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Reminder: Nicolas Cage is a good actor, actually

Nicolas Cage in Pig.
(Image credit: Neon)

Over the past decade, Nicolas Cage has accumulated a staggering 43 film credits. 13 of those movies went straight to DVD or VOD. You probably haven't seen all of them, but the chances are you've still seen a hell of a lot of Cage, be it through Andy Samberg's impersonation on Saturday Night Live, news over his extravagant spending sprees, or the endless memes that have become a regular feature of internet life. After nearly 40 years in the business, Cage's place in Hollywood history has long been secured, but his evolution into the wide-eyed gurning face of surreal pop culture trolling and committed hamminess has come with its fair share of pitfalls. To put it bluntly, a hell of a lot of people don't think Nicolas Cage can act. There was even an entire episode of Community dedicated to figuring out that conundrum (complete with a fair share of whisper-screaming Cage impressions.)

Browse any clickbait list of the "worst actors" working and there's a solid chance Cage's name will pop up alongside the lazily picked usual suspects. Sure, he has an Oscar on his shelf for his stalwart turn in Leaving Las Vegas, but he also has nine Razzie nominations and a filmography full of tat that’s utterly beneath him. Stories of his outlandish behavior, from his Elvis Presley obsession to his fight to buy a dinosaur skull, have frequently overshadowed even his best movies. Moreover, many casual viewers know him primarily for the bad stuff, or, at the very least, the memed versions of those low points. Who hasn’t chuckled at the “Not the bees” scene from the wholly execrable remake of The Wicker Man, or wondered aloud about the creative choices behind literally every decision Cage made in Vampire's Kiss? It’s easy to look at what Cage does as an actor, including the often-bonkers lengths he goes to as part of his prep, and deem it to be bad. All too often, what Cage does go against our modern understandings of good acting. That’s why there’s almost a sense of bafflement among viewers when Cage turns in a stellar performance or when the critics rally around him as an undeniable, and frequently underrated talent.

This month saw the release of Pig, a thriller wherein Cage plays a truffle hunter on the prowl looking for his stolen pic. Critics almost universally raved that Pig was one of 2021's best films so far, and that Cage's performance is affecting, raw, and utterly unflappable. To many, it seemed to be the antithesis of your standard Cage performance. For others, it was a potent reminder of Cage’s range. Consider his recent work in 2019’s Mandy, a trippy revenge thriller that sees him start out as a stoic romantic figure before exploding with grief and vengeance. In that film’s most famous scene, wherein Cage’s character has a total breakdown in the bathroom following his wife’s brutal murder, he screams and panics and lets his previously stern expression disintegrate before our eyes. It’s a bit that feels familiarly Cage but it’s utilized so effectively that you don’t want to laugh or meme it. It’s too real. Those moments of impeccably Cage-esque fervor often work best when we’re reminded of how unnervingly still the actor can be. He’s just as capable of that brand of emotional fortitude as any of his contemporaries.

But we know what everyone’s actually thinking of when they hear the words “A Nicolas Cage performance”, and for good reason. We expect something big, untethered, the epitome of chaos that seems disconnected from our more mundane understandings of human behavior. That’s the stuff that gets quickly dismissed as bad acting, the flailing and screaming that is so objectively over the top that it could not possibly be considered good. It seems like anti-acting to many, but everything Cage does has roots in the art form’s long and varied history.

Cage himself described his acting style as “Nouveau Shamanic”, hinting at the trippy and near-mystical qualities he imbues into his performances. He’s also cited the work of German Expressionism and Japanese Kabuki theater as handy parallels to what he does. What some critics have dismissed as over-acting, Cage has justified as "mega-acting," noting that he is less an actor these days and more a performer. It’s made him popular with many of his fellow actors. Ethan Hawke claimed in a 2013 Reddit AMA that Cage is "the only actor since Marlon Brando that's actually done anything new with the art", crediting him for taking film audiences "away from an obsession with naturalism into a kind of presentation style of acting that I imagine was popular with the old troubadours." David Lynch, a director who's never been particularly concerned with realism, compared Cage to a jazz musician. Sean Penn name-dropped him in his 2003 Oscar speech as an actor not nominated that year yet deserving of praise, referring to his performance in Matchstick Men.

It's easy to see the appeal of Cage, even when he's exhaustingly committed (this is the man who chose to spend five weeks with his face wrapped in bandages and removed two of his own teeth without anesthesia for his role in Birdy, all of which culminated in a major skin infection and ingrown hairs.) You can never deny that he’s 100% dedicated to the work in hand and never taking the easy road or sleeping through a performance like many of his contemporaries (hello, latter-era Bruce Willis.) Crucially, Cage is always in on the joke. Check out his willingness to parody his own style and persona in both Kick-Ass and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, or his recent Netflix series about the history of swear words.

It would be wrong to describe Cage’s past few years as a comeback or renaissance of sorts since he never went away (hell, he’s made more movies this past three years than some actors do in a decade.) Rather, what we’ve seen is a sort of highbrow embracing of current-era Cage, thanks to those festival-friendly movies like Mandy, Pig, and the bonkers Lovecraft adaptation Color Out of Space, a film that features Cage seductively milking an alpaca.) Yet even this boom is a cycle that has come and gone, from his prodigious introduction in movies like Moonstruck to his Oscar win to the hype that engulfed works like Matchstick Men, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, and Bringing Out the Dead. That we keep having this conversation is a sign that Cage is doing something right, and that he’s never lost his edge.

In a 2017 interview with Variety, when asked about whether he considers what he does to be "over-the-top", he responded, “You show me where the top is, and I’ll let you know whether I’m over it or not, all right? I design where the top is." That's Nicolas Cage in a nutshell. He never followed rules so why shouldn't he rewrite them every once in a while?

 

Kayleigh is a pop culture writer and critic based in Dundee, Scotland. Her work can be found on Pajiba, IGN, Uproxx, RogerEbert.com, SlashFilm, and WhatToWatch, among other places. She's also the creator of the newsletter The Gossip Reading Club.