Nicolas Cage and the Blurred Lines of Artistic Delusion
Last week, GQ released a video-interview with Nicolas Cage in which he takes viewers through his most iconic roles from the mid ’80’s up to today. As with most things that feature Cage, the internet’s response centred mainly around the unintentional comedy of his performances. The top comment quipped that maybe the interview “wasn’t actually planned,” rather, “they just stumbled upon Nicolas Cage in a room by himself talking about his movies, so they decided to film it…” Another read: “Nic Cage is his own most iconic character.”
The jokes are funny in so much as they acknowledge the essence of Cage’s internet-era appeal: he is a man who is totally unafraid of ridicule. As the GQ interview plays, alongside it other suggested videos include — “Nicolas Cage - Freak Out Montage” and “Nicolas Cage’s CRAZIEST Moments” — Clearly, Cage’s charm lies in his particular combination of earnestness and manic overacting. In return, he has been rewarded with a cult-status that is so well formed on the so-called ‘dark side’ of Youtube that a Nicolas Cage video compilation is never more than a few clicks away.
As the interview continues, Cage reveals the motivations behind various performances over his career with a manner that suggests he has had an urge to explain himself for a very long time. The start of Face/Off, in which Cage feels up a choir girl and head-bangs to Handel’s Messiah, was inspired, it turns out, by the “abstract, ontological facial expressions” of German Expressionism. His performance in Moonstruck, he also explains, originally featured a French accent in reference to Jean Marais’ performance in the 1946 version of Beauty and the Beast. Cage goes on to say, completely deadpan, that the accent was dropped because director, Norman Jewison, had to call him up personally and ask him to abandon it. When it comes to Cage’s performance as ‘H.I.’ in the Coen Brother’s Raising Arizona, Cage, once again without a trace of irony, recalls the near-twenty times that he had to audition for the role. He describes Joel and Ethan laughing hysterically each time, only able to explain to him that, “we’re laughing, we can’t stop laughing, but we don’t know why we’re laughing.”
When you realise that a collection of his performances were inspired by an approach as maximalist as German expressionism, whole parts of Cage’s career begin to make more sense. He is clearly a man bursting with ideas, and one who cares deeply about the craft of acting. Sometimes, however, this compulsion to perform seems to have overtaken any sense of good judgement. Last year saw the release of six projects with Cage in a leading role and his ubiquity — and relative box-office success — even lead to a curious trend in which producers would lie about Cage’s attachment to their films in the hope of securing more money from studios and execs, rightly presuming that nobody would challenge the notion that Cage was still hungry for work.
Yet, beyond the memes, his lack of filter and his troubling ubiquity, it is easy to forget that this is a man who has won the highest film-acting honour in the world, an award which he has been nominated for twice. Indeed, it would be wrong to characterise Cage’s whole career as one big meme; the unintentional comedy of his performances is lost slightly when the scenes are viewed in their proper context. After all, Face/Off was an acclaimed film. Moonstruck, too, was well received. Even Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call and Vampire’s Kiss, which have perhaps collectively produced the most famous of Cage’s ‘freak outs’, were regarded as intelligent and original films when they were released. In fact, it is easy to see why for many directors the maximalist, physically boundless nature of his performances carry with them a kind of seductive particularity. Cage is capable of performing with such frenetic energy you are eventually forced to ignore the absurdity of it all and roll with the punches — once you give yourself up, the result can be surprisingly gripping.
Nicolas Cage is certainly not alone in being an artist who wears his influences on his sleeve, and there are even others have come close to matching his potential for parody. Where Cage has channeled the great, German expressionists, Tommy Wiseau has tried to ally his work with the dramas of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. James Franco, in turn, has championed adaptions of works by Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner only to be met mostly by critical ire. Sean Penn, whose proclivity to take himself too seriously is almost bottomless, serves as another example. (It is likely no coincidence that this list doesn’t feature women — the patience people have for a man who behaves like this is comparatively inexhaustible when compared with a woman.)
So it seems with Nicolas Cage it is not a case of asking: is he good or is he awful? For clearly he is an actor capable of producing work that falls under both categories. It makes more sense to ask why has he been so consistently incapable of telling the difference between the work that is good and the work that isn't?
There is an aspect of the GQ interview that illuminates this reality: to have the ambition, to have the desire and the vision to create is never quite enough. There will always be a surplus of people with the impulse to be artists and as such there will always be bad art.
The problem remains that the essence of what makes good art good is contested. Academics who have spent their lives analysing what separates art of quality from work that is hopeless quite often have no capacity to create themselves. To understand the characteristics of good art does not necessarily amount to doing it.
It would be easy to assume that what separates the visionaries from everybody else is just the acuteness of their vision or the subtlety and skill with which they put it into action, but the existence of artists like Nicolas Cage suggests something more indistinct. Cage exists as an example of when the mystery of creativity extends even to a person who has achieved it themselves. Cage doesn’t seem to have any idea if the project he is working on will win him an Academy Award or will go straight to DVD. It is hard to imagine him acknowledging he approached Adaptation with more subtlety and insight than he did Con Air, each film he chooses earns the very same approach: oblivious and relentless commitment. If the difference between self-deluded artist and eccentric genius lies on a spectrum then Nicolas Cage, and most other creatives, seem to find themselves somewhere in the middle.