The Pinnacle: Why The Best Nicolas Cage Performance Is In ‘Raising Arizona’

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 look at how Cage found a new gear with the Coen brothers’ 1987 classic Raising Arizona.

This week, my colleagues have discussed the early, “cool” Nicolas Cage and the later, “hot” Nicolas Cage. I would like to now pay tribute to the “medium” Nicolas Cage, which really only exists in one film, 1987’s Raising Arizona.

But first, let’s briefly define the “cool,” “hot,” and “medium” iterations of Cage. As ably covered by Noel Murray, Cage got his start in the early ’80s playing moody outsiders in teen-oriented films like Valley Girl and Rumble Fish. In these movies, Cage is eccentric but within the acceptable parameters of the conventional “bad boy” archetype, like a punk-rock version of Luke Perry form Beverly Hills 90210. At no point does he ever threaten to completely take over (or derail) a film. This is the relatively restrained, “cool” Cage.

By the end of the ’80s, as Cage graduated to adult leading man roles, he was emboldened to go full Method actor. Instead of merely gesture, Cage punched the air. Rather than simply walk, Cage did high kicks. While his fellow actors were content to inhale and exhale, Cage heaved like a man drowning in oxygen. This phase — which isn’t really phase, as its lasted more or less for 30 years — began with his “most insane role” as a mentally unstable executive in Vampire’s Kiss. Soon after, Cage gave what is probably my personal favorite performance of his in 1990’s Wild At Heart, in which he ostensibly plays oversexed ex-con Sailor Ripley but actually plays 1969 Elvis Presley on a three-day dexedrine binge.

As would prove crucial throughout his career, Cage is aided tremendously in Wild At Heart by a strong director, David Lynch, who affords ample space for Cage to be Cage while also providing a context in which Cage’s wild physical and emotional gesticulations make some sort of sense. In Wild At Heart, Lynch harnesses Cage’s boundless energy for comedy and pathos for the sake of his own vision. Cage is unbound but he never hijacks the film or becomes a distraction. The same can’t always be said for Cage’s promotional appearances at this time, which could rapidly devolve into loopy, one-of-a-kind, “look at me!” performance-art pieces.

Clearly, this is the unchained, “hot” Cage.

But what about the “medium” Cage? There was barely any transitional time from Cage’s “smoldering teen idol” period to his “anarchic movie star” period. Really, there was only 1987, perhaps the most pivotal year of Cage’s career, one in which he starred in two of his greatest movies, Moonstruck and Raising Arizona. In retrospect, Moonstruck seems to be the end of “cool” Cage. Once again, he was called upon to play the quirky love interest for a beautiful leading lady, an adult update of his original breakthrough in Valley Girl. But whereas Valley Girl was a low-budget indie film, Moonstruck is a mainstream romantic comedy in which Cage is called upon to provide some gritty, indie-rock flavor without appearing too dangerous.

As for Raising Arizona, it might scan initially as the root of “hot” Cage — his hair is askew, his mustache is oafish, and he spends much of the movie wearing Hawaiian shirts. And, as everybody knows, only wild and crazy guys wear Hawaiian shirts. However, in spite of the cosmetic looniness of Cage in Raising Arizona, he’s actually the most grounded character in the movie.

Which is not to say that he’s cool, exactly — after all, one of the Raising Arizona‘s most dazzling sequences involves Cage running from the police through streets, houses, backyards, and grocery stores with a nylon stocking over his face. It’s just that the Coen brothers, like Lynch, place Cage in an outlandish environment in which he’s not the only (or even the most) bizarre element on screen. Cage is cartoonish, but so is everyone else. He gets to be hot, but he seems cool. This is, in fact, “medium” Cage.

Cage plays H.I. McDunnough, a petty thief who falls in love with Edwina (Holly Hunter), a police officer who always takes his mugshot between various prison stays. H.I. and Ed marry, but their plans to start a family are stymied when Ed learns that she’s infertile. Out of desperation, they hatch a plan to snatch a baby from the Arizona Quints, a set of five babies recently born to the wife of Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson), a colorful furniture tycoon. After that, there are misbegotten encounters with H.I.’s new boss and his pushy wife (Sam McMurray and Frances McDormand), two jailbird buddies (John Goodman and William Forsythe), and a mysterious motorcycle-riding bounty hunter (Randall “Tex” Cobb) who looks like something out of The Road Warrior.

There’s been speculation over the years that the Coens and Cage didn’t get along, though that might be based on the assumption that the control-freak directorial team of course would have trouble with a wild-card actor like Cage. The truth appears to be more complicated. In a 1987 interview with the French magazine Positif, the Coens admit that they were more familiar with Hunter, who was already an established stage actress, before filming began.

“Nick is a comedian with a great deal of imagination,” Joel Coen told the magazine. “He arrived with a mountain of ideas we hadn’t thought of while writing the screenplay, but his contribution was always limited to the situation that the characters we had imagined find themselves in.”

Cage’s most tangible contributions to the character concerned H.I.’s appearance — the unkempt hair and the colorful clothes. “The more difficulties his character got in, the bigger the wave in his hair got,” Ethan Coen said. “There was a strange connection between the character and his hair.”

A measure of doubt in the Coens’ faith in Cage is cast in a 2011 A.V. Club interview with McMurray, who observes that the Coens might not have been “entirely convinced he was going to be great” as H.I. “He was a bit eccentric,” McMurray says. “I assume he still is, but I thought he was hysterical.”

Is it possible that the Coens seemed unsure of Cage on set because his performance didn’t really come together until Cage recorded the voiceover narration? Re-visiting Raising Arizona, it’s surprising how much bigger the other performances are. Wilson is the funniest, Goodman is the loudest, McMurray and McDormand are the silliest buffoons, and Hunter is the most heartfelt. But Cage is the spine. As the storyteller, Raising Arizona ultimately reflects H.I.’s point of view.

The Coens often use voiceovers — sometimes to clarify the action (True Grit), and other times to make the action appear more convoluted (The Big Lebowski). In Raising Arizona, the narration gives the film an added emotional element, particularly during H.I.’s flowery yet tender soliloquies at the start and end of the film. “These were the happy days, the salad days as they say,” Cage intones during the bravura pre-credits sequence. “And Ed felt that havin’ a critter was the next logical step.” His Southern accent is pronounced but not exaggerated — he sounds natural and conversational relating the ridiculous events about to unfold.

Raising Arizona ends with H.I. describing a dream, in which all of the film’s characters find peace. “It seemed like us and it seemed like, well, our home. If not Arizona, then a land not too far away. Where all parents are strong and wise and capable and all children are happy and beloved,” Cage says. “I don’t know. Maybe it was Utah.” The speech is comic and lovely, outrageous and affecting, unreal and authentic — all of the things you love about Nicolas Cage and rarely get all in one place.