Towards the end of high school, a close friend became obsessed with Nicolas Cage in Martha Coolidge’s delightful romantic comedy Valley Girl. Loosely based on Romeo and Juliet, it was about a young woman, the eponymous heroine, who falls in love with a working-class boy in Los Angeles. The film shares stylistic similarities with John Hughes’s teen pics: it too featured a soundtrack of British new wave and jangly indie American pop and a vibrant pastel design in its art direction and costuming. And like Hughes’s films, Valley Girl announced a definite shift away from the suspicion and antipathy towards suburbia that characterised the American cinema of the 1970s.
Coolidge’s film is harder edged than those of Hughes, and less sentimental. Cage’s performance is central to that sense of danger. The male actors in Hughes’s films were pretty; if they weren’t pretty, they were sympathetically nerdy. Even the ostensible prole outsider played by Judd Nelson in Hughes’s The Breakfast Club was cleaned-up and unthreatening.
That wasn’t true for Cage in Valley Girl, whose swagger and diffident pride in his roots conveyed real animosity to the privileged girls and boys he encountered from “The Valley”. That threat is also there in his small role in Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. He’s belligerent and he’s sneering, and in both films his persona is unmistakably carnal.
I’m shamefaced now to admit that although I found him undeniably attractive, I was also a little scared of the young Cage. My adolescent crush was on the smooth-faced Tom Cruise. I rewatched Valley Girl in the middle of last year’s first lockdown and it struck me as odd that my younger self was so resistant to Cage’s persona. I wondered if his undeniable Mediterranean and Slavic features, his muscularity and sweatiness, the way he threw himself into the physicality of his roles, was too overwhelming for a young queer youth trying to come to terms with the confusing intersections of sexuality and masculinity. I grew up in a culture where the ideal male body was the clean and very white Mr Cruise. Back then, Cage’s was a body I was simultaneously attracted to and desperate to run away from.
Although he was a nephew of Francis Ford Coppola, Cage anglicised his surname to pursue his career. It may have been a desire to escape the shadow of his more famous uncle, but that name-changing is also part of a long tradition in which the Jewish Betty Joan Perske transformed into the shiksa ice princess Lauren Bacall, and Issur Danielovitch became the all-American hero Kirk Douglas. It was only with the dismantling of the studio system in the late 1960s that “ethnic” actors began to reclaim their identities and their names. Far from Hollywood, in the backblocks of Melbourne, my parents would watch any movie that starred Anthony Quinn, Sophia Loren or a young Al Pacino. It was never said aloud, but there must have been a hunger to catch a glimpse of their own experiences on film.
Jewish and Italian–American actors could pass as “white”, which was impossible for Asians and African Americans. That scarring decades-long legacy of erasure animates contemporary understandings of film history, and that makes perfect, urgent sense. I can see now how my own relationship to an actor named Nicolas Cage is bound up in the histories of Hollywood and ethnicity. Even when resisting him, frustrated with choices he is making as a performer, I’m always barracking for him.
In Valley Girl, he already displays the faults that would bedevil him as an actor. His reverence for Marlon Brando leads him to mistaking gesticulating for revelation. He is most appealing in rare moments of reprieve when he’s not being hyperactively physical, when he wears a laconic, stoned smile and doesn’t seem to be dodging the gaze of the lens. It’s this aspect of his persona that the Coen brothers captured in Raising Arizona. I don’t think he’s ever been more beautiful than he is in that film.
I loved him too in Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck. His Brando impersonation gets tiring and his exaggerated emotions veer close to hamming, yet Cher is a perfect foil for him. Her sardonic performance reveals the ridiculousness of his macho posturing. He’s generous to Cher in that film, as he is with Deborah Foreman in Valley Girl, Holly Hunter in Raising Arizona and Laura Dern in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart. He had the potential to be one of the great romantic male leads.
He won an Oscar for Mike Figgis’s Leaving Las Vegas (1995), a superficial study of alcohol addiction. Cage is tediously mannered, and I ended up walking out. I’ve seen it on TV since and I haven’t changed my mind. He should have won that award for Bringing Out the Dead (1999), not only one of his best performances but also one of Martin Scorsese’s most underrated movies.
I wish Cage had chosen to work with better directors. His best performances have been for Scorsese and Lynch, who were able to control Cage’s indulgences. Both Bringing Out the Dead and Wild at Heart are dark films, in their lighting and design and their grim assaults on excessive materialism. The inner city of the former and the western and southern locales of the latter are spiritually blasted and desolate spaces. Scorsese and Lynch harnessed the manic stoned energy that was pivotal to Cage’s charm in the romantic comedies, but they pushed him to convey the underside of that druggy persona. Cage is ferociously convincing in these films, portraying men who are terrified that their most paranoic fantasies are grounded in uncanny, dangerous reality.
I haven’t gone out of my way to see Cage’s films of the past 20 years. It was initially a bit of a shock to see him in the new film, Pig, directed by Michael Sarnoski. His ravaged mien now seems even more Balkan. He plays a hermit, a former renowned chef who has abandoned the world and whose only companion is a truffle-hunting pig. When the animal is stolen, he must re-engage with the world he left behind.
Pig is a mess. A retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, it’s clear that the director’s influences include the recent work of Yorgos Lanthimos. Unlike the Greek director, Sarnoski has no proficiency when it comes to creating dreamscapes or mythic worlds. The result is ludicrously pretentious. That flaw can be attributed at times to Lanthimos, but in his films we are never in doubt of his talents to use sound and image, editing and framing, to immediately situate us in strange, allegorical worlds. The sound design in Pig is unimaginative, the use of music tepid and the editing thoughtless. The intention is mythic, yet the technical qualities of the film are so flat-footed that it exposes the pompous affectations of the script.
Yet it is worth seeing for Cage. His loner’s world-weariness is the only aspect of the film that doesn’t seem forced. Having not watched him for some years now, I am impressed by his restraint. He no longer needs a director to rein him in. It’s particularly gratifying to watch the lovely, gentle work Cage does in supporting Alex Wolff, who plays the intermediary between Cage’s farmer and the avaricious restaurant traders of the city. The leaden dialogue is schematic and undermines the subtlety of the performances. But Cage lets Wolff shine in their scenes together and the growing rapport between the two of them feels genuine and unforced.
When I first saw Valley Girl, I was jolted by a memory of being a young boy, my first time in Greece, and my father’s younger brother riding into the village on a motorcycle. He smiled, roared to a stop next to me, tussled my hair, and said, “You must be the Australian.” Cage looked exactly like him. And now, playing an old man, he still looks like my uncle: weathered and tired, but with a similar dangerous gleam in his eyes. Our fondness for an actor is sometimes based as much on our individual history – on what we as an audience bring to the viewing – as it is on their talent or their professionalism. I haven’t travelled that far from my parents. We’re all seeking to see ourselves reflected on the screen.
Pig opened in selected cinemas on September 16, and is also scheduled for a digital release.
FESTIVAL Melbourne Fringe Festival
Streaming, September 30–October 17
INSTALLATION Megan Cope: Gundungurra Ngurra
Ngununggulay, Bowral, until September 2022
INSTALLATION Seeing the Invisible
Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne, until August 2022
LITERATURE Big Sky Readers and Writers Festival
Venues throughout Geraldton, Western Australia, September 30–October 3
THEATRE Animal Farm
Heath Ledger Theatre, Perth, October 2-24
VISUAL ART Pulse Perspectives
Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until September 27
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 25, 2021 as "Uncaged talent".
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