"Nicolas Cage to star as Nicolas Cage in film about Nicolas Cage" is a headline that, on the one hand, seems too good to be true. It's also a headline that makes perfect sense: Cage has spent an entire career blurring the line between his on and off-screen personas. It's only natural that they'd eventually become one and the same.
Cage has become something of a cult figure in recent years, a strange cross-breed of man, myth and meme. His greatest hits are all well-known – the eyes, the bear suit, the bees – and, make no mistake, they are all comedy gold. Exactly why you think they're funny, though, depends on how much credit you're willing to give the man himself.
Much like Danny Dyer – who, depending on your point of view, is either a gormless buffoon or one of the great comics working in showbiz today – the misadventures of Cage have been enjoyed with varying degrees of irony. And as with Dyer, the standard position is to put him down as someone to be laughed at rather than with: a grade-A crackpot whose lack of self-awareness is its own punchline.
In fairness, the idea hasn't come from nowhere. In 2019 alone, Cage has purchased a pyramid tomb for his dead self and given an interview detailing his real-life quest for the Holy Grail (his conclusion: "What is the Grail but Earth itself?"). In the recent past, he has stayed overnight in Dracula’s castle ("to channel the energy") and acquired – before returning to its rightful owner – a stolen Mongolian dinosaur skull.
And then, of course, there are the films, which for a good decade or so have tended to be absurd, abundant and in many cases near-enough unwatchable. There have been five this year alone: four bypassed cinemas altogether; two do not have Wikipedia entries; one stars Cage as a jaguar hunter on a cargo ship carrying a haul of deadly Amazonian animals to the US, but also a political assassin who escapes custody and releases the captive animals, throwing the ship into chaos and leaving Cage to deliver vigilante justice. This is by no means atypical of a late-era Cage plotline.
The good ones – like Mandy, in which he plays a lumberjack exacting vengeance on a Satanist biker gang – tend to be good precisely because of their commitment to operatic outlandishness and the deadly-serious dedication of their star man. It’s a go-for-broke policy that leaves the bad ones (which tend to have titles like Kill Chain and Vengeance: A Love Story) looking very bad indeed. "I never disrobe before a gunfight," he says in Drive Angry, shortly before killing a small army of henchmen in a motel room, all the while glugging bourbon from the bottle and enjoying unbroken intercourse with a cocktail waitress.
At a glance, these look a lot like the career choices of a man whose connection to public opinion was severed long ago. But dig a little deeper and there have always been clues that Cage has been more in touch with the meta than you might think. This is, after all, an actor who appeared in a film about an unhinged Elvis Presley fanatic (Wild at Heart) while married to the King's daughter. And who starred in Adaptation as both the movie's (real-life) screenwriter and his (fictional) twin brother, the first of whom is working on a pretentious, irritatingly self-referential screenplay in which he is the lead character.
Adaptation was written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze, the pairing that three years earlier teamed up to make the ultimate meta-movie, Being John Malkovich, with its famously oddball star merrily muddling the distinction between reputation and reality. It's fair to assume that Cage's new film – titled The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent – will see its star similarly in on the joke.
The irony is that it's exactly this sort of merging of life and art that gets actors a reputation for being self-important pillocks, and most of the time for good reason: Daniel Day-Lewis lived in a mock 17th-century village without electricity or running water while making The Crucible. Shia LeBeouf pulled out his own tooth to feel like a WWII soldier in Fury. Cage, though, is part of a grand tradition of performers who do the same thing for the opposite reason: to have a laugh – partly at their own expense, partly at ours.
He is not the first performer to realise that some of the funnest acting is barely even acting at all. Comedians from Larry David to Miranda Hart have struck gold by playing embellished versions of themselves, many of them spinning the idea into self-aware sitcoms. Bill Murray, who became famous due to his dryly funny behaviour on screen, is now just as renowned for his antics off it, which are rumoured to include a regular routine of approaching strangers in the street and handing them a printed business card reading: "No one will ever believe you." There's an entire website documenting his surprise cameos in the everyday lives of normal people, which may or may not all be true – the whole point is to print the legend.
Joaquin Phoenix set aside a year of his life to film a documentary about his transition from screen actor to hip-hop artist, with accompanying news reports and talkshow appearances. It was all glorious nonsense – and by all accounts the real-life Phoenix is as down-to-earth a Hollywood superstar as you'll find – but it all created a sense of mystique around the actor, and his intense devotion to his craft, that could well pay off in the upcoming awards season.
Cage's own persona-forging may not have resulted in the cool of Murray or the kudos of Phoenix, but don't be fooled into thinking he doesn't know exactly what he's doing. After all, if he didn't, this would just be the behaviour of a grade-A crackpot.