Nicolas Cage, born Nicolas Coppola, changed his name when he started acting to avoid being associated with his family relationship to renowned director Francis Ford Coppola. Building a career out of eccentric performances, he has made a huge name for himself in both mainstream commercial films and offbeat cult classics, from his Academy Award winning role in Leaving Las Vegas to the bear-suit wearing “Not the bees!” spewing mess, The Wicker Man. His quirky characters have entertained for more than 30 years and have left an indelible impression in cinema history. Our first entry in our new series Top 5 Moments, these are our favorite moments from Nicolas Cage.
“Get in my bed.”
Film Summary: A middle-aged woman (Cher) agrees to marry a nice Italian man from Brooklyn, but while he’s away in Italy saying goodbye to dying mother, she begins a torrid affair with his younger, somewhat over-zealous brother. Romance and hilarity ensues.
Scene Setup: Loretta (Cher) and Ronny (Cage) are walking home from the Opera, a date she accepts only if he agrees to never see her again, as she is committed to marrying his brother. But love being what love is, when they get to his apartment stoop, he has other plans than saying goodbye.
The Scene: Dressed in their finest, the romance of the Opera has had a softening affect on Loretta, though she is determined to end their affair. She will marry his brother. They made deal: He would leave her alone forever. That was a promise. When he refuses, she goes on about how they are a mistake and that she can better control her life and maybe get what she wants and finally change her luck. But Ronny isn’t hearing it. He know what’s happening between them and it’s like nothing he has felt before. He wants her in his bed, even if he burns in hell. Her too. Their passion for each other has changed him. He says everything is a joke now, the past and the future. All there is her and he. He pleads with her to stay and it’s all very rom-com trite. But then something amazing happens. Ronny gets empowered by his lust and tells her he loves her but not like how “they” told her love is. He says that love ruins everything, it makes things a mess and that people are the same all over, that they aren’t meant to be perfect. Mistakes are how it’s supposed to work. Only things like snowflakes and stars are perfect. Not people. People are here to ruin themselves, to break hearts and love the wrong ones and then die. He shouts that the storybooks are bullshit, that she needs to come upstairs with him and get in his bed. He then extends a hand to her and waits. His words linger around her with his hand hovers there for her to take. It’s magical.
Why it Matters: Ronny is a romantic fool, we see that from the start. He lost his hand in a meat cutting accident because of love. But he’s been kind of a dope so far, a misguided depressed man with no direction, no passion, seemingly forever filled with misery and anger. Loretta awakens something in him. It lifts the darkness and reveals a man possessed of a singular desire for her embrace. With this little speech, we witness not just the lust, but a deeply moving plea for requited love. Love he knows is there. He felt it and we know she does too. As the tears well and roll down her cheek as Ronny pleads with her to say, we know that he is right. We ruin ourselves for love, and yet it’s the greatest thing we will ever know.
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“Stay here with me.”
Film Summary: Speaking of love. This film is about a whole different kind. An ex-con named Joe (Cage) works as a tree-removal foreman in Texas where he befriends Gary (Tye Sheridan), a 15-year-old boy with an alcoholic abusive father, trying to guide the young man away from ruining his life through revenge.
Scene Setup: Joe has a temper and has been in trouble with the law a lot, but somehow is still a well-repsected and well-liked man, even with the Sheriff, who we learn was once a lot like Joe. Maybe worse. Joe is a tinderbox, yet he’s taken to protecting Gary, and it comes to a head when the boy shows up in the dark of night, his truck stolen by his father and his face a pummeled mess.
The Scene: Throughout the film, Joe has been walking a very narrow line, often crossing it, as when he killed a dog he didn’t like, or when he beat up a patrolman who he felt was harassing him. Cage is simply brilliant as a the bearded, husky woodman, playing it quiet and brooding, a time bomb with every passing second. He’s a tough as nails bastard with a streak of kindness in him. We know that because he gives the downtrodden jobs, he takes in a women he likes when she’s in a tough spot, and he’s been watching Gary, feeling like he ought to take care of him. When the boy arrives, beaten so bad his face is nearly unrecognizable, we expect Joe to thrash out as he’s done before, but instead, he takes the boy in his arms and holds him tight, something the child has probably never experienced. “Stay with me,” he says, telling him to bring his sister and mamma too. It’s heartbreaking.
