The Madman: Nicolas Cage’s Most Insane Role Sheds Light On What Drives Him

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 the 1989 film Vampire’s Kiss and the light it sheds on Cage’s entire career.

One of the first YouTube stars was Nicolas Cage. That might sound like a strange thing to say; he was, when the streaming service launched in 2005, still one of the most bankable actors in the world. He doesn’t deserve to be lumped in with the “Chocolate Rain” guy or the “Numa Numa” guy or the sneezing panda. He has an Oscar, ferchrissakes. But he was one of the first actors — after Tom Cruise and his unfairly received couch-jumping business — who lost a bit of his credibility thanks to what we then ominously called “new media.”

It was the early days of YouTube. Users were still figuring out what to do with it: what kinds of videos could be uploaded, what purpose it could serve, what ways it may change how we imbibe media. In January of 2007, soon before the site turned two, there appeared a video called “Best Scenes from The Wicker Man.” The title was not sincere.

It was what would come to be known as a supercut, compiling the craziest, weirdest, dumbest, most embarrassing parts of the latest Nicolas Cage movie: a misguided remake of the 1973 cult classic, minus the weirdo folk songs but packed with inexplicable misogyny and plenty of wackadoodle Cage freak-outs. The Wicker Man died a quick death in September of 2006, but four months later here it was again, hacked down to a brisk two minutes, reborn as an early viral mini-sensation in which a once-respected actor could be seen cold-cocking someone dressed as a bear and screaming about bees.

With its mere 4.5 million views over the last decade (it’s still live, amazingly), “Best Scenes from The Wicker Man” was never a sensation. But it got around. And it inspired others to dig into Cage’s back catalog. Assorted videos with titles like “Nicolas Cage’s Best Moments” focused, of course, on his nuttier movie bits: him going over the top and beyond — screaming, flailing his arms, trying out unplaceable accents that no one has spoken before or since.

This was how some of us discovered the 1989 film Vampire’s Kiss.

Buried in the early days of his CV, Vampire’s Kiss might have been forgotten like The Wicker Man deserved to be, had dedicated Cage-ologists not dug it up and chopped it into YouTube videos. One, from 2009, runs nearly 10 full minutes. It could go longer. In fact, some of us have long argued Vampire’s Kiss could be a 103-minute super-cut in and of itself. It never stops giving, and Cage never stops being insane. It’s the Holy Grail of Nicolas Cage gone mad.

Cage plays Peter Loew, a literary agent in ’80s New York, living the kind of bacchanal existence Jay McInerney immortalized in Bright Lights, Big City. But instead of snorting up reams of Bolivian Marching Powder, Cage’s Loew is bitten by a sexy vampire (Jennifer Beals). Or so he thinks. He may have just lost his damn mind. Either way, he goes crazy — or crazier. Cage begins the film in the upper stratosphere, then somehow rises further up. Before Loew “turns,” Cage is already speaking in a bizarro accent, which sounds like he invented a new vowel or two; he pronounces “shoo” with about 10 O’s and probably a couple of U’s.

Once Loew starts losing it, Cage goes whole hog. He does that Cage thing where he suddenly starts shouting his words mid-sentence. He bulges his eyes so far it seems they’ll pop out as though fired from a gun. Loew spends a lot of the movie tormenting his mousy secretary, Alva (Maria Conchita Alonso, who looks genuinely terrified of her co-star). In one scene, a rant about a misfiled file mushroom-clouds into him screaming the alphabet, his outburst ending with a Mick Jagger pelvic thrust. Later, at his lowest ebb, Loew has a long conversation with what he thinks is his therapist (Elizabeth Ashley) but which is actually a wall.

These moments, and many more besides, can be seen in various YouTube clips. But there’s something cruel and unusual about this. For one thing, YouTube is one of the few places you can (legally) stream any part of Vampire’s Kiss. It’s only available in full via Vudu. You can’t even rent it as a stream from Amazon, though you could shell out a mere pittance for it on one of two double-feature sets. (Do you want it on Blu-ray with High Spirits or on DVD with Once Bitten, starring a pre-In Living Color Jim Carrey? It’s like asking if you want to be stabbed or shot.)

