The Enduring Strangeness of Nicolas Cage

The actor’s performance in “Dream Scenario” seems crafted to remind viewers that he’s more than a meme.

Nicolas Cage in the movie “Dream Scenario.”

“Dream Scenario” can be seen as a commentary on how the Internet has changed the way we watch and appreciate Nicolas Cage.Photograph courtesy A24

In “Dream Scenario,” the new A24 film from the writer-director Kristoffer Borgli, Nicolas Cage plays Paul Matthews, an underappreciated and ineffectual college professor who finds fame because of an odd metaphysical happenstance: he unwittingly begins appearing in people’s dreams all over the world. The film, which follows Paul through his brief rise and seemingly endless fall, could have only worked with Cage in the lead. Paul has shades of Bryan Cranston’s Walter White and Paul Giamatti’s Miles, in “Sideways,” but it’s hard to imagine any actor but Cage embracing the hairpin tonal shifts that the part requires. When we first meet Paul, Cage’s performance seems slightly off, too big and, perhaps, too artificial for a film that needs grounding in real emotions. It’s almost as if Cage is wearing Paul as a mask.

He has altered his voice (it’s high pitched and adenoidal), his walk (he’s hunched over, almost cowering), and his hairline (a curious tonsure of baldness). But soon we realize that it is Paul who is slightly off, too heightened for his surroundings. As we watch him rehearse social interactions and recite canned jokes, it becomes clear that he’s in pain, and enraged, and he has pasted on the visage of a happy family man—one that Cage peels off to reveal the yearning, desperation, and monstrous ego hiding underneath.

But Cage’s casting is important to the film for more than one reason. With its lacerating examination on the dehumanizing effects of viral fame, “Dream Scenario” is a commentary on how the Internet has changed the way we interact with the world and has turned everything into fodder for memes. You could also see it as a commentary on how the Internet has changed the way we watch and appreciate Nicolas Cage, who is one of the first movie stars to become meme-ified.

Cage is now in the fifth decade of a career that spans more than a hundred films and has included stints as a teen heartthrob, an irrepressible eccentric, an action star, and an Oscar-festooned Serious Actor. But the Internet era overwrote these roles with another one: a cultural joke. In the early two-thousands, Cage, like Paul, found a new (perhaps unwelcome) fame as a new kind of (inadvertent) star for a new kind of (unremunerative) medium. And then, like Paul, he lost control over his new image and was reduced to a punch line. Over the past five years, he has moved into a comeback phase, one that may restore him to respectability, if not reliable box-office. None of his recent films have made a huge amount of money, but he is once again being well reviewed, appearing on talk shows, and working with larger budgets and big studios after a career tailspin that felt potentially terminal.

The enduring strangeness of Nicolas Cage | Toronto Sun

His comeback films vary in tone, style, budget, and quality, but they tend to share two things: at their heart, they are meta-films whose real premise is that they star Nicolas Cage, and none of them would be successful without him. (The other films Cage has made during this period—which include “Butcher’s Crossing” (2023), a revisionist Western based on the novel by John Williams, the author of “Stoner”—have largely gone unnoticed.) In “Mandy” (2018), an underground hit that helped fuel his recent comeback, Cage plays a logger who wreaks a trippy, sanguinary revenge on a cult that has kidnapped and murdered his wife.

The film is a visual feast, but its true attraction is Cage’s reputation for erratic onscreen behavior; the promise it extends to viewers is that they will get to see its protagonist morph from a normal guy with a quiet domestic life to a madman duelling cultists with a chainsaw while covered in the viscera of the multiple people he’s slaughtered.

This metatextual quality is even more pronounced in “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” (2022). Cage plays a washed-up actor named Nicolas Cage who shares his namesake’s financial problems, his love of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” his bizarre terms for his own acting style (“nouveau shamanism”), and his off-kilter line readings. As he takes a job to appear at a bajillionaire’s birthday party, he’s haunted by his younger self, played by a digitally de-wrinkled Cage wearing a “Wild at Heart” T-shirt, who extols present-day Nicolas Cage to live up to his earlier genius. The conceit is saved from vainglory by the gravity Cage brings to the performance. He laces the self-parody with a real sense of loneliness and desperation, and he is entirely believable as a star in mourning for his lost acclaim.

