Is Nicolas Cage Actually the Most Brilliant Actor of Our Time?
Is this the face of a man with terrible acting skills and a nightmarish haircut? Or is it the face of a man ahead of his time... with a nightmarish haircut? Photo via Flickr user The Conmunity


This story is over 5 years old.


Is Nicolas Cage Actually the Most Brilliant Actor of Our Time?

The author of a new book on Nicolas Cage argues that the actor only accepts roles in shitty movies because they allow him to push the boundaries of his craft.

It's easy to not really give a shit about Nicolas Cage as an actor. Other than enjoying his performance in Adaptation, to me he was always just that weird guy in moderately entertaining action movies. I mean, the easiest way to summarize his cultural significance is to just yell "NOT THE BEEEEES!"

But I first realized Cage's radical brilliance a few years ago during a screening of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans at the Toronto International Film Fest. His freaked-out take on the notorious Harvey Keitel character in German director Werner Herzog's remake of Bad Lieutenant was beyond bizarre—Cage hallucinates seeing lizards and breakdancing ghosts and smokes from a magic crack pipe while going completely off the rails as a corrupt cop. But as outlandish as his performance was, it's actually more realistic than the generically scummy Keitel version. It presented me with a weird paradox: was Cage's seemingly terrible over-acting actually a truer performance than Keitel with his dick out?


That question sent me off on an extended trip down the Nic Cage rabbit hole, where I've not only discovered the pure genius of films like Vampire's Kiss and Snake Eyes, but completely reassessed things like Face/Off, Gone in 60 Seconds, and 8mm. It's also made me unnaturally excited for any new addition to the Cage canon (even if it's to figure out what went wrong with a legitimately terrible film like Trespass).

So I was elated to find out that the latest edition to ECW's "Pop Classics" series (which already features the impressively argued It Doesn't Suck: Showgirls) was a book about Cage called National Treasure: Nicolas Cage. In the book-length essay, fellow traveler (and Torontonian) Lindsay Gibb endured around 70 of his films to lay out an extended defense of Cage's brilliance, explaining that he's essentially an experimental actor, who treats all of his roles—even ones in generic Hollywood failures—as opportunities to push the boundaries of the art of acting. VICE talked to Gibb about Cage the genius, Cage the meme, and the misconceptions around Cage's capital-C "Caginess."

VICE: What inspired you to watch all of Nic Cage's films and write the book?
Lindsay Gibb: I guess it started because I liked his work, but I didn't think of it as a whole, or that I was a huge fan. I just would sort of see random films and think that I liked him. And then I would hear people saying that Nicolas Cage was a terrible actor and all of his movies are bad, and then I kind of became a defender of him because I'd seen a lot of movies he was in where he was good. When TIFF did the retrospective of his films, I got more hyped on him. From there I started my own Nicolas Cage club with some friends where we started watching one of his films a month. We've been doing that for three years now, but when I pitched the book we'd only been doing that for a year.


But you've watched all of his films now, yes?
When I started writing the book I broke off and was like, "Sorry guys, I have to start watching some of them by myself." I've seen pretty much everything, except some of his newer films. I haven't seen Left Behind yet.

Were there any that are really difficult to track down in hard copy?
Finding Tess was really hard to get. Zandalee was not the easiest to find. It's him and Judge Reinhold. He covers himself in black paint.

What's the biggest misconception about Nic Cage?
I think the biggest misconception about Nicolas Cage is that he can't act. That's a criticism that he gets all the time.

Why do you think he has a bad reputation as an actor?
I think it's because he's a character actor who happens to be really famous. If someone else did it, they would be that guy in that film who you keep seeing. And people might enjoy him more. But because he is the top-billed guy in movies, they expect a certain type of actor, or someone who's cultivated a career that is one thing. But because he does so many different things, it's hard to make sense of him.

