Wild at Heart (1990)


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This feature first appeared in the June 1995 issue of Sight and Sound

Is Nicolas Cage the greatest American actor? It may seem rhetorical but the question is sincere. Nine years ago in The New Yorker, Pauline Kael began her review of the mildly interesting Street Smart by posing the same question about Morgan Freeman, a supporting player. Kael, retired now, never shied from hyperbole; since that film’s star was the pallid Christopher Reeve, an enthusiasm for Freeman is understandable. Freeman is also retired after a fashion, having settled into the role of Older Dignified Negro, the position held previously by Sidney Poitier and James Earl Jones before the first became irrelevant and the second declined into self-parody.

For his part, Nicolas Cage has almost always been irrelevant, at least as far as Hollywood goes, and his presence in front of the camera has invariably approached self-parody. That speaks volumes about what it means to be a contemporary movie actor, when stardom remains the prerogative of few but the will to celebrity consumes so many. It also says a great deal about Cage. Freed from the burden of race (and gender), Cage has in the last 12 years made a vocation out of being a wild card. Neither star exactly nor character actor, but somewhere in between, he’s made his reputation on the offbeat, taking on comedies and dramas, the extreme mainstream and the most unconstrained of independent film; he shifts gears from unlikely romantic ideal to unspeakable geek, often in the very same movie.

The issue of Cage’s greatness as a movie actor has occupied his fans for some time. Now with the release of Kiss of Death the rest of the world seems to have caught on. Directed by Barbet Schroeder, and based on Henry Hathaway’s taut 1947 noir of the same name, Kiss of Death was designed, in part, to launch former TV bad boy David Caruso into the big time. It hasn’t worked. Caruso gives a near-narcoleptic performance in the role once brilliantly taken by Victor Mature, and has seen the applause go to his much flashier co-star. Gushing for The New York Times, critic Janet Maslin opined that a “ferocious” Cage nearly stole the show, while in The Los Angeles Times Kenneth Turan described his part as “beautifully realised”. New York magazine’s David Denby went so far as to rule the performance “legendary”. Another star is born, albeit substantially after the fact.

Kiss of Death (1995)

His face and name may be featured heavily in the film’s promotion, but Cage has a substantially smaller role than Caruso. However, as with Robert De Niro in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, Cage plays a part in Schroeder’s film that goes beyond his role; he is “doing” Nicolas Cage as much as he’s performing Little Junior the pumped-up New York hood. De Niro as a star is nothing more than a revered character actor. Like him, Cage has become celebrated for the extra twists he puts on a part, the surplus. In De Niro’s case the famous example is the 50 pounds gained as the battered, washed-up Jake La Motta in Scorsese’s Raging Bull. For Cage, it’s the two front teeth he had extracted for Birdy (1984) and the live German cockroach he snacked on for Vampire’s Kiss (1989).

Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

In the wake of Method, pushing to extremes has become a cliché. Still, the shadow of the most acclaimed actor associated with Lee Strasberg and his Actors Studio hangs over Cage as for so many of his generation, and others: that of Marlon Brando. There’s something of Brando in the way Cage confronts Cher in Moonstruck (1987), wearing a soiled white t-shirt, radiating heartbreaking masculine pathos, his arms muscular, his shoulders rounded with disappointment. There’s something of Brando as well in the way Cage fully uses his body, now and then, to punishing effect. An important characteristic of Cage’s performance style is that he charts the life rolling around inside with his entire physical being. His body tells secrets.

The tale of Brando’s ruined beauty is legendary; although perhaps too easy to second-guess, some of this story’s mystery lies in the fact that Brando was a star who often performed like a character actor, both in his choice of roles and his utter immersion in them. It’s key that, however identified with the Method and its emphases on interiority and psychology, he was a resolutely physical actor. Over time this emphasis on the corporeal resulted in a body transformed from one kind of Hollywood commodity into another, from pin-up to sideshow; a transformation which can be read either as a defeat or a protest.

A wag could say that Cage doesn’t have much beauty to ruin, and certainly his looks don’t jibe with the tediously perfect. Yet from the beginning, when Martha Coolidge cast the teenage Cage as an implausible heart-throb in Valley Girl (1982), the actor has parlayed his hangdog expression and irregular features into one romantic lead after another. For many actors that course would be ideal, a matter of appealing co-stars, substantial returns, recognition. Not so for Cage, who’s done some of his finest work making Kathleen Turner’s skin crawl when he should have been breaking her heart, and some of his least interesting swapping kisses and endearments with Bridget Fonda.

