It Really Is the Age of Cage

Between Keith Phipps's new book and the forthcoming 'The Massive Weight of Unbearable Talent,' it's a great time for Nic Cage fans

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 28: Nicolas Cage attends the 5th Annual HCA Film Awards at Avalon...
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
Adam Fleming Petty

Nicolas Cage lives in pursuit of what he calls “the Super 8 feeling.” It’s the feeling of being a kid, of loving movies so much that you can’t help but run into the backyard, Super 8 camera in hand, and reenact what you just watched. It’s the exact feeling a Nicolas Cage performance often inspires in me. When he bugs out his eyes like a silent film actor, or shouts RANDOM words in the middle of SENTENCES, or quietly sputters out an apology, I feel like I’m in that idyllic backyard with him, playing along.

I’m not the only one. The Cult of Cage spans the globe, its adherents quoting lines and posting reaction gifs in honor of our patron saint. A new text of the faith now appears: Age of Cage by Keith Phipps, the onetime editor of A.V. Club, is an entertaining and informative book that tracks the arc of Cage’s career over the course of the last 40 years. It also serves as a thumbnail sketch of Hollywood as a whole during the same period, detailing the window when a performer as idiosyncratic as Cage could bestride the box office like a colossus.

Cage, to use a contemporary term, is a nepotism baby. Born Nicolas Coppola, his uncle is Francis Ford Coppola, world-famous filmmaker and vintner. This pedigree caused Cage anguish early in his career. When he landed a small part, under his real name, in Fast Times in Ridgemont High, some of the other actors ridiculed him, saying he was only there because of his famous uncle. Phipps, in one of the book’s many great details, notes that Eric Stoltz was the most merciless. (Boo to you, Eric Stoltz! Have fun getting replaced in Back to the Future!) The experience compelled him to change his name to Cage, citing as inspiration Luke Cage, the comic book superhero he loved as a child, and John Cage, the avant-garde composer beloved by his father August, an avid listener of classical music. Cage’s very name is a marriage of high culture and low, presaging the approach his entire career would take.

The name change worked. Throughout the 1980s, Cage’s fame steadily rose. He could have easily carved out a niche as a leading man — a more soulful James Spader, say — but he kept choosing roles that allowed him to take left turns. In Peggy Sue Got Married, he sports buck teeth and speaks like a cartoon; in Moonstruck, he wails operatically, cursing fate for taking both his girl and his hand. But as Phipps makes clear, he didn’t make such choices just to be weird. He was developing a markedly different approach to screen acting, one that was less naturalistic and more expressionistic.

In The Method, a recent account of the infamous approach to acting, Isaac Butler calls Cage’s style “American Gonzo,” noting that it operates as a kind of anti-Method. “Nicolas Cage, the foremost actor of this approach, rarely attempted to convince the audience that he was playing a ‘real’ human being,” Butler writes. The purest distillation is Vampire’s Kiss from 1989, a low-budget horror movie about a literary agent who may or may not be a vampire. For Cage devotees like myself, Vampire’s Kiss is an object of adoration. The whole film feels like a childlike Super 8 adventure, with Cage trying out every wacky idea that comes to him: shouting the alphabet in a fit of rage, speaking in a posh accent right out of a Hammer film, wriggling his eyebrows like caterpillars. You may not have seen the movie, but I guarantee you’ve seen the gifs.

Cage’s very name is a marriage of high culture and low, presaging the approach his entire career would take.

I enjoy Vampire’s Kiss immensely, though I understand its appeal is rather small. Cage is blisteringly strange, and few viewers wanted to play along. So much stranger, then, that bug-eyed Nic Cage went on to become an above-the-title action star. In Phipps’ telling, it was a matter of timing. For a stretch in the ’90s, movie stars, not IP behemoths, commanded big budgets and sold boatloads of tickets. Actors as different as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jim Carrey earned millions of dollars to star in movies that were tailor-made to showcase their appeal. Cage approached the process of becoming such a star as if it were another one of his performances: a confounding undertaking that shouldn’t by any rights work.

And you know what? He pulled it off. After establishing his appeal to audiences with The Rock and Con Air, Cage’s sojourn as an action star enabled him to deliver what is, for me, the best performance of his career.

Face/Off, directed by John Woo, recalls certain anime stories in that it takes a patently absurd premise, and fully commits to it. Cage plays a terrorist, while John Travolta plays an FBI agent. As the title implies, their faces get taken off, through a vaguely-defined medical procedure, so that Cage assumes Travolta’s identity, and Travolta Cage’s. Cage effectively gives two performances, portraying first a stylish maniac, then an anguished family man. He calls on all of his expressionistic techniques, grinning, gesticulating, SