Nicolas Cage is soon to be seen in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent — in cinemas 22 April — where he plays a fictional version of Nicolas Cage, who is forced to revisit some of his most memorable roles.
It's the actor’s most meta movie since Adaptation, and also serves as a reminder of how versatile Cage has been over the course of his unique and wide-ranging career.
This isn’t a chameleon who disappears into roles, as it’s rare to forget you’re watching Nick Cage in a Nick Cage movie. But for 40 years he’s straddled genres like no other actor, employing a performance style that’s very much his own as he pinballs from comedy and horror to action and romance.
It’s a career unlike any other actor working today, and one we’ll try to make sense of by examining the many strange periods and disparate phases that have led to this point.
The nephew of Francis Ford Coppola, Cage was credited as Nicolas Coppola in his brief big-screen debut, playing ‘Brad’s Bud’ in coming-of-age classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
To avoid accusations of nepotism Coppola became Cage, but then appeared in a bunch of his uncle’s movies, playing supporting roles in Rumble Fish and The Cotton Club before starring in time-travel flick Peggy Sue Got Married.
With false teeth and oscillating speech patterns, it’s an erratic performance that hints at what’s to come, but he’s also the romantic lead, a genre he’d return to regularly throughout his career.
Cage’s first love story was Valley Girl, where he essentially played a punk Romeo to Deborah Foreman’s titular Juliet. But the film that put him on the rom-com map was Moonstruck in 1987.
As Cher’s love interest, Cage plays an eccentric baker with a wooden hand and a passion for opera, and very nearly steals the film. He’s an even less conventional romantic lead in screwball comedy Raising Arizona, playing a criminal who falls in love with the police officer taking his mugshot.
But as he moved into the 1990s, Cage edged towards more mainstream fare, battling James Caan for the affections of Sarah Jessica Parker in the hilarious Honeymoon in Vegas, and splitting lottery winnings with a waitress he then falls for in It Could Happen to You. There was also the heavily-hyped adaptation of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin in 2001, but the less said about that, the better.
His supporting work in Moonstruck helped earn Cher an Oscar, and less than a decade later, Cage was collecting his own Academy Award, winning Best Actor for 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas. It’s a remarkable performance, the star pouring his heart and soul into a movie about an alcoholic who moves to Sin City to drink himself to death. Inexplicably, it’s Cage’s only win to date, though he did get nominated for his work as brothers Charlie and Donald Kaufman in the aforementioned Adaptation.
And if the Academy took more chances, he’d be all over them, with Scorsese collaboration Bringing Out the Dead deserving of a nod, his work in Wild at Heart cruelly overlooked, and his unhinged take on the Bad Lieutenant — in 2009’s Port of New Orleans — deserving every award going.
Those Oscar contenders were showy affairs, but alongside the BIG performances, Cage has shown subtlety and restraint in a number of films, and whether playing a disfigured soldier in Birdy, a single-minded P.I. in 8mm, or a chef who’s handy with his fists in Pig (streaming on NOW), the result is frequently fascinating.
Dramatic turns in the likes of Matchstick Men, Lord of War, and The Weather Man proved he could thrive when dialling it down, while his subdued turn in 2013’s Joe — as a loner endeavouring to protect a kid from his abusive Dad — is up there with the actor’s best work. But while these understated performances allowed Cage to flex different acting muscles, there was a time in the mid-1990s when Nic was flexing actual muscles.
In 1988, Die Hard revolutionised the action genre by proving that heroes could be an everyman rather than a superman. That cultural shift paved the way for Cage to become the biggest action star in the world thanks to three films that hit screens in the space of just 13 months.
This remarkable run kicked off with Cage battling terrorists on Alcatraz in The Rock, continued with Cage battling criminals on a plane in Con Air, and concluded with Cage battling John Travolta in Face/Off.
Read more: Face/Off reboot in development
All three were smash-hits — elevated by Nic’s ability to deliver dumb dialogue with a straight face.