Rumble Fish (1983)

Cage né Coppola was born under the sign of celebrity, and this has shaped the course of his personal and professional lives. The nephew of Francis Ford Coppola, Cage changed his family name soon after making an inauspicious debut in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) at age 17, and something of a spectacle of himself in his uncle’s underrated Rumble Fish (1983). That film’s resident nerd, Cage held his cool among the likes of Matt Dillon and Mickey Rourke. In fact Rourke’s part, Motorcycle Boy, was patterned on Cage’s father, Coppola’s only brother August (to whom the film is dedicated).

Having an academic for a father and Francis (with whom the actor lived for a short time as a teenager) for an uncle were obviously formative influences. Less widely known if decidedly more intriguing is the impact of his mother Joy’s institutionalisation for mental illness during his youth. Cage doesn’t often speak of her – a dancer and choreographer and now apparently fully sound – but what little he has said is instructive. “I’ve stolen from my mother a lot,” he told one interviewer in 1990. “A lot of my characters’ behaviorisms come directly from my mother. My creative energy came from her. She was extremely expressive and extremely emotional, extremely different.”

By 30, Cage had worked with other interesting film-makers, including David Lynch and John Dahl, as well as the merely insipid. One of the latter, Norman Jewison, nonetheless managed not to smother Cage with the treacly Moonstruck (1987).

The actor had hitched a ride on this sleeper after its star Cher saw him in Peggy Sue Got Married (1986). The first film with a Cage performance of consequence, Peggy Sue was directed by his uncle less for love than for money in his continued attempt to recover from his disastrous adventures as a studio head.

Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)

With the significant exception of the 21-year-old Cage, Peggy Sue is diminished Coppola. But Cage is extraordinary, and extraordinarily unsympathetic. With his hair shaped into a blond billow and a set of buck teeth clogging his mouth, he burns through the film’s sentimentality whenever he’s on screen. His sheer physical awkwardness scrapes against the grain of streamlined naturalism, as well as its invitation to nostalgia. He is like a burr, a boil, his clumsiness and nasal whinny – actually inspired by a claymation horse named Pokey – working to defeat the conviction that all that came before must be better than the present.

Cage is Francis Coppola’s most honest gesture in Peggy Sue, no doubt one reason why the director wouldn’t allow the production company to fire his nephew. Still, Cage was soundly thrashed by reviewers when the film was released (testament not only to the poverty of their imaginations but also to Cher’s infrequent better instincts). Peggy Sue did well at the box office; Moonstruck did even better, increasing Cage’s popular profile. But instead of cashing in on his triumph as an offbeat romantic lead, Cage took on his most eccentric role so far, that of Peter Loew in Vampire’s Kiss (1989).

Limited by a clumsy mise-en-scene and a couple of inept key performances, Vampire’s Kiss is only important because of Cage’s unforgettable performance as a Manhattan literary agent who comes to believe he has turned into a genuine prince of darkness. Now a minor cult, the film roused little interest at the time, outside of noise about Cage chewing down on that roach. The one critic who did notice more was Kael, who wrote that “when an actor plays a freak you can still spot the feet-on-the ground professional. Nicolas Cage doesn’t give you that rootedness. He’s up in the air… it’s a little dizzying – you’re not quite sure you understand what’s going on.” Many years and roles later, it’s clear that most critics still don’t get Cage, even though, unlike Kael, they don’t yet know it.

At a moment when the vacant beauty of Brad Pitt is confused with craft, and once-promising actors like Mel Gibson, Wesley Snipes, even Tom Cruise, seem permanently to have traded in their chops for pay-cheques, Cage stands out all the more. Although he deserves to be recognised for Kiss of Death, it’s his earlier work that commands attention; in particular, Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990) and Dahl’s cowboy noir Red Rock West (1992). Both features spin off from the hayseed pulp fiction popularised by the likes of Jim Thompson, but the two are radically different in conception. Wild at Heart, a venomous Viva Las Vegas with numerous self-conscious nods to The Wizard of Oz, turns Cage into a murderously sexy romantic who switch-hits between fucking and fighting.

Paradise, Hawaiian Style (1966)

If Cage was channelling the young Brando in some of his early films, by the time he got to Lynch’s movie there were other influences to consider. Lynch once said that Wild at Heart was the sort of movie he wished Elvis had made. Cage’s Sailor Ripley, dressed in tight black jeans and a snakeskin jacket, hair swept back in an oily slick, doesn’t so much evoke the real Elvis as some vague sense of Elvis-ness. The impact, however, is pure rock’n’roll, a white hipsterism driven by violence and sex and hard glints of laughter. It’s rock’n’roll that makes Ripley a star. Whether he’s serenading his girlfriend on the dance floor, or beating a man to death accompanied by a convulsive throb, Ripley’s the main attraction.

