An Oscar award changes any career as an actor, but there are few actors where the breaks in filmography are as striking as those of Nicolas Cage, who celebrates his 55th birthday on January 7th. In 1996 he received the trophy for “Best Male Lead Actor”, unfortunately for the shallow “Leaving Las Vegas”.
Before that, however, he was downright signed off as an actor, ran through the scenes in comedies such as “Tess and her bodyguard” or “2 million dollar tip”. But with the Oscar parade role – someone not only plays an alcoholic, but a doomed alcoholic – he had captured the hearts of the Academy members. Cage’s only high-profile competitor that Oscar year was Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking, a film plea against the death penalty; however, Penn was still too left of the jury.
Cage’s choice of roles got off to a promising start – albeit with the help of riflemen. As the nephew of the director Francis Ford Coppola, he made appearances in his films “Rumble Fish” (1983), when he was 19, and “Cotton Club” (1984); and a bigger role as a lover and later a househusband in the time travel drama “Peggy Sue Got Married”, 1986 on the side of Kathleen Turner. At least the prominent surname was dropped by Cage early on in order to make it in Hollywood.
Nicholas Kim Coppola became more concise-sounding Nicolas Cage
The play on words with the “cage” probably alluded to his striving for self-realization, as well as the challenges that come with it. To this day, Cage is best in the roles that show him passive-aggressive, with occasional outbursts towards authorities.
These include his performances in “Rumble Fish” as well as in David Lynch’s bloody “Wizard of Oz” variation “Wild At Heart” (1990). It was here that Cage developed his trademark, the staring gaze that he could direct into the camera for minutes and which heralded an inferno. So he started early as a rebel, only in the years before the Oscar did he switch to comedies.
After his Oscar, Cage started making real money. He presented himself with suddenly thick hair and took part in blockbusters, bad Michael Bay productions like “The Rock” or “Con Air”, his low point, but also in sophisticated action dramas like John Woo’s “Face / Off”. Cage shaped the action type of the nineties: smart, empathetic and still a hard hand. Muscle packs like Stallone and Schwarzenegger, giants of the eighties, were now out of the window. But Cage was also rarely cast in good roles.
Suffering and parody
At 55, Nicolas Cage is almost a veteran – actually he was already at 40 when he made his best appearance, in 2002 in Spike Jonze’s “Adaptation”. In it he played a pair of twins, the screenwriters Charlie and Donald Kaufman, who hate themselves and are hated by everyone. Cage showed a level of suffering that spoke of decades of misery. His last major role so far, in Werner Herzog’s “Bad Lieutenant” (2009), was no less intelligent. He was simply parodying himself in it: he screamed, greed and put on his crazy gaze. Played a cop who worked on both sides of the law. The fact that you not only saw the “bad lieutenant” standing in front of you, but apparently the real Nicolas Cage, speaks for him.