The best of Cage’s recent films, besides “Dream Scenario,” is Michael Sarnoski’s indie drama “Pig” (2021). His character, Robin Feld, is a reclusive truffle hunter who reënters the Portland food scene he has forsaken in search of his kidnapped foraging pig. The casting in “Pig” is a wonderful bit of misdirection; audiences entering in hope of seeing its star erupt in an orgy of self-indulgent tics and furious violence are instead treated to a retelling of Orpheus with a porcine Eurydice.

Cage’s performance is the smallest in the film, and that smallness is the point. “Pig” functions as a meditation on male authenticity, and Robin surmounts the many obstacles he faces by remaining implacably genuine in a world full of men working overtime to act out their masculinity. It’s a startling performance, a reminder that Cage’s gifts are so varied that even after forty years he is still capable of surprise.

Perhaps the greater surprise is that we needed this reminder. Cage has already won an Oscar, for “Leaving Las Vegas,” and has ruled the box office multiple times over. He’s worked with some of the greatest directors of his time, including the Coen Brothers, David Lynch, and his uncle Francis Ford Coppola. In films such as “It Could Happen to You,” he’s fully convincing as a decent average Joe. In “City of Angels” and “Bringing Out the Dead,” he proves that he’s easily capable of playing muted men cut off from themselves.

He has even been a credible action star, in “The Rock,” “National Treasure,” and “Face/Off,” the latter of which required him to perform as if he were John Travolta disguised as Cage. In an early scene that is ridiculous yet moving, his character must prove himself in a prison fight. The camera lingers on Cage as he nearly weeps with horror at what he is doing, before forcing himself to scream with joy at the chaos he’s causing. Like his other great performances, the scene relies on finding the unfamiliar, the strange, and the unexpected in a role, for good and for ill. His work, in its cleverness and disappointments, walks a tightrope suspended between two skyscrapers. As an artist, he is a great maximalist iconoclast, the Sun Ra of American acting.

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In his 1995 essay “On Pretentiousness,” the playwright Tony Kushner describes a kind of irrationally exuberant American artist, a group that includes Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and himself. The art they make is akin to lasagna, he writes, “excessively, even suspiciously generous, promiscuous, flirtatious, insistent. . . . There are membranes but they are permeable, the layers must maintain their integrity and yet exist in an exciting dialectic tension to the molten oozy cheesy oily juices which they separate.” The genius of lasagna in both art-making and cooking lies in the way it courts catastrophe. At any moment, the noodles might dissolve, the cheese topping burn, the dish collapse into a soggy, oleaginous mess.

Cage is the lasagna actor par excellence; although capable of great delicacy, he also constantly threatens to overwhelm the membranes between good and bad taste. His early work in the nineteen-eighties is a catalogue of disasters either narrowly avoided or driven directly into, depending on whom you ask. In his eccentricity, waywardness, and longing to overturn the existing rules of performance, he harks back to Marlon Brando. But unlike Brando, who was the tip of the spear of the Method revolution in Hollywood and trained for years with Stella Adler and Elia Kazan prior to breaking out in film, Cage has little formal acting training outside of high school. He came of age as part of a generation of actors that rejected the Method legacy of extensive study and disappearing into a role.

Cage could very easily have been part of the Brat Pack, that ever-shifting group of attractive young actors which included Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise, and Demi Moore; his first two films, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “Valley Girl,” were teen sex comedies, the latter featuring Cage as the romantic lead. Instead, he helped pioneer an American gonzo style of extreme, anti-naturalistic acting alongside other eccentrics such as Crispin Glover, Willem Dafoe, and John Malkovich.