A road movie that spins in and out of genres, Wild at Heart allows Cage one of his most compellingly erotic performances. Although some of Sailor’s heat comes from the memory of the young Elvis, or rather the movie-made fiction in which he starred and crashed, the story’s own strange rhythm is that of the 60s B movies which made minor sensations out of the likes of Bruce Dern (father of Cage’s co-star Laura). In 1966, as Dern père was carving out his piece of history in Roger Corman’s infamous biker movie The Wild Angels, Elvis himself appeared in Paradise, Hawaiian Style, thus securing his fate as the first rock’n’roll legend to be consumed by absolute, unconscious self-parody.

By the time Cage finds his way in Wild at Heart, entire chapters in the history of cool have closed forever. James Dean is dead, and Elvis too. Brando is swollen, Mitchum ripe, yet still their traces linger, imprinted on the body, face and even gestures of Cage as he snaps his hips like a switchblade and promises his girl the moon. With any number of other actors, the performance could be grotesque, a morbid invention stitched together from the dead and the tired, like Frankenstein’s monster. For many young male actors, especially those who aspire to stardom, the history of the movies bears down heavily, shaping them into discount Brandos and lesser Deans. Bound by box-office logic, they are forced to repeat the past instead of figuring the present.

Moonstruck (1987)

That Cage has thus far avoided the dangers of hollow pastiche has everything to do with the fact that in the final reckoning he’s a failure as a movie star. Despite various turns at top billing and the many films that he’s had to carry, Cage remains more of a character actor than not. Undoubtedly one reason critics have had difficulty recognising Cage is that he doesn’t make easy sense as a star. Central to this is a performance style that often works outside the Hollywood rule, more along the lines of Brecht than Stanislavsky or Strasberg. Whatever Cage’s motivation, or personal demons – using his mother’s mental illness as fodder for Vampire’s Kiss – his work on screen doesn’t always neatly fit the tradition of seamless realism that has dominated American movies since the 50s.

He can feel like a supporting player even when he heads the credits. In Red Rock West he plays a hapless drifter who stumbles into a web of danger and deceit. Surrounded by stronger and weaker actors, he settles into the role, so conventional as to be borderline stale, with ease, finessing it like a seasoned bebop player; he delivers a relaxed, loose, wholly innovative performance even as he stays within the confines of the familiar. Here, the shock of the new is how the present need not be swallowed by the past but can work as its complement. Indeed one of the film’s first shots is of a half-naked Cage waking up in his vintage Cadillac convertible. As he stretches his legs out of the front door, he personifies the archetypal morning male erection, vividly recalling Norman Mailer’s famous remark that the early Brando was essentially a walking phallus.

Cage has not always been able to rise to the occasion like Brando, but he strikes his own authentic notes. It’s no small irony then that with Kiss of Death Cage has been lauded for what must be one of his least happy turns in front of the camera. This time history has confounded the actor, the film-makers and the critics. The problem starts with the character, initially Richard Widmark’s. As imposing as Cage is as Little Junior, he never transcends the memory of Widmark’s giggling sociopath, or, for that matter, the role’s intrinsic blur. Little Junior is a hodgepodge of interesting bits of business, nothing more. That’s why it’s easy to single out Cage’s best moments; they’re sharply defined, a series of tics rather than the substance of a wholly defined character – the customised asthma inhaler, the flash of gold nestled in chest hair, the perilously inflamed weltschmerz.

The inability to fathom Cage has much to do with his inability to conform to commercial expectation. He may have reached for the mainstream by showing up in junk like Amos & Andrew (1993), but he seems incapable of fully making the leap, perhaps because it would mean leaving his own skin. Last year, following the three features he dubbed his “sunshine trilogy” (Honeymoon in Vegas, Guarding Tess, It Could Happen to You) Cage wrote an article expressing a desire to return to a different way of making meaning. “I want to get back to doing independent movies again,” he explained, “because I believe the only way to keep any creative integrity is either to work with a powerful director who can get what he or she wants from a studio, or to do smaller, independent films.” Whether this was sincere or self-serving, he took a pay cut to appear as a suicidal alcoholic in Mike Figgis’s forthcoming Leaving Las Vegas. The great American actor continues apace.

Further reading

Pig follows Nicolas Cage sniffing out his porcine companion’s whereabouts

Michael Sarnoski’s feature debut hides a foodie fable within its revenge thriller packaging, with Cage’s quietly intense truffle hunter more likely to crack eggs than heads.

By Jonathan Romney

Pig follows Nicolas Cage sniffing out his porcine companion’s whereabouts