Why it matters: The scene is filmed almost entirely in shadow, because that is what Joe’s life is to us. This moment is unexpected and the quietness of it is especially moving. Joe is a man with few emotions, at least that he allows others to see or feel. Earlier, in bed with a women he clearly loves, he pretends to sleep while she talks to his back about going to a real dinner in nice clothes, and that she knows he is awake and pretending, and that the rights words from her will make him cry. It’s not said, but we’re sure those words are, “I love you.” It’s a powerful moment. And its compounded by this scene when Joe holds the boy and does the most fatherly thing Gary has ever known. It’s what Joe knows he must do next that makes this moment as haunting as is it.
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“You are what you love.”
Film Summary: An overwhelmingly depressed and neurotic Charlie Kaufamn attempts to write the screenplay for the non-fiction book, The Orchid Thief, while dealing with his more confident and successful (real or imagined?) twin brother.
Scene Setup: Charlie witnesses something he shouldn’t involving drugs, sex, a flower, and the author of the book he is writing the screenplay for, Susan Orlean. So protective of this secret, Orlean decides that Charlie must die and, at gunpoint, forces Charlie to drive to a nearby swamp where she intends to shoot and hide his body. He escapes, and runs into the swamp where he and Donald take cover. In the darkness, frightened and certain of death, the two men talk in hush tones, resolving their inner differences about love and life.
The Scene: Cowered in the underbrush, Charlie admits to Donald that he admires his brother for not being scared of what others think of him, reflecting on a time while they were in high school and Charlie watched Donald talking with a girl named Sarah Charles. Donald confesses that he truly loved the girl and Charlie agrees but then tells him how she laughed at him after Donald walked away, that she thought Donald was pathetic. Donald says he knew they laughed, but was still happy because that love he had was his, he owned it. Sarah didn’t have the right to take it away, telling his brother that he can love whomever he wants. Whatever the other person feels is their business, saying to him that, “You are what you love, not what loves you.” This brings Charlie to tears, promoting Donald to ask him, “What’s happened?” Charlie simply relies, “Thank you.”
Why it matters: Nicolas Cage plays both Charlie and Donald, two vastly different characters. Throughout the film, his portrayal is so nuanced and immersive that you forget that they are truly one person. Cage is that effective. In this scene, there is a desperation in the two men, feeling they have no escape from certain death. It lowers their inhibitions and generates an openness unseen between them before. Of course Donald is only a projection of Charlie, the alter ego who possess the strength and confidence that Charlie does not. He is the voice in his head that is in essence, his self-doubt. And it is perfectly realized. In the swamp, Charlie has one last conversation with Donald and it is unlike any before because Charlie feels this is his final chance to settle within himself all the darkness that haunts him, which is, as we have seen throughout, his self-loathing in relationships with women. In what is both tragic and touching, Charlie finds a way to get past this pain and with it forgive himself. It is a monumental moment in an already powerful film.
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“I’d like to take his face . . . off.”
Film Summary: To prevent a maniacal terrorist from setting off a huge bomb in Los Angeles, a FBI agent not just assumes his identity, but actually wears the man’s face, surgically transplanted by the latest technology. Problem is, when the bad guy wakes up, he tricks the surgeon into giving him the FBI agent’s face. Now it a game of who’s who in a race to save or destroy the city.
Scene Setup: Sean Archer is an FBI agent with a long-festering vendetta against terrorist Castor Troy. Six years ago, Troy killed Sean’s young son and since then, Archer has been on a mission. When he finally captures the crazed killer, he can’t find the bomb because Troy is knocked unconscious, and his henchman will only talk to Caster. What choice does Archer have? With a nip-tuck here and there, he dons Troy’s face and, infiltrating a prison where Troy’s henchman is locked up, learns the location of the bomb and saves the city. Not finished as Troy, he then heads to Castor’s hideaway where the gang is waiting. It’s the ultimate test.