Cage’s version of gonzo went further, though, and produced work akin to that of another movement in eighties culture: the neo-expressionism of such painters as Robert Longo and Julian Schnabel. The neo-expressionists often used appropriated images from the canon of Western art and film in very large, boldly painted canvases to reconnect painting to the expression of inner states—the dreams, fantasies, emotions, phobias, and desires that had long been dismissed during the rise of conceptual art. Similar to the neo-expressionists, Cage combined arch quotation with inner fire, but where the neo-expressionists in visual art rebelled against the idea that painting was dead and only concepts, forms, and political statements were left alive, Cage rebelled against the idea of verisimilitude that had undergirded the Method’s dominance of American acting for decades. As he told the New York Times, “Laurence Olivier said, ‘What is acting but lying, and what is good lying but convincing lying?’ I don’t want to look at acting that way. Why not experiment?” Cage, uninterested in delivering a conventionally “convincing” performance, would instead create many of the most indelible roles of the eighties.

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As Keith Phipps’s delightful “Age of Cage: Four Decades of Hollywood Through One Singular Career” notes, all of this made Cage a controversial figure from the beginning. He nearly got fired from “Peggy Sue Got Married,” owing to his insistence on wearing bizarre fake teeth and talking in a voice based on Pokey, the Claymation pony sidekick on “The Gumby Show.” His co-star Kathleen Turner tried to warn him off the interpretation with a deadpanned “Remember, film is a permanent record,” and later said that she “cringe[d] to think of” the work he did on the movie. On “Raising Arizona,” he clashed with Joel and Ethan Coen, who had a very clear vision of what they wanted from the character and were not particularly interested in his ideas. During the filming of “Moonstruck,” the wildness of Cage’s approach, and the intensity of his choices, led its director, Norman Jewison, to dub him “the most tormented soul I had ever met.” In one particularly heated argument about whether or not Cage’s character should be in a pivotal scene, the actor threw a chair across the room.

Some directors embraced his oddness, of both looks and affect. Cage landed the role of Randy, the hunk from the wrong side of town in “Valley Girl,” because he didn’t fit the usual heartthrob mold. The film’s director, Martha Coolidge, sick of seeing the “pretty boys” the casting director had sent her, looked over at the discard pile. “On top of the discard pile was this guy,” she recalled. “I pulled the picture up. And I said, ‘Bring me somebody who looks like this,’ and it was Nic Cage.” Key to his success is the way he combines boyish sweetness with world-weariness, a marriage of contrasts enabled by his looking and acting far older than his years.

Another director who knew just what to do with Cage was David Lynch, who cast him in “Wild at Heart” as Sailor, a young man with a checkered past and a snakeskin jacket that he’ll happily explain is “a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom.” The film is a perfect melding of sensibilities. Lynch’s early work, like Cage’s, draws on the neo-expressionist impulse of appropriating the familiar and increasing its size until something strange and powerful is revealed. In Lynch, Cage found an ideal collaborator, one who let him build a role out of an Elvis Presley impersonation. Not only is Cage’s Elvis impersonation startlingly good; he manages to turn an unstable cocktail of idiosyncrasies into one of the most fascinating performances in his filmography. Sailor is more than a joke. He’s a searcher, navigating a surreal, tawdry, and violent series of American backwaters with a mixture of heartbreak, rage, eroticism, and yearning.

Cage’s experimental tendencies reached their full expression with his now notorious work in the 1989 horror comedy “Vampire’s Kiss.” The film centers on a hot-shot literary agent who, in the midst of a mental breakdown, believes he is turning into a vampire. The director Bob Bierman gave Cage free rein to realize the role as he saw fit, and Cage took advantage of it. In the course of the film, he talks in a strange accent that merges his Los Angeles drawl with mid-Atlantic pretension, eats a live cockroach, does a pitch-perfect imitation of Max Schreck in “Nosferatu,” wanders the streets of New York asking real passersby to murder him with a stake, and, in a particularly wild moment, screams the entire alphabet at his therapist, with hand gestures keyed to each letter.

