Will the Real Nicolas Cage Please Stand Up?
Who is Nicolas Cage? Or perhaps the question should be, what is Nicolas Cage?
There are few actors working today who prove harder to define, both on and off-screen. If you read the news reports, the answer to the first question is that Cage is a broke, pagan castle owner who named his son Superman and will star in any movie, if asked. The answer to the second question: a vampire from the Civil War.
On-screen, Cage’s persona is even more allusive. After starting his career in films deemed as critical successes––Moonstruck, Wild At Heart, Leaving Las Vegas (for which he earned an Academy Award), he now focuses almost entirely on supernatural, B-movie films: The Wicker Man, Ghost Rider, Next, Knowing, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Season of the Witch, Drive Angry, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.
These are films that most actors with Cage’s fame and notoriety would quickly pass on. Clearly he has the acting chops to turn these roles down for other, more “respected” ones (just watch Adaptation, Matchstick Men or Kick-Ass) but, more often than not, he doesn’t. For unbeknownst reasons, Cage wants to, nay, needs to, be in films that are annihilated and panned by critics (have a look at the rating Rotten Tomatoes gave his recent film, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance).
“Cage is laughed at and almost stigmatized because the film track he seems most interested in has become the supernatural—the science fiction vain of films, which historically have always been smirkingly regarded by the critical atmosphere,” says Burton Frey, co-creator of Cagefest 2012—a proposed series of screenings and lectures dedicated to Nicolas Cage – in an interview with Highbrow Magazine. “But this is the line of films that Cage is oddly obsessed with, and I think that what he has done is create a method for this type of film that we haven’t seen before.”
The method that Frey is referring to is called Nuvo-Shamanism, and it was invented by Cage himself. According to Frey, “Nuvo-Shamanism was this type of almost soothsayer wise man of pre-Christian pagan villagers. These individuals would oftentimes either become possessed or act possessed by beings of another universe or a parallel dimension and would solve nature’s riddles, either through some magical ritual or through their own imaginations, and they would provide answers to the superstitious public. What Cage has done, and he has said he plans to write a book on Nuvo-Shamanism, is that he’s taken that idea of drawing influence from the supernatural world and answering nature’s mysteries using that power.…”
Essentially, Nuvo-Shamanism is method acting for the spiritually inclined. Rather than adopting a person’s habits, actions and personality, you adopt their essence, their soul.
When Cage employs his method, he is no longer acting; he is simply being. He allows his imagination to take over his consciousness and he becomes whatever spirit he is trying to harness. And since Nuvo-Shamanism is steeped in the occult and the mystical, it is only natural that Cage is drawn to these supernatural films. He can apply this method to Ghost Rider in a more instinctive way than, say, Trespass, with Nicole Kidman.
And even when Cage is “bad,” it’s not for the lack of trying.
“He clearly has an understanding of the type of movie he's in, and adapts his acting style for it, but what’s incredible is that it never means he phones it in,” says Nathaniel Katzman, co-creator of Cagefest 2012, in an interview with Highbrow Magazine. “A lot of talented actors make awful movies for money and are aware of what they're doing, but he's the only one, to my knowledge, that takes every role equally as seriously. Without a single grain of irony, he puts just as much energy into his worst roles as his best.”
Some actors, Eddie Murphy for example, make bad movies worse by clearly not making an effort. They show up, memorize their lines, get paid, and forget about the film forever. This is not the case with Cage. His method takes ego out of the equation, as it forces him to approach each new role in the same way.
Cage believes that acting should be an honest endeavor, and that pretending is simply another word for lying. If an actor merely memorizes lines a character says, he is not being the character; he is simply mimicking him. So despite the fact that a large percent of Cage’s films are objectively bad, he always gives 100 percent on screen. Perhaps this is why Cage is never boring.
“He makes choices that no one in their right mind would make,” says Katzman. “It's what makes him so much fun to watch; he's completely spontaneous.”
Spontaneity lies at the heart of everything that Cage does on and off-screen. It’s what prompted him to buy castles and go bankrupt in 2009. It’s probably what prompted him to name his child Kal-El, the god-given name of Superman. And it’s definitely what prompted him to star in the film Drive Angry:
“Well, initially what I was attracted to was the idea that I was going to get my eye shot out. The movie Season of the Witch, I wanted to get my eye shot out with a bow and arrow, and the producers didn't go for it…So when Patrick Lussier said to me, 'You're going to get your eye shot out in a movie,' I don't know why but I just immediately said yes, I'm in, because it was something that I wanted to do. It's as simple as that” (as quoted in MovieLine).
This kind of eccentric, unpredictable behavior has become a trademark of Cage’s. And it’s not a new development; he’s always been this way. In 1980, while on board a commercial flight, Cage told his fellow passengers that he was a pilot and that the flight was losing altitude: “It was a joke, but everyone started screaming.” In 1983, after being cast in uncle Francis Ford’s, Rumble Fish, Cage changed his name from Coppola to Cage: “The prejudice I experienced [for] my name was like a pitchfork in my butt.” In 1987, he courted Patricia Arquette, who turned him down. He suggested she send him on a “quest” to prove himself, so she asked for J. D. Salinger’s autograph, a “Bob’s Big Boy statue”, a black orchid, and a Tibetan wedding dress. He came through and they got married eight years later. In 2002 Cage married Elvis’ daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, which lasted a whopping 107 days. And while all of this was happening, Cage was buying multiple castles, multiple islands in the Bahamas, and building up 6 million dollars in back taxes that he still owes to the IRS( as outlined in a New York Magazine feature).
So, after being “crazy” for more than 20 years, on and off-screen, is Cage still relevant? Is his method still affecting audiences in the same way when he made huge blockbusters like Con Air and Face-Off? If you were to look at the numbers, you would say no. In the past 10 years, only the National Treasure films and Ghost Rider have topped the $100 million mark. But despite the fact that he isn’t the box-office draw he used to be, Cage has become a kind of phenomenon—a living legend who confuses and intrigues audiences and fans the world overwhich is perhaps what he’s going for.
Cage approaches his films with a kind of honesty and sincerity that is rarely found in Hollywood. Every role he takes is equally important; they are all explorations into his imagination. So whether he is playing a doomed man from hellout for redemption, a man who can predict future catastrophes with numbers, an ancient sorcerer sent to teach that kid who looks like Justin Long life lessons, or a demon with a flaming head who has no conscience and rides around on a motorcycle, we can say for certain that Nicolas Cage is, at the very least, pretty damn interesting.
Sam Chapin is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.