Thursday, January 7, 2016

Birthday Take: Nicolas Cage in "Leaving Las Vegas" (1995)

Scene from Leaving Las Vegas
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Nicolas Cage
Born: January 7, 1964 (52 years old) 
Nomination: Best Actor (won) as Ben Sanderson in Leaving Las Vegas


The Take

To modern generations, the idea of saying that Nicolas Cage was a great actor may seem very confusing. To be fair, it kind of comes with the territory of such baffling screen choices as The Wicker Man and Kick-Ass. While one could argue that he's always good at being insane, very few could look at these films and see the actor who had an impressive career that would land him two Oscar nominations, one of which he won for. It could just be that films like Leaving Las Vegas and Adaptation. don't come along that often and reflect his strengths. It could just be that he doesn't care to seek out those roles, in favor of at least a dozen direct-to-video releases per year. However, I'd like to make it clear that maybe, just maybe, he could be one of the best actors when he tries to make a compelling character with depth beyond bug-eyes and crazy laughing. 

What is probably the case in point is Leaving Las Vegas: a film that came out in 1995 and preceded his direct slide into the full-on silly mode. Yes, he had made a few questionable films before this, but one cannot argue that he also had promise. In a film that pretty much updates the story of The Lost Weekend, Cage plays an alcoholic whose time in Las Vegas leads to romance and addiction problems. The real difference between these two films is that The Lost Weekend was a somber, no nonsense portrait from an era that had issues seeing comedy and drama hanging out together. Leaving Las Vegas was allowed to play more fast and loose with its depiction, favoring Cage's spontaneity and ability to make weird choices that are fitting to his character. He is allowed to have those awkward line choices and be neurotic, largely because it works in character.

However, what is possibly the best part is that there's a tragedy to the familiarity by which Cage's performance develops into. Much like The Lost Weekend, things only get worse as the story progresses. He is deep into his alcoholism and unable to really pull himself away from it. Even as he stares dazed into the ceiling as he shouts "Wow!" there's a sense of tragedy to his whole performance. It doesn't undermine the eccentric moments, but more enhances them. While the depiction of alcoholism on screen has always been a difficult balance, there are few who do roles that are as striking as this. Considering that it does feature familiar tics for the actor, it's hard to really call what he became as a cultural figure as being unexpected. He was always shooting for the moon, and there was a time when his weirdness managed to land in the laps of great directors.

I am not saying that this was his last ditch effort. You can occasionally find great roles scattered throughout his career. Matchstick Men is another unappreciated gem. However, I am not entirely sure that I am willing to put up with his films that are just poorly written and feature him doing ridiculous things for the sake of a paycheck. There's an audience out there for that, but I'm not part of it. I don't know how this impacts my views on him as an actor, but you do look at Leaving Las Vegas sometimes and wonder why he can't do roles like that more often. He clearly has the skill set to impress us in ways that only fearless actors who will do anything can. It's just that his anything may not align with our anything, and that's a little disappointing sometimes.

Cage is an actor that will definitely have a strange career retrospective when he dies. He will be able to be seen as a great actor for films like this, but more as a terrible actor for those who only know him for more recent work. If anything, it will make for an interesting eulogy the likes of which few actors will ever have. I guess that in order to be an authentic performer, he chose the path that best suit him. He definitely has a sense of passion that he brings to every role, so one cannot fault him too much. However, I just wonder if it will be easy for more mainstream fans to recognize what he can do with the right material. While films like Joe give signs to what that may be nowadays, I don't know if anyone's eagerly clamoring for more of that type of film from him.

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