Though his performance courts parody, every one of Cage’s quirks in the film has an evident dramatic rationale, and even the boldest gambits were worked out in advance with precision. He eats a cockroach because he wanted to use his real-life terror of bugs to create an inescapable tension in the shot. His accent and outré mannerisms are deliberate traps to bait you into laughing at the character right up until he turns into a rapist and murderer in the film’s final act. “We chose this,” a producer recalled Bierman saying, “because if he did the role totally straight, the character is so hateful that it would be unwatchable.”

Experiments fail, of course, as anyone who has taken tenth-grade chemistry or has seen Cage in the remake of “The Wicker Man” can attest. But most of our experiments do not live on forever on the Internet, whereas Cage’s œuvre of near-constant and uneven experimentation does. You may not have seen “Vampire’s Kiss,” but you’ve almost certainly seen Cage’s scenes from that film, in which he recites the alphabet like a lunatic, or leers wide-eyed at the camera while wearing plastic fangs. When I watched his recent vampire film, “Renfield,” at an Alamo Drafthouse, the screening was preceded by a supercut of Cage screaming, covering himself in black paint, twitching, and laughing maniacally.

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According to “Age of Cage,” his meme-ification began in the late aughts, as looping video clips of his work became popular on the Web site Building off Cage’s notoriety as a camp icon, Andy Samberg began impersonating the actor as a collection of oddball mannerisms on “Saturday Night Live.” It didn’t help that his career was already suffering from self-inflicted financial wounds as catastrophic as they were widely reported—and mocked. Like many of his peers, he had purchased a great deal of property and owned a collection of fancy cars, but he had also bought cobras, an octopus, a haunted mansion, two islands in the Bahamas, and a dinosaur skull that he returned to the nation of Mongolia when it turned out to be stolen. He went from an estimated hundred-and-fifty-million-dollar fortune to being millions of dollars in debt and owing the I.R.S. considerable back taxes, which in turn led to a quality-be-damned approach to the projects he signed on to.

Cage made more than two dozen films during the first decade of the new century. Some of these, such as “Ghost Rider” and “National Treasure,” were box-office hits. Others, such as “The Wicker Man” remake and Werner Herzog’s “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,” merely added more bizarre bits of business that could wind up as memes. By the end of the aughts, Cage was less an actor than a walking animated gif, his tics cut and pasted away from the context in which they made sense. He was always a weirdo, but for the first three decades of his career he was able to parlay this weirdness into mainstream success. The reductive nature of viral-meme culture, the way it requires us all to become much narrower, commodified versions of ourselves, rendered the artistry behind his weirdness invisible and took away any eccentric artist’s greatest weapon: the ability to surprise.

Cage’s strength as an artist has always resided not simply in his weirdness but in his ability to move effortlessly between different modes. This versatility anchors the greatest performance of his career, in Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s “Adaptation” (2002). In the years leading up to the film, Cage had become Hollywood’s go-to man for broken, tormented souls, in films such as “Bringing Out the Dead.” In “Adaptation,” he got the chance to lampoon this image and embrace it at the same time, playing identical twins Charlie and Donald Kaufman and acting both halves of many scenes at once, opposite a body double. Although the point of the film is that Charles and Donald are really two sides of the same person, Cage makes each feel like a fully realized character, with a distinct personality, voice, and physicality. Charles is all neurosis and shame, hunched over, face frozen in a rictus of repulsion at his own existence, worried constantly about rejection. Donald is guileless, joyous, without inhibition. Their scenes together are, like many of Cage’s other experiments, thrillingly alive and peculiar.

Meme-ification covered up the protean quality of Cage’s work, making it appear simultaneously weirder and less interesting, in much the same way that algorithms deliver us songs that sound exactly like songs we already know rather than risk exposing us to the new. For all its lampooning of male ego, “Dream Scenario” ’s real target is the way that the Web has caught us all, has shrunk our complexities into a commodity, something to be briefly loved and then discarded as loathsome when it is no longer useful. Great realistic acting combats this dehumanization by transcending the self and becoming the character, holding out the hope that we can all transcend ourselves, too, if only for a couple of hours. Nicolas Cage’s acting holds out a different hope: that we are all richer and stranger than we might think, or that the world can see.

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