The Misfit: Nicolas Cage Didn’t Fit Into The Brat Pack ’80s But Found Success Anyway

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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. First up: a look at the early years and Cage’s unlikely, but undeniable, ’80s ascent.

When Nicolas Kim Coppola was born in 1964, his uncle Francis was still a fledgling director, who’d just come through the graduate film program at UCLA and had launched his movie career with three fairly unimpressive credits: the “nudie cuties” Tonight for Sure and The Bellboy and the Playgirls, and the gothic horror picture Dementia 13. But by the time Nicolas entered Beverly Hills High School in the mid-‘70s, his Uncle Francis was the multi-Oscar-winning genius behind The Godfather movies and The Conversation, and the Coppola family was in the process of developing into a dynasty.

Nicolas grew up around his actress aunt Talia Shire, and future moviemaking cousins Sofia and Roman Coppola and Jason and Robert Schwartzman. When he got ready to enter the family business as an actor, he followed in his uncle’s footsteps and went to UCLA. He changed his last name to Cage — after one of his favorite comic book characters, Luke Cage — to avoid being judged by his connections. Still, he had every reason to expect that he’d be stepping into the “New Hollywood” that the Coppolas had helped build.

And then the 1980s happened.

There have been multiple books and articles written about the end of the “film school brat” era, and how a combination of expensive, arty flops and a few phenomenal crowd-pleasing blockbusters rapidly altered the major studio business model, taking power out of the hands of auteurs like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. In the ‘80s, the balance shifted to younger movie stars, dazzling special effects, and easily understood story ideas—all often packaged together by super-agents, working in concert with studio executives, always with an eye toward maximizing profits rather than making masterpieces. This was showbiz in the go-go Reagan era.

Yet even as Hollywood went big, a healthy handful of producers and directors found ways to do more personal work, on a more modest scale. Thanks in part to the proliferation of video stores and premium movie channels, the ‘80s were a heyday for cult films and the beginning of a more robust American independent/arthouse movement, with the likes of the Coen brothers, Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, Alex Cox, and Jim Jarmusch all making their mark. Even within less-reputable low-budget genres like horror and high school sex comedies, smart directors like Sam Raimi, Martha Coolidge, Amy Heckerling, Paul Brickman, and John Hughes stood out.

In his first five years in the business, Nicolas Cage worked with four of the directors above — or five if you count the Coens twice. He also acted for a handful of veteran creators of more mature dramas and comedies, including Alan Parker, Norman Jewison, Richard Benjamin, and his Uncle Francis (for whom he appeared in three movies between 1982 and ’87). In the process he established a different kind of career for himself from his peers. He wasn’t a pin-up stud like Tom Cruise, or intensely serious like Sean Penn. He was something else.

Cage made the transition from bit player to leading man remarkably quickly, taking advantage of the prevailing preference in the business for new faces — in much the same way that the directors of his uncle’s generation exploited the system’s late ‘60s youth obsession, making the leap from Roger Corman quickies and TV assignments to prestigious studio pictures. Almost immediately after appearing alongside Penn in a small role in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High (back when he was still using “Coppola” as his last name), Cage starred in the cult classic Valley Girl, playing an L.A. punker who strikes up an unlikely romance with the title character.

Valley Girl is a good example of the opportunities the ‘80s afforded to an actor like Cage. The movie didn’t really have to be any good, so long as it featured enough scenes of good-looking teenage Los Angelenos partying and fooling around, set to a hip soundtrack. But Martha Coolidge directed Wayne Crawford and Andrew Lane’s script with an eye toward cultural detail and small human moments; and Cage made an impression as a brooding kid following his heart, despite heavy cultural expectations. Coolidge and Cage seized their moment.

Over the next few years, Cage built on his Valley Girl performance, establishing a strong screen persona by playing well-meaning misfits. In director Richard Benjamin’s 1984 period drama Racing with the Moon (written by future Harry Potter/Fabulous Baker Boys scribe Steven Kloves), he was back alongside Sean Penn, playing a restless working-class small-towner enjoying a final month of freedom before shipping off to serve in WWII. That same year he was in another heartwarming period piece, Birdy, playing the emotionally and physically scarred best friend of a flight-obsessed neighbor, played by Matthew Modine. One film’s set in the early ‘40s and the other the ‘60s, but in both, Cage looks something the prop-master found while scouring antique shops. He’s sturdy, classic… right at home.

Then in 1986, Cage starred in what would be his most “‘80s movie” of the decade: The Boy in Blue, a Canadian sports drama about competitive rowing (and again set in the past), in which he played a can-do underdog, showing off his buff torso in multiple training montages. Right around then, something began bubbling in the Cage’s head about what kind of impact he wanted to make with his career. He wouldn’t act anything as ordinary as The Boy in Blue again until the ’90s—and even then, he’d do it sparingly.

One of the best ways to understand Cage’s transformation in the ‘80s is to look at what was going on with his uncle, and with the three Coppola films Cage appeared in back then: 1983’s Rumble Fish, 1984’s The Cotton Club, and 1986’s Peggy Sue Got Married. These would be the only three movies he’d make with his uncle.*

(*) By the way, Cage has also never appeared in anything directed by any of his talented cousins, which now includes his filmmaking first-cousin-once-removed, Gia Coppola; although he did pop up in one of his brother Christopher’s directorial efforts, 1993’s Deadfall. Before it’s too late, we need a Coppola anthology film with segments directed by Francis, his documentarian wife Eleanor, Sofia, Roman, Christopher, Gia, and Robert Schwartzman, each starring Nicolas Cage, his radio DJ brother Marc Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Talia Shire, with music by the Schwartzman brothers and Sofia’s husband Thomas Mars, incorporating themes written by Carmine Coppola.)