For another, it cheapens what Cage is doing in Vampire’s Kiss — or, for that record, in anything he does. Watching a 10-minute YouTube best-of from Vampire’s Kiss is fun, and it’s funny. But it reduces Cage’s talents to a mere freak show. Crazy Cage may seem like he was made for YouTube clippage, but in isolating and decontextualizing certain wacky moments, such videos run the risk of making him look like a mere lunatic — out of control, maybe even incompetent, or simply crazy for crazy’s sake.

“Crazy for crazy’s sake” is part of what Cage has always done; he enjoys going full ham, entertaining himself as much as, if not more, than the audience. But as they say, there’s a method to his madness. He was, at least in his early days, an actor who didn’t want to be your typical movie star. He’d become a movie star, of course; he just wouldn’t do it quietly. In his first major role, in 1983’s rom-com Valley Girl, Cage played a young punk from Hollywood. Already, in his second film, he was delivering his lines in a sing-song, using his body as flexibly as he did his words. He didn’t conform, not even to the punk image. And that was so punk rock.

He didn’t even chill out even when he worked for his uncle. In Francis Ford Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married, he delivers all his dialogue in a nasal voice so thick it sounds like he has a bag clip clamped on his nostrils. He said the inspiration for the voice was Pokey from Gumby.

Was younger Cage just trolling for future YouTube supercuts? Of course not. One key to decoding Cage is listening to him speak as himself. Surprise! He’s a normal, sane guy, if eccentric enough to have bought (and lost) a couple castles and briefly been married to Elvis’ daughter. But he speaks about his craft thoughtfully and with a healthy dose of self-awareness. He knows how wild he can be. He enjoys crazy Cage, too, perhaps more than you do.

On the commentary track for Vampire’s Kiss, which Cage shares with director Robert Bierman, he cites it as one of his favorite performances and chuckles at his most outlandish moments, just like a fan. “Is this the ‘Am I getting through to you, Alva?’ part?” he excitedly asks as one of the film’s funniest moments is about to happen.

Even more revealing is when Cage goes off for a spell about silent film acting. In the past, he’s cited one of his most famous moments in Moonstruck — in which his anguished, one-handed baker dramatically raises his missing body part and wails, “I LOST MY HAND!” — as having been inspired by a similar moment performed by villain Rudolf Klein-Rogge in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Silent film acting has been a no-no since synch sound came in; it’s overly-expressive, hammy, the opposite of realistic. Cage has always wanted to sneak it back in, to act with his body as well as his voice, and to do both in defiance of mere realism. At his most thrilling, Cage is experimenting with, even reinventing the art of acting. He’s like a free jazz soloist trying to take an already avant-garde art form into an even more radical sphere.

Or so you might think if you watch Cage’s movies in their entirety and follow his entire career. On YouTube, he just seems like another crazy person, there to amuse us for a few minutes before the next distraction comes along. Even Cage has lost interest in himself. At this point, he just wants to work. He needs to work, it seems, to pay considerable bills. His recent resumé is filled with anonymous dreck, with interchangeable titles like Frozen Ground, Rage, and The Runner, that barely gets released, and doesn’t deserve to be.

He’ll still freak out occasionally, for a good director. He’s excellent, somehow both grounded and uncontainable, in David Gordon Green’s Joe. In Paul Schrader’s Dog Eat Dog, he ends the movie by doing a leftfield Bogie impersonation. Why? Why not! But these days he rarely seems to be trying, as if acting has finally bored him and he no longer feels compelled to keep himself awake with a wacky accent or an inhuman facial expression. Maybe Nicolas Cage can get his mojo back by watching some crazy Nicolas Cage YouTube videos.