I never fail to draw looks of shock and defiance when I claim that Nicolas Cage is not only my favorite actor but also the best working today. Though I have no desire to convince anyone of this, I’m often asked to defend my statement in which case I discover that the doubters have not seen most of Cage’s best performances.
Since I hear his brilliant twin role in Adaptation used as an exception to his “crappy” roles and Leaving Las Vegas is an obvious choice, one of the best performances by an actor in cinema, I will leave these two films out. I will also disregard good acting he’s done in films such as Raising Arizona, Wild at Heart, Red Rock West, The Rock, Matchstick Men, and The Weather Man. I will focus on the roles and films which define his work most.
In a career of over thirty films, these are the best performances by the most original, daring performer of our time:
This little-known drama about a normal teenager (Cage) who befriends bird-obsessed weirdo (Matthew Modine) is an underrated film with great forgotten performances by both leads. Working through flashbacks as a disfigured Cage tries to bring Modine out of a “bird” coma in a mental asylum, their friendship is pieced together in funny/disturbing glimpses leading up to their time in Vietnam.
Cage is perfect as the worn torn “sane” partner of the duo, trying helplessly to communicate with his friend who stares at the window of his cell naked and speechless. This is incredible work of frustration, passion and madness.
And by the way, the ending is unforgettable.
This is one of Cage’s extreme performances (along with similar whack-job roles in The Wicker Man and his ultimate whack-o character in Deadfall). But this is more than an actor going crazy on screen. I will admit that Cage’s antics can be misplaced or forced at times, but here he’s really trying to capture a bizarre descent into madness. The film, a quirky tale of a man who believes he’s becoming a vampire, is hardly perfect. It’s these moments of Cage eating the cockroach and running down the street with fake teeth screaming “I’m a vampire!” that speak of utter devotion to performance: submersion and the willingness to go to laughable places. I see the same trait in Brando in The Missouri Breaks, where true moments of odd behavior are found in an otherwise boring film.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
I recently read an interview with Werner Herzog where he spoke of Cage’s performance in his own movie: For a decade, we haven’t seen a performance of that caliber (Colin Firth in The King’s Speech), with the exception of Nicolas Cage in “Bad Lieutenant.”
I couldn’t agree more. Cage trumps Keitel’s performance in the original. Both film and star are superior to the first Lieutenant, an Abel Ferrera film seeped in Catholicism. Herzog does the opposite: his cinema goes against the guilt that has overshadowed the Film Noir genre since its creation. In fact, I believe that this film is the true birth of Modern Noir.
Back to Nick’s performance, it’s an amazing feat of film acting. He’s frantic, manic, energetic, subdued, unpredictable and original. This is the most courageous acting I have seen in years.
Years ago, Sean Penn dismissed Cage (they were once friends), saying he was “no longer an actor, just a performer”. Compared to Penn (who for me) continues to become more and more boring as his career evolves, Cage is not only “a performer” but THE PERFORMER. He is the most interesting person to watch on film.
Though I regret the times that he sleepwalks through films, I know there is another great Cage role right around the corner.