We originally ran this on January 7, 2014. January 7 is still Nicolas Cage’s date of birth. Happy birthday, Nicolas Cage! -ed.
In an episode of the NBC sitcom Community last week, the pop culture idiot savant Abed (Danny Pudi) grappled over whether Nicolas Cage is a good actor. Over the course of the episode, he waxed poetic about Cage’s allure, noting how Cage, “is one of pop culture’s greatest mysteries.” Abed nearly lost his mind over the inquiry: in a three-day seminar about the actor, Abed attempted to answer the Cage question by becoming him (a subtle nod to Face/Off). Despite Abed’s puzzlement, the answer to this question is so easy to answer it’s almost boring.
Nicolas Cage is a good actor.
I’m the first to admit he’s also a strange actor, one who has captured the internet’s imagination in a unique way. Although it’s no longer popular, it all started with the “My hair is a bird” meme. No one knows exactly when its proliferation began, but according to KnowYourMeme – the invaluable archivist site for the internetz – the single-serving “My hair is a bird” site launched around May 2008.
Still, this was only the beginning: we saw “peak Cage” on November 21, 2010, the day when YouTube user Harry Hanrahan published the supercut “Nicolas Cage losing his shit.” Put against the background of the haunting score from Requiem for a Dream, Hanrahan’s video is a highlight reel of Cage at his most unhinged. The video immediately went viral, to the point where no discussion of Cage could be complete without it. Abed’s Cage impression overtly references this video, and while Dan Harmon gives the Community episode minor arguments for and against Cage, the sub-plot is meant for laughs, not analysis.
The Cage meme does not stop there, either. The subreddit /r/onetruegod ironically worships all things Cage. Another site allows you to Cage Your Queue: with one click, you can add every Nicolas Cage movie onto your Netflix queue, and (as far as I know) the service does not exist for any other actor. Cage can contort his face so eyes look relaxed, almost dead, to the point where he looks thoroughly unhinged. These means there are countless photos and gifs of Cage, whether he’s photoshopped onto someone’s chest or onto the head of a cute Asian woman. I didn’t think it was possible, but Cage’s hairline has grown even more strange and comical since the “my hair is a bird” meme. A lot of nerds, including Abed, think Cage is a hilarious, strange mystery.
But here’s the thing: he’s a mystery only because the meme and the man conflated. If you look at his films – I mean, really look – he is an accomplished dramatic and comedic actor with diverse range.
I could use simple examples to illustrate my point. He is heartbreaking in Leaving Las Vegas, The Weatherman, and Bringing Out the Dead. He’s a convincing everyman in Red Rock West, Guarding Tess, and 8mm. He’s so good at over-the-top characters, both heroes and villains, that there is no need to mention them here. The conflation of actor/meme reduces these mannered, complex performances to a series of unhinged bite-size moments. Hanrahan could make supercut of dozens of actors losing their shit, and it’d be just as hilarious/unbelievable.
So let’s talk about Nicolas Cage as an actor. The first important thing to remember is not Cage does not exist in a vacuum: when he punches a woman while wearing a bear suit or screams “FUCK” uninterrupted for six seconds, Cage is in a context. Though he may appear insane, there is a reason he’s acting that way, and more importantly, there are editors/directors/etc. who choose to go with that Cage take over all the others. This is why “bad” Cage is also hilarious and weird.
In the hands of the wrong director, Cage can get out of control.
A common director/actor metaphor is that if a director is a painter, then an actor is his brush. That’s helpful to a point, but not for this discussion. Here’s another one: Nicolas Cage is a weapon, the director is a squad leader, and the final film is the mission at hand. In the hands of the wrong squad leader, the weapon’s misuse could lead to a quagmire with mass casualties. In the hands of a skilled squad leader, one who understands his weapon intimately, the mission can be a resounding success, as well as an affirmation of American values.
Nicolas Cage has worked with Martin Scorsese, Norman Jewison, the Coen Brothers, Ridley Scott, Spike Jonze, and Werner Herzog, among others. None of the corresponding movies have much in common, except the director knows what they’re doing. They know when to reign in Cage – Bringing Out the Dead is a terrific example of a simmering, flinty performance – and they also know when to let Cage out of the cage (so to speak). Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is brilliant because it creates an on-screen observer for Cage’s madness. The audience is not the only one who bears witnesses to the cop’s misuse of power, and an onlooker in the frame adds credibility/immediacy to Cage’s performance.
Indeed, there are other examples where Cage is the weirdo and the other actors are the straight man or woman. One of the most striking occurs in early in Face/Off, where Cage first sees himself after face-swap surgery. He curses his colleagues angrily while they look agog, and while the scene is part of the Losing His Shit supercut, the scene is not over the top in context. Cage’s character resents his colleagues because he must wear the face of his son’s killer, and lashes out angrily out of grief. It is exactly the right way to play the scene, and few other actors would have the courage (or lunacy?) to go for broke.
Still, no discussion of Cage is complete without his failures. The most obvious, tbe one that will go down in the annals of film history as an unparalleled blunder, is Neil Labute’s remake of The Wicker Man. Labute took the classic weirdo hippie horror musical and turned it into a thinly-veiled critique of matriarchy (or something). Either way, this is Cage at his worst because it’s also Labute at his worst. Take a look at scene where Cage repeatedly screams, “How’d it get burned?” or “Not the bees!” It’s not Cage’s fault the moments are unintentionally funny; a shrewd, smart director would know to cut away from his mania. Put another way, a more accurate title for “Nicolas Cage Losing His Shit” would be “Directors Lose Control of Nicolas Cage.”
All the great movie actors bring something unique to the screen. Whether it’s Marlon Brando or Michael Caine, Katherine Hepburn or Helen Mirren, the most memorable screen actors are not chameleons entirely. We see the person behind the character first, and then we see how they interpret the script into something different and unique. Nicolas Cage is no different, except he has a willingness to go for broke. He pushes himself past the point of good sense or taste, and relies on the person behind the camera to reign in his work. This takes courage, and whether the end result is a success or not, he is always fascinating to watch.
This is why Nicolas Cage is a good actor. It also why BYT is devoting the entire day to celebrating Cage’s fiftieth.
Happy birthday, you magnificent crazy bastard.