All the way back in 1999, when Nicolas Cage was transitioning from the small character roles that made him a star to the world of glitzy action films like Face/Off , The Rock, and Con Air, Sean Penn fired the first shot in what would become an unending barrage against his former co-star. "Nic Cage is no longer an actor," he said. Since then, Cage has been transformed into the favored whipping boy of critics and internet pranksters alike. Yet a closer look at the actor reveals a character more complex than a money-hungry Hollywood shill. Who is Nicolas Cage in the year 2012?
One possibility is that he is a very talented and once respected actor who in the later years of his career has let his inner child become his casting agent. His professed lifelong obsession with comic books (his stage name is based in part on the Marvel character Luke Cage and his personal collection sold at auction for $2.1 million) has taken hold and driven him to indulgent and fantastical roles in movies like Ghost Rider, Kick-Ass, Astro Boy, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Drive Angry, Knowing, and Season of the Witch. The other possibility is that desperation born of his deteriorating on-screen credibility and financial difficulties (did you really need two castles, Mr. Cage?) have lead him to take whatever scripts roll in with the tumbleweed.
To hear him tell it, Cage is the former, a man deeply committed to his craft in spite of ridicule. He calls his eccentric acting style Nouveau Shamanic and prepares for his seemingly brain-dead roles with the meticulous approach of a seasoned (and possibly delusional) thespian. See his account of a scene in Drive Angry where Cage's character simultaneously engages in a deadly shootout and sexual intercourse:
"I was thinking of Kama Sutra positions and what would be a position that would show Milton's sort of anti-divineness because he's not a divine Hindu spirit," Cage explained. "He's something from hell, a living dead man from hell. So then the idea of being in the clothes before a gunfight enjoying all the vices, the cigar and the Jack Daniels and the sex to me seemed like it would ring true for a guy that just broke out of hell. So that's how that scene came together... and then Ms. Ross and I enjoyed a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken after the scene."
Is he even aware of how ridiculous that sounds? An entire web culture has sprung up over the past few years around Cage and his antics, meme-ifying his eccentric, unusually intense acting style, and outlandish appearance, but it's unclear whether or not he's in on the joke. When Screen Junkie's Fred Topel recently asked Cage if he had seen Harry Hanrahan's now-infamous Youtube video, "Nicholas Cage Losing His Shit," he replied: "Oh yeah. That's very exciting. I was happy to see that this person found it and was going back to some of the really early work like Zandalee and even the movie I made with my brother Deadfall. It was very exciting to see that be reawakened."
At other times he seems deeply aware of his own declining brand. During a 2004 episode of Inside the Actors Studio, James Lipton read Cage one of his own quotes, referencing his recent choice of roles. "I would probably have turned to crime," he said "But I kept it on film." He also mocked himself during this week's episode of SNL alongside Andy Samberg, describing his upcoming film, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, as standard Cage fare where "all the dialogue is either whispered or screamed."
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Neither the interpretation of Nic Cage as an oblivious lunatic nor as a self-aware craftsman can fully explain the greatly varying quality of his work. But the two visions do illustrate what there is to love about Nicolas Cage. Whether he's lost his mind or is simply pulling a kind of meta-level fast one on the public, he remains—contra what Penn says—simply an actor and nothing more. Unlike many of his peers who exist on the same level of fame, he does not see himself as a force beyond the screen or have delusions of film as a catalyst for social change.
His role as a UN Ambassador is well-documented (Goodwill Ambassador for Global Justice for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, if you can believe it), but his charity isn't a tool to used inflate his celebrity. He's not using his role as a humanitarian to mask the shameless promote his persona and directorial debut or pretend that buying a $400 handbag can have a positive social impact. He's not using his celebrity to sell a lifestyle, or using a moment of public adoration to credit his profession with the civil rights movement or the country's awareness of AIDS. And his choices of roles reflect this lack of self-importance. Nic Cage plays fictional characters on screen for money, and he, at the very least, knows that. Hack? Maybe. The least pretentious actor in Hollywood? For sure.