Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance comes out this weekend — which means we have a chance to pay tribute to one of the all-time great cult-movie method actors. Nicolas Cage has gone from serious Academy Award-winning actor to bee-eating B-movie wizard.
If watching bad movies is like a transcendent religious experience, then Nic Cage is our high priest. He is a philosopher king of over-the-top psychotic acting. Here's our tribute to Nic Cage's amazing acting triumphs, and our review of his defining genre-movie performances.
Top image: Fishmas on Deviant Art
We've written before about the joy of watching bad movies — especially ones which take good taste and storytelling logic and throw them at the screen until they spatter like paintballs. A bad movie can expand your understanding of what's possible in movies. A bad movie can be so weird, or so horrifying, that it causes the endorphins to flow and puts you into a trance.
A truly horrendous movie can make you feel like you're seeing the face of God. And then it melts!
And Nic Cage, whether he's in a good movie or a bad movie, is in a class of his own. How many other actors could create such an indelible impression that you'd want to read a whole blog featuring just their face photoshopped into various random characters? Who else could make the internet believe he was a vampire during the Civil War? Who else could replace Homeland Security's "threat level" terror alert system with clips from his movies?
Nic Cage didn't even star in a Superman movie, and yet we feel like his Tim Burton-directed Superman film is more seared into our brains than the last three actual Superman films combined. Because we've spent so much time imagining the extremeness of it.
I have to include this great quote from the UCSD Guardian:
Cage operates within a distinctive school of acting known as Nouveau Shamanic, which takes influence from pre-Christian actors who also served as town shamans, channeling answers from their imaginations and another parallel dimension. Yes, of course Cage fucking invented it, which explains why he's so good at it.
Nic Cage has starred in some of the greatest bad movies of all time. And he's not like some actors, who just sort of cling to a shred of dignity while they're roaming through terrible situations and insane moments of not-quite-comedy. Nic Cage works hard at being as bad as the movies he's in. He studies schlocky acting until every movie is like a schlock masterclass. He cultivates weird mannerisms and odd tics, to convince you that he's authentically nuts.
And as he's aged, he's taken to using his ever-growing forehead, his increasingly bugged-out eyes and his strangely leathery mouth to put even more physicality into his mania. It's almost impossible to encapsulate the insanity of Nic Cage in a science fiction or fantasy movie. Which is why we've got clips.
"I don't want to name it, because when you name it, if you name it then it loses its mystery. If I tell you exactly what I was thinking, or what I was up to - and I have been guilty of that - then you lose your secret connection with the work of art. And I digress, but I went on Dick Cavett many years ago and met Miles Davis. And I was talking about things like art synthesis and Picasso and you can do with acting what he did, or with music, and Miles came out and he got it, you know, he was looking at me, he gave me this, like - he nodded and he winked at me. Miles Davis, you know. And we were sharing the trumpet. And ever since then, because he accepted whatever my philosophy was, I believe that I wanted to approach acting as jazz. And so he became like a surrealist father of sorts, along with Walt Disney." - Wondercon 2010
"I am eclectic and I'm always looking to push the boundaries with film acting, and at this point in my career I think I stumbled on the concept that if I can play characters that have a bit of a supernatural element, it opens up what I can do with the character. It's infinite, it's limitless the things I can do. One of the ways is to play a character who's really high on drugs, like in Bad Lieutenant. Another way is to play someone who's from someplace else, like Drive Angry." — Comic Con 2010
"It occurred to me, because I was doing a character as far out of our reference point as the spirit of vengeance, I could use these techniques. I would paint my face with black and white make up to look like a Afro-Caribbean icon called Baron Samedi, or an Afro-New Orleans icon who is also called Baron Saturday. He is a spirit of death but he loves children; he's very lustful, so he's a conflict in forces. And I would put black contact lenses in my eyes so that you could see no white and no pupil, so I would look more like a skull or a white shark on attack.