Like a lot of his New Hollywood cohorts, Francis Ford Coppola struggled with the new business realities of the ’80s. After bidding farewell to one of American cinema’s greatest decades with his 1979 masterpiece Apocalypse Now, he sunk a lot of his own money into the experimental 1982 musical One from the Heart. When that flopped, Coppola spent the rest of the decade bouncing between what he hoped (sometimes in vain) would be profitably commercial work and more personal films that generally failed to gain traction.

Rumble Fish was a direct response to Coppola’s minor 1983 hit The Outsiders. Working quickly with a lot of the same cast in the same Tulsa location — with another script adapted from an S.E. Hinton young adult novel — Coppola intended Rumble Fish to introduce teen moviegoers to the possibilities of cinema by incorporating techniques from classic Hollywood and the European masters. The film was barely released and drew mixed reviews, but Coppola figured on a quick rebound with 1984’s The Cotton Club, a big-budget historical crime picture that reunited him with some of his Godfather creative team. Instead, the whole production was a notorious disaster, ruining friendships and destroying lives.

Cage has small roles in Rumble Fish and The Cotton Club. He’s noticeable, though he ultimately gets lost a bit in the shuffle. He’s much more prominent in 1986’s Peggy Sue Got Married, which also became a surprise hit and an Oscar multi-nominee. A more grown-up spin on Back to the Future, the film stars Kathleen Turner as a depressed middle-aged, middle-class, middle-American mother who’s transported back to her high school years and given a chance to reconsider her life-choices. Cage plays Charlie, the childhood sweetheart who became Peggy Sue’s husband. In an interpretation that could charitably described as “eccentric,” Cage gives the teenage Charlie a whiny, nasal voice — almost like a parody of adolescence.

The cartoonishness of Cage’s performance in Peggy Sue Got Married was out of character for Coppola, who tends to favor realism even in his more operatic work. It was also something new for Cage. Never a Method actor per se, he had in his early films at least tried to carry himself on-screen with the gravity and moody intensity of a young Brando, Dean, or Clift. Then out of the blue he became late-period Brando, seemingly more interested in being unforgettable than plausible.

Cage would carry this outsized, blood-sweat-tears-and-warts style into the early ’90s, where he’d have critical and often commercial success with the likes of Vampire’s Kiss, Wild At Heart, and Leaving Las Vegas. His willful weirdness gave cover to other adventurous young actors of his generation, like Crispin Glover and Jennifer Jason Leigh. As the ’80s put more Hollywood power more in the hands of actors, Cage seemed determined to prove that someone in front of the camera could be as daring as the ones behind it were in a decade earlier.

And it didn’t have to be weirdness for weirdness’s sake, either. Cage’s Peggy Sue performance takes a lot of chances, but while the movie as a whole is magnificent, his contributions are hit-and-miss. If eschewing all vanity for that film is what it took to move the actor forward as an artist, than it was worth it for what he did the next year. In 1987, Cage starred in Raising Arizona and Moonstruck, two of the best American movies of the ‘80s — neither of which would be as outstanding without him.

It’s a credit to Cage that both Raising Arizona and Moonstruck are remembered more as triumphs for others. After writer-director-producers Joel and Ethan Coen made their feature filmmaking debut with the twisty, stylish 1984 neo-noir Blood Simple, they followed it up with the fast-paced and side-splittingly funny caper comedy Raising Arizona, with Cage playing an ex-con who kidnaps one of a set of quintuplets to assuage his infertile wife. Each character in the movie is wackier than the last, which makes Cage’s deadpan performance — where his mustache and floppy hair do much of the emoting — so crucial. His soulfulness grounds the movie’s broadness.

Moonstruck screenwriter John Patrick Shanley and actresses Cher and Olympia Dukakis won Oscars for the boisterous magical realistic romantic-comedy, in which Cage plays a pivotal role as the passionate, complicated younger man whom the practical-minded middle-aged heroine wishes she didn’t love. As in Peggy Sue Got Married, Cage was asked to be the other half of mismatched couple, opposite a brassy older woman. But his spin on the part this time was very different: still scenery-chewing at times, but in a more controlled comedic context.

At this point in his career, Cage had been a professional actor for just five years, and was only 23 years old. He already seemed like an veteran on screen: comfortable in any era and alongside with any co-star. He had yet to give the same performance twice, and he’d proved his mettle in a variety of genres, from comedy to action to earnest drama. He hadn’t any major awards (though he did get a Golden Globe nomination for Moonstruck, his first nod of any note); and while he’d been the subject of a few magazine articles, he was hardly a “star” of any real repute yet.

But when the accolades starting coming in the ’90s, critics would reach back to Cage’s early films in the ’80s, and point to the experimenting of Peggy Sue Got Married, and the attraction to good material and great collaborators that brought him to Raising Arizona and Moonstruck. He wasn’t as well-known as Sean Penn or Tom Cruise in the ’80s, but he had a more consistently fascinating filmography, and one that’s proved more durable. He changed his last name, but remained a Coppola.