What's your overall theory?
I guess the book is about both his style of acting and his choices. Those are the things that he's most criticized for—that he only chooses films because he's got to pay down his back taxes. But I'm arguing that he actually has a reason for doing the films that he does. The reason is usually that he's trying something new with acting. Like, he did Sorcerer's Apprentice because it was sort of sci-fi but for kids, because he has a young kid. Some of the sci-fi stuff, he was doing it so he could feel otherworldly in [the films], and have an opportunity to not just play it straight.


And he's serious about this otherworldly vibe, right.
Yeah. He has a reason behind each role, and I was trying to articulate that in the book.

You talk about him essentially being an experimental actor.
I think he looks at acting through lenses beyond just straight acting. He looks at them as art, or he looks at it as a painter or a dancer would look at it. And he tries to put more of that into his work.

And in the context of Hollywood, that's fairly interesting.
Yeah, he's doing mainly Hollywood films. There's the odd independent film, which I think is the only thing that some people see as legit. Like when he does Joe. On one hand, not a lot of people knew about Joe, but everyone who did see it was like, "Oh, Nicolas Cage can act." But it's only in things like that where people are willing to accept that he can act.

What is it like for you to spend this much time in the Nicolas Cage rabbit hole?
I was kind of afraid to do it, because any other thing that I love and that I've written about, I've started to hate after a while—after doing it for a while it becomes too much of a job. So I was afraid to do that here because I enjoyed his stuff so much. But I think looking through that lens here of "Why is he doing that and what is he trying to do with this role?" made me enjoy him more. I haven't killed the Nic Cage film club yet. Vampire's Kiss and Wild at Heart are still two of my favorites.


What are some of the borderline unwatchable Nic Cage films that you had to struggle through?
Typically, I think he's good [even] in the bad films. There are a couple that I don't like at all, like Season of the Witch. It had a good cast and was medieval, so it could have been exciting, but it just wasn't very good.

Do you start to question your theories about him in these situations?
Yeah, I'm definitely not happy when I see a film where there's not a lot of redeeming qualities to his performance. I think there were only one to two, maybe four at the most, that were completely terrible and he wasn't that great in. Even if a film was bad, he was usually at least doing something interesting.

That's a pretty good ratio—
Yeah, four out of 70.

Do you ever doubt his explanations of his method acting techniques? Things like "nouveau shamanic"?
I definitely had trouble describing them, since there are only ever little interview snippets to go on. I feel like there is something behind them. But when he talks about Wicker Man now, and says after the fact that it was meant to be absurd—that, I believe. But I can understand why people would think that's revisionist.

Seeing him in Bad Lieutenant was what got me interested in him and made me want to go back and rewatch a lot of his other films. But I think a lot of what you're getting at here is how infinitely rewatchable his films are just because of the context he's putting himself in.
The movies I had to watch the most were Adaptation and Face/Off because I was trying to make a comparison between them, since he's playing double characters in both of those films. I didn't know how I would feel about watching Face/Off again, since I didn't gravitate to him because of his action films. I was more into Adaptation and Moonstruck and Wild at Heart—more of his oddball roles. But when I went back and started watching The Rock, I realized that all of his action stuff has other layers to it. Like, with The Rock, he's trying to play an action hero who doesn't want to be a hero. He likes being a scientist because he doesn't like leaving the office, and the character doesn't swear because it's [out of character for an action hero].

What's your favorite Nic Cage scene?
For the launch party, I was trying to pick out a little montage of scenes, and I felt like all my favorites are things where you have to watch the whole movie to enjoy them. Like, there's a part in Bad Lieutenant where he's in a house with a drug dealer, and he tricks them into giving themselves up, and he walks out of the house and turns to all the other cops and says, "I love it. I just love it." So I put that in the montage, but I know that no one will know what it's about. And then everything in Vampire's Kiss is pretty much amazing.

Have you started attracting Nic Cage fanatics now?
I got contacted by someone who runs a Spanish Nicolas Cage fan site and says he's doing a documentary about Nicolas Cage and wants to interview me. So that's something.

Follow Chris Bilton on Twitter.