On my costume, my leather jacket, I would sew in ancient, thousands-of-years-old Egyptian relics, and gather bits of tourmaline and onyx and would stuff them in my pockets to gather these energies together and shock my imagination into believing that I was augmented in some way by them, or in contact with ancient ghosts. I would walk on the set looking like this, loaded with all these magical trinkets, and I wouldn't say a word to my co-stars or crew or directors. I saw the fear in their eyes, and it was like oxygen to a forest fire. I believed I was the Ghost Rider." — talking about Ghost Rider 2.
Vampire's Kiss (1989)
People tend to forget just how insane this performance was — all of the later Cage excesses are right here, except it's even more cocaine-fueled. Skip to about three minutes into this supercut, to see Cage bugging out his eyes and leering like a tweaker Cheshire Cat, as he abuses Alva the secretary. Also great: Cage trashing his apartment, getting sexually excited by fighting with a bat, and generally acting like the most demented yuppie vampire of all time. And then there's the accent, fluctuating from highbrow British literati and surfer dude. Classic!
Nic Cage is a terrorist who randomly gets a face transplant, with his face grafted onto John Travolta's supercop. This gives Cage a chance to play a total psychopath — and a good guy pretending to be a psychopath. Cage puts everything he's got into the crucial line where his fake-evil character tells his minions, "I'd like to take his face off," thus shoehorning the film's title into the actual movie. But Cage's performance is probably best remembered for the bit where he sings the Hallelujah Chorus off-key and grabs a young choir girl's butt while making crazy O-face. There's also lots of freaking out later in the film when he's being a good man trapped in a bad face.
City of Angels (1998)
Nic Cage is an angel who walks among humans without being seen. Until he falls in love with a sweet surgeon, played by Meg Ryan, in this Ghost-esque romance. Nic Cage plays the angel as a sort of broody but sweet man-child, who doesn't understand a lot of human stuff and thinks his hands are really cosmic, you know? Skip to about 2:30 in the video above to watch Nic say, "Weird is nice." He's kind of creeptastic, especially when he makes her close her eyes and then strokes her palm with one finger while all the other angels watch. The whole thing is supposed to be a lot sweeter than it actually is, because Nic does too good a job of impersonating a cosmic entity contained in human form. Until finally he throws himself off a building so he can see what being human is about.
Bringing Out the Dead (1999)
I love this film. Martin Scorsese directs Cage as a paramedic who's burning out — and seeing the ghosts of the people he couldn't save. Cage gives a low-energy, broody, grim performance as a guy who's on the edge of falling apart. Here, he saves a guy who's impaled himself on a balcony railing. Even his gallows humor about shish kebabs is kind of restrained.
Worth including because it's still full of weird Charlie Kaufman magical realism touches, like the strange orchid drug. And this is perhaps the best use of "crazy Nic Cage" in a movie, ever, as he plays both Kaufman twins and totally conveys a kind of schizophrenic wonder. This is one of my favorite movies of all time.
The Wicker Man (2006) In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Cage did a number of schlocky dramas and action movies, from Gone in Sixty Seconds to National Treasure, and beyond. But this remake of the classic early 1970s Christopher Lee movie is arguably the first of Cage's string of really terrible films. It's noticeably more extreme and just weirder than Cage's earlier work. The way he goes around punching women and freaking out and disturbing schoolrooms and bicycle-jacking women at gunpoint and screaming "HOW'D IT GET BURNED HOW'D IT GET BURNED" and announcing he's going to search the entire village in three hours... he pretty much carries the whole film. And by "carries," I mean "throws in the air and catches in his endlessly grinding teeth." Even without the "bees" line, this movie about a weird mystical cult would be a Cage classic.