The Scene: Since he looks and sounds just like the Castor Troy the baddies know him as, they are not at all suspicious. Feeling out of sorts by his new persona, and trying to fit the disturbed personality Troy maintains, Archer, as Caster (try to say with me) is a having trouble accepting the role he gave himself. With nervous laughter, he keeps a decidedly uneven tone with the men, which actually ingratiates him more securely with the criminals. The crew are looking forward to taking down Archer, who, remember, is in the same room with them wearing Troy’s face. To continue his whacked out style, Castor, or rather Archer, remarks to the boys that, concerning Sean, he’d like to take his face (pause, gesture with hands) off. He then excuses himself to another room and freaks out. It’s spine-tingling.
Why it matters: Many actors push themselves to better understand or develop a part. Methods actor take on the personality of their characters even when the camera’s aren’t rolling, sometimes for months at a time. Classically trained thespians practice through unprecedented study, seeking deeper meaning and fuller interpretation of the craft of acting. And then there is Nicolas Cage. Talented without a doubt, he is fearless and makes over-the-top not a punchline but a beautiful work of art. There are none who could employ the same style and yet convince us it’s real the way Cage does. In this scene, there is a magnificent shift in the character that demonstrates the real genius of Cage. As he sits on the sofa taking with the crew, he realizes he is fooling them, and he is using the words that fully convinces them that he is successfully mimicking the mannerisms of the madman Caster Troy. But those words sting like a bullet because he is not Caster Troy. As he reveals intimate details of Sean Archer, they are the intimate details of himself, about his murdered son and the touch of his wife, who he is realizing he has been neglecting in his lust for revenge. Cage deftly lets us feel the pain inside while keeping his “mask” of madness, finally erupting into a wild laughing fit that serves more as an explosion of anguish than of humor. When he moves, alone, to the next room, he coils himself on the bed and then drops to the floor in a motion that seems not absurd but like that of a frantic animal in a tiny cage. His shock at seeing Caster’s face in the mirror revolts him, instinctively making him draw his gun, before finally accepting what he has so terribly done, the frightening depths of his insanity. That culminates in his twisted, devilishly expressive face that is not only perfect for the moment, but pure Nicolas Cage.
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“A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z!”
Film Summary: Peter Loew (Cage) believes he is turning into a vampire. ‘Nuff said.
Scene Setup: See above.
The Scene: The entire movie from start to finish because the first frame to the last is the single most Nicolas Cage-iest Nicolas Cage in Nicolas Cage movie history. It will change you, inside, deep where you hold everything dear.
Why it Matters: Misunderstood? Before it’s time? Batshit crazy? Yes, yes, and yes. In a performance that can only be described as unhinged, only three things could possibly explain it’s existence: 1) The director, in an epic gamble to ruin the careers of every last person involved in the production of his film just kept shouting “More! More! More!” 2) The studio, secretly working with a top secret government agency on mind control and behavioral manipulation created the film to test the limits of credibility in producing future social programs and news coverups, or 3) Nicolas Cage is a straight up acting demigod. However it came to be, Vampire’s Kiss is a watershed moment, a landmark in a style of acting that many confuse as overacting or over-the-top. We might be tempted to think the likes of Tommy Wiseau as a rival, but that would be a like comparing Pauly Shore to Steve Martin. (Please don’t). Cage is a virtuoso in this field and what he does in this film must be seen to appreciate. At times seemingly trying to burst from his own skin, we sense the madness his character is undergoing, and Cage doesn’t hold back. Nor should he. If you want quiet and brooding in this kind of story, go see Jack Nicholson in the magnificent Wolf. Here, Cage knows the film is dark. It’s not even about vampires. It’s about descending. About the corruption a single abstract thought can have when it burrows too far into the mind. Packaged and advertised as a light comedy / horror flick, it is anything but. As a study on metal breakdown, it is a masterwork and a chilling performance. What we see must always be questioned as the things Loew believes are real may not always be, and how Cage delivers that feeling is truly amazing. From the chaos of his screaming “What’s happening to me?” in the mirror, hinting at self-awareness, to his epic alphabet rant at his psychiatrist, which, when viewing her reaction, may be more exaggerated in his mind (which we are witnessing) than in reality. This is the ultimate Nicolas Cage experience and the start of what would become a template for many of his other performances. There’s nobody like Cage.
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Thanks for reading. What are your favorite Nicolas Cage moments?