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.