All this week, Uproxx will be paying tribute to the many facets of Nicolas Cage, from his big-screen triumphs to the legends that have come to surround him and the cult following both have helped create. Next: a consideration of those performances when Cage used his eccentric reputation to his advantage.
If Leaving Las Vegas publicly confirmed Nicolas Cage could act* and 50 movies since proved he could be a punchline, two movies stand out in the Nicolas Cage oeuvre: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and Kick-Ass. These are the films in which Nic Cage proved that he was not only a strong actor and a human punchline, but someone with enough self-awareness to realize he’d become a punchline, and with enough savvy to incorporate that into his work.
Notably, these aren’t the movies where Nicolas Cage proved he could be funny. He’d already done that. If you want to see Cage being funny on purpose, just go back to Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), Raising Arizona (1987), or Adaptation (2002), the lattermost being the movie for which he truly deserved the Academy Award, offering two brilliant, nuanced, hilarious and wildly divergent performances — as the semi-fictional Charlie Kaufman and his imaginary brother, Donald — in the same movie.
But admittedly, all three of those films come from an earlier stage of Cage’s career, which can be broken into two distinct stages: pre- and post-financial crisis. These roughly coincide with the shift in Cage’s public perception, from famous actor to famous weirdo. In 2009 Cage sued his business manager for $20 million, blaming the manager for sending Cage down a path that led to outstanding debts and tax liens, and presumably creating the conditions that seem to have led to Cage taking any role offered in order to pay them off, whether they involve hunting witches, apprenticing sorcerers, or wearing all manner of ridiculous costumes and wigs. The lawsuit, which was dismissed in 2010, is a nice dividing line, but one that only confirmed rumors that had being going around for years — about Cage’s penchant for bizarre purchases, from dinosaurs skulls and albino cobras (complete with decorative antivenom).
The mid-aughts were also the period in which it became fashionable to hate Nic Cage. Some might say that an actor’s personal life shouldn’t influence how we interpret their performances, but that’s an impossible ask. One of a performer’s most essential skills is self-awareness, the ability to understand how an audience perceives you in order to manipulate it. For actors early in their careers, that’s relatively easy, because other than what your appearance naturally conveys, you can be a blank slate. But say you’re a comedian with a three-foot mohawk. You’re going to have to at least address that before you move onto your material about airline food, or whatever. Because that’s what an audience sees, a guy with a giant mohawk, and it’ll be the elephant in the room until it’s addressed. At a certain point, being a crazy weirdo became Nic Cage’s three-foot mohawk.
Cage’s impossibly manic and frequently be-wigged performances in The Wicker Man (2006 — a comedic goddamned masterpiece, though of the unintentional variety), Next (2007), Ghost Rider (2007), Bangkok Dangerous (2008), and Knowing (2009) cemented a question in the collective consciousness: “My God, does he not know how ridiculous he looks?”
Soon enough, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009) and Kick-Ass (2010) would provide the answer: Yes, he knows precisely how ridiculous he looks.
That Cage used his own nutty persona to his advantage is one of the most impressive things about his career. Surely, Werner Herzog deserves some of the credit for that. Remaking a feel-bad classic of punk cinema like Bad Lieutenant (1992) with the guy from Ghost Rider and The Wicker Man had to seem at the time like an even worse idea than some of Nic Cage’s other movies. In fact, original Bad Lieutenant director Abel Ferrara said of it, “I wish these people die in Hell. I hope they’re all in the same streetcar, and it blows up.”
God bless Ferrara (whom I interviewed once), probably the only man in the modern world whose revenge fantasies involve a streetcar. (“I hope their dirigible crashes into a glacier!”) For his part, Herzog said he never thought of his film as a remake, and claimed to never have seen the original, or even know who Abel Ferrara was (perhaps laying it on a little thick). Whatever the case, Herzog (no stranger to leveraging his own nutty persona) proved to be a master at manipulating his star.