Ghost Rider (2007)
Cage turns Johnny Blaze into a kind of Elvis-inspired eccentric who hoards jelly beans and does death-defying motorcycle stunts while being the Devil's motorcycle hitman or something. This is sort of the silly, good-natured side of Cage, embracing his eccentricity while acting totally nutty and a bit self-satisfied. Until he suddenly flames out and finally turns into your favorite skull-headed biker and mine. Here's our favorite scene, where Johnny is trapped in a jail cell with a bunch of low-lifes, shouting "Please get me out of here!" Until he finally skulls up and kicks their asses.
Nic Cage can see two minutes into the future! And in this amazing scene, he uses his precog abilities to try and figure out the best pick-up line for a woman in a diner, and then to deal with a creepy stalker guy. Basically, he's the ultimate manipulative bastard, which calls for more of Sassy Smug Nic.
Cage is a physics professor, or some kind of zany guru who holds up model planets and talks about how wild it is that there are all these planets and they don't just crash into each other, man. And then his son finds a time capsule full of numbers, and Cage goes into full National Treasure code-breaking mode, furrowing his by-now-massive forehead as he tries to untangle the secrets of how these numbers foretell the future. Best bit: Cage stands in a field next to a plane crash in the rain, looking up and freaking out.
G-Force and Astro Boy (2009)
Nic Cage did a couple of zany science fiction/fantasy animated films — in Astro Boy, he's Dr. Tenma, the creator of Astro Boy, who's kind of an ultimate withholding parent and refuses to accept his robot son. His zanier performance, though, is as Speckles the Mole in G-Force, where he went up a couple octaves and tried to do his "three weeks of night shoots" voice, as high pitched and insane as possible. Here's an interview where Cage explains just why he put a lot of himself into being in a special agent gerbil movie.
Another movie that I totally love — although Cage is definitely the most extreme, most ludicrous part of this film, with his weird Adam West impression whenever he puts on the batsuit. He's actually doing a strange riff on Wild at Heart, his classic David Lynch film, except with a little girl instead of Laura Dern as his partner in crime. When Cage is out of his costume, he manages to make the relationship between Big Daddy and Hit-Girl look like the greatest dysfunctional-but-sweet family relationship ever, and he's sort of campy/lovely. The mustache really accentuates his manic grin.
The Sorcerer's Apprentice (2010)
Continuing the trend of Cage playing weird mentors, you have his role in this failed Disney fantasy, in which Cage wears a truly odd wig and giant leather duster and makes glowy balls with his hands. He's kind of restrained, for Cage — this is his family-friendly Disneyfied side, in which he's sort of snarky rather than actually psychotic. Surrounded by a million kinds of CG effects and the comedy stylings of Jay Baruchel, Cage mugs quite a bit but doesn't bring the full Cage Crazy. This is the scholar monk version of Nic Cage, who is locked in contemplation and amused by the paltry things we mortals care about.
Season of the Witch (2011)
Cage is a world-weary Crusader who has gone rogue — and now he has to escort a suspected witch across country to help stop the Black Plague. Or something. Mostly it's an excuse for Cage to act tormented and fucked up as he deals with his post-Crusade trauma and tries to act vaguely like a British knight, alongside Ron Perlman. Cage seems kind of bored with this one, or maybe that's his attempt at seeming weary of endless war and plague and stuff. He lets the greasy wig do most of the acting this time around.
Drive Angry 3-D (2011)
The apotheosis of the over-the-top Nic Cage style of acting — Cage is a guy who's driven out of Hell to save his daughter from Satanic cultists, and now he drives around shooting people and having gunfight sex while drinking bourbon. And drinking beer out of human skulls. And generally acting completely nuts and awesome.
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012)
Not actually a sequel to the first Ghost Rider, by all accounts — this time around, Cage is going a lot further in representing the nutty obsessions of a guy who turns into a flaming-skull motorcycle avenger. He pees fire in his glitter pants. He tosses people around and wraps his magic chain around them. He snarls that people should be afraid of him, and brings out the whole "demonically possessed" thing. Here's a featurette focusing on Cage's acting in the film.