in the near future.
This weekend will see the release of another genre pic with Cage in the cast. Jiu Jitsu is a sci-fi film about an alien traveler who comes to Earth periodically to challenge a Jiu Jitsu master or else he will wipe out all of humanity. It looks about as dumb as its premise sounds. That said, there’s no question that Cage was once capable of great acting and he may still be if he ever takes challenging projects in the future. For now, let’s look back at his pre-fallow career with my five favorite films starring Nicolas Cage.
Moonstruck wasn’t Cage’s first success. He’d appeared in Fast Times at Ridgement High, The Cotton Club, and Birdy before; however, it was his role in Norman Jewison’s Oscar winner that started him on his path towards Oscar recognition. Although he was left out of that film’s nominations roster while co-stars Cher, Olympia Dukakis, and Vincent Gardenia got nominations, and Cher and Dukakis won, he would soon join his co-stars as an Oscar winner with the next film on my list.
Before we get to that, let’s talk about Moonstruck. Cher plays a bookkeeper in Brooklyn who falls in love with the brother of a man she had planned to marry. This romantic comedy was the pinnacle of Cher’s acting career, but it was no one-off performance as she leads a stellar cast, including Cage, in a film that’s as quintessentially New York as anything Woody Allen has done.
Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
When Cage chose to play the ill-fated alcoholic in Mike Figgis’ indie feature Leaving Las Vegas, he was coming off a string of unevenly successful films that were attempting to turn him into a major box office leading man. Perhaps his inability to gain traction in that respect led him to what is his greatest performance.
Cage stars opposite Elisabeth Shue as a Hollywood screenwriter who travels to Las Vegas in an attempt to drink himself to death. While his pact with Shue’s prostitute is to not interfere with each others’ self-destructive decisions, the pair ultimately fall in love, but their relationship is doomed to failure with neither capable of building the other up enough to make the relationship work. Cage is stupendous and Shue has never been better in this surprise Oscar winner that brought Cage, Shue, and Figgis (for directing and writing) Oscar nominations, Cage’s first of two, with Cage winning over a stacked category of acting heavyweights.
Among the numerous box office hits that brought Cage plenty of fame and money, Face/Off was one of the few that challenged his acting capabilities. Starring opposite John Travolta in one of his best performances, Cage plays a role he had plenty of experience playing, that of a homicidal sociopath pursued by an FBI agent (Travolta). Travolta undergoes an experimental face transplant surgery putting Cage’s face onto his own. Later, Cage does the same by taking on the Travolta appearance in an effort to subvert the investigation.
This radical cat-and-mouse thriller is built on a scientifically implausible premise, but is such great fun that any quandaries about the vagueries of the plot are quickly forgotten. Travolta and Cage are both terrific as they play both themselves and each other, having to adopt the facial ticks and mannerisms of the other in a stellar employment of each actor’s once lauded acting prowess. The film is somewhat corny, but it’s fun and for a time-waster like this, there’s no beating it.
On the brink of fading into obscurity as a hack actor who doesn’t know how to act anymore or at least one who just doesn’t care, Cage agreed to star in Adaptation. from writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze. The film is based on Kaufman’s struggles with writer’s block as we he works to adapt Susan Orlean’s novel The Orchid Thief into a screenplay. The film co-stars Meryl Streep as Orlean and Chris Cooper as John Laroche, the titular thief of the novel.
This surreal feature successfully straddles fantasy and reality as Kaufman and his imaginary twin (both played by Cage) try to find inspiration when nothing will come. If only every author who had writer’s block could ultimately turn out something this spectacular. Sharply written and brilliantly acted, this film is incredibly fascinating and pulled in nominations for Cage, Streep, Cooper, and Kaufman for Adapted Screenplay. Cooper won his Oscar, but Cage and Streep went home empty-handed despite their superlative work. The most disappointing aspect of the film was that it would be one of the last films in which Cage would successfully exercise his craft for more than just monetary gain.
National Treasure (2004)
Much of Cage’s post-Adaptation. work is unrewarding, cheesy, or otherwise uninspiring. Yet, in 2004, he managed to stumble into the incredibly fun seriocomedy thriller National Treasure. Released the year after Dan Brown’s popular novel The Da Vinci Code, screenwriters Jim Kouf, Cormac Wibberley, and Marianne Wibberley successfully tapped into the burgeoning historical mystery thriller subgenre. While Brown’s novel was historical fiction set within the Catholic Church and its dubious history, National Treasure brought audiences into American history with a fun, engaging, and educational, if highly fictionalized, film.
Cage played Benjamin Franklin Gates a cryptologist and treasure hunter that seemed to be a mixture of Brown’s Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks would play the character in a 2006 adaptation and its later sequels) and cinematic archaeologist Indiana Jones (played successfully by Harrison Ford). Cage might not have had the same gravitas that either Ford or Hanks, but he more than held the audience’s attention. Sean Bean, Diane Kruger, Justin Bartha, Harvey Keitel, and Christopher Plummer all provide able support with Jon Voight stumbling through the film as Cage’s father.