While he returned to the genre for the likes of Snake Eyes, Gone in 60 Seconds, Windtalkers, Season of the Witch, Drive Angry, and Bangkok Dangerous, Cage never again hit those testosterone-fuelled heights.
The majority of Nic Cage movies are aimed squarely at adults, but he’s also starred in family fare — including the aptly named Family Man — as well as movies made specifically for kids. Then Disney decided to take him mainstream with the National Treasure movies, casting Cage as a modern-day Indiana Jones, and grossing more than $800m in the process.
Watch a trailer for The Croods 2
They tried the same trick with Fantasia spin-off The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, though that film failed to cast a similarly lucrative spell over the box office. As for those kid flicks, he’s lent his distinctive voice to the animated likes of The Ant Bully, Astro Boy, The Croods, and perhaps most memorably as Speckles the Mole in G-Force.
Nick named himself after Marvel superhero Luke Cage, and his love for comic books is legendary, the actor buying (for $150k in 1997) and selling (for $2.2m in 2011) a copy of Action Comics No. 1, which featured the first appearance of Superman.
Cage then nearly played the character in Tim Burton’s Superman Lives, before that iteration was abandoned for both script and budgetary reasons. Watch a trailer for the documentary about that failed movie below.
But his dream of becoming a comic book hero came true less than a decade later when he played stunt-rider Johnny Blaze — as well as his fiery alter-ego — in a pair of Ghost Rider films.
Sandwiched between those Marvel movies he gave an emotionally charged performance as Big Daddy in Kick-Ass, where his relationship with daughter Hit-Girl was the beating heart of the movie.
His superhero work wasn’t limited to live-action either, as in 2018 Cage memorably voiced Spider-Man Noir in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, while that same year he finally got to play the Man of Steel, voicing Superman in Teen Titans Go! To the Movies.
Lots of Nick Cage movies are high-profile, big-budget affairs that release in cinemas worldwide. But a few years ago — around the time the IRS contacted Cage regarding unpaid taxes — he started appearing in movies that went ‘Direct-to-DVD.’ Lots of them.
Generic films with generic titles like Kill Chain and Outcast and Justice. He’s often got a score to settle, normally has vengeance on his mind, and frequently finds himself looking for someone, so in Stolen he’s searching for his missing daughter, while in Pay the Ghost he’s hunting for his missing son.
But while they’re far from classic Cage, the actor recently told GQ that he always gave them his all. “I never phoned it in” he said of this low-budget period, “So if there was a misconception, it was that. That I was just doing it and not caring. I was caring.”
We’ve saved the best until last as this category concerns the movies where Nic lets rip; less chewing the scenery, more consuming sets whole through manic behaviour, hysterical line readings, and deranged freak-outs that have come to be knowns as ‘Cage Rage.’
From eating a live cockroach in Vampire’s Kiss to melting down while dressed as a bear in The Wicker Man to warring with adorable animatronics in Willy’s Wonderland, the movies might not always work, but the star is never less than captivating, in the process turning overacting into an art-form.
It’s a performance style that David Lynch compared to jazz, and that Ethan Hawke claimed makes him “the only actor since Marlon Brando that’s actually done anything new with the art.” Cage has called his idiosyncratic approach “Western Kabuki” and “Nouveau Shamanic,” while in recent years he’s taken that operatic style to the next level, telling Variety: “I do feel that I’ve gone into my own wilderness and that I’ve left the small town that is Hollywood.”
Which in turn has led to some of the most interesting work of his career, with Cage tackling messy Lovecraftian horror in Color Out of Space, getting existential in samurai western Prisoners of the Ghostland, and being driven mad by grief in brutal revenge drama Mandy.
Watch a trailer for Color Out Of Space
Meaning we’re presently in a Golden Age of Cage; one that challenges both actor and audience, and shows little sign of letting up. Making now the perfect time to celebrate the unbearable weight of his massive talent.
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent hits screens on April 22. Watch a clip below.