Nicolas Cage’s new movie came out last week.
Normally that’s enough. I’ll get very excited, drag some reluctant and tolerant friend to the closest movie theater, and appreciate as fully as possible the incomparable experience of seeing those magnificent, crazed eyes bug out on the big screen.
Nicolas Cage has always been a cherished figure of the cinema to me. At one point, feeling the pressure of a cynical internet and film-going culture, I questioned whether my love for him was ironic. But then I re-watched “Snake Eyes,” and seeing that shiny mustard yellow shirt with the leopard print-esque patterning quelled all my doubts immediately: there is nothing insincere about my great affection for this man.
This is why I’m feeling pretty defensive right about now— not defensive of myself, but rather defensive of the honor of my favorite actor. The critical consensus on “Joe,” Cage’s latest film, is downright dismissive, a spectacular demonstration of the art of the back-handed compliment: “Nic Cage may have been making a fool of himself for the last decade, but seriously, guys! This one’s pretty good.”
How dare they. Nicolas Cage has been consistently awesome in the most absurd, entertaining way since his debut in the early 80s, with a bit part in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), and then in more prominent roles in 1983’s Valley Girl and Rumble Fish. Through the 90s, Cage solidified his status as the most interesting, eccentric leading man in Hollywood, taking roles that other actors wouldn’t know what to do with and making them iconic. He aced the suicidal alcoholic, the endearingly bizarre romantic lead, the blockbuster action star. He won an Oscar. He ate a cockroach. He did it all.
Those years are what the critical consensus terms his “good years”— before he apparently took a nose dive in both his acting ability and his project selections during the 2000s. I disagree. Even when his extravagant spending forced him to turn to more commercial fare, Nicolas Cage imposed his distinctive full-throttle personal style: he picked the most bizarre, ridiculous movies and gave them his all.
If anything, he over-commits. A few years ago, he starred in Drive Angry 3D—a movie so ridiculous its title sounds like a parody of itself. In it, his character gets in a gunfight while having sex. This could have easily been a scenario in which an actor just has to phone in a performance, because the scene is already gratuitous enough to fascinate the targeted high school boy demographic. But Nic doesn’t settle for that. He later explained, “I was thinking of Kama Sutra positions and what would be a position that would show [my character’s] sort of anti-divineness because he’s not a divine Hindu spirit. He’s something from hell.” It’s possible that Nic gave the part more thought than it could ever deserve, and it’s possible that this movie was beneath his talents as an actor, but that was completely beside the point. If he decides to do anything at all, he’s doing it all the way.
Maybe this is why he has become such a joke in popular culture. His turn toward the more commercial and the less artistically austere coincided with the rise of the Internet— and all the paranoid, self-aware residue that has left on our collective consciousness. With the seemingly endless virtual platforms available to us and the possibilities to create and maintain digital personas for some vaguely defined audience, we have all become increasingly aware of who is watching us and what they might think. It’s a gift and a curse: we have the freedom to carefully curate our own images for public consumption, but we also couldn’t completely withdraw from this process even if we wanted to. As a result, we remain guarded, hiding our true selves behind a veneer of the socially acceptable and, likewise, viewing everything presented to us with a healthy dose of skepticism. Is this real? Are they being authentic or are they putting on a show?
Odds are, in most cases, that what we get is a show. And we like this. Judging the self-image of others is what the Internet does best— we can anonymously criticize and remain a safe, detached distance from the object of our scorn, because we know none of it is real anyway.
However, Nicolas Cage is 100% real. And what’s more— he doesn’t care at all what we think. His unabashed sincerity and devotion to his craft drives our modern cultural sensibilities insane. How could someone throw himself so completely into something with such reckless abandon? It’s something that’s largely unheard of nowadays. And this dedication, combined with the fact that he’s not afraid to play such weird characters so alarmingly well, has turned Nic Cage into an online laughingstock.
Despite this cultural backlash, he remains one of our era’s best actors, and other actors seem more aware of this fact than the viewing public. While hosting a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” threadlast year, Ethan Hawke wrote that Nic Cage is “the only actor since Marlon Brando that’s actually done anything new with the art of acting; he’s successfully taken us away from an obsession with naturalism into a kind of presentation style of acting that I imagine was popular with the old troubadours. If I could erase his bottom half bad movies, and only keep his top half movies, he would blow everyone else out of the water… He is still one of the great actors of our time.”
His greatness as an actor goes beyond the actual acting. Nicolas Cage has perfected the Lifestyle of the Actor, achieving a level of purity in that ideal that few thought was actually possible in real life. He lives large, and he lives it as sincerely as one can when one decides that one will buy multiple mansions, an island in the Bahamas, matching European castles, a fossilized dinosaur skull, yachts, jets, cars, and motorcycles. It all sounds ridiculous, but really, what would you do if you were making just as much money and were just as eccentrically talented? I’ll tell you: you would want to buy a fleet of yachts and your own tropical island. You would want to spend outlandish amounts of money on the most ridiculous things until the IRS came knocking. But how many of us would actually live the Lifestyle of the Actor with the complete earnestness of Nicolas Cage? Even if we had the opportunity, we would still probably be inclined to do it half-heartedly, and self-deprecatingly, and ironically— shielding ourselves from the judgment of the masses.
This is what separates us mere Internet-dwelling mortals from the pure One True Godliness of Nicolas Cage. We can’t bear the thought of giving ourselves fully to our craft, our life, our loves. We worry about what others, conditioned through the internet to greet the sincere with sardonic mockery, will think. But Nicolas Cage doesn’t do irony, because he doesn’t care about the opinions of the cynical.
Nicolas Cage has taken the idea of the life and work of a Hollywood actor and turned its ideal into a pure reality. He is engaged in a sustained act of performance art, in a way, illustrating what such a life should be. But while lesser men such as Shia LaBeouf and James Franco actually have to consciously perform this performance art, Nicolas Cage needs no such pretense. He’s living the most honestly and sincerely of anyone, and apparently very few people in the world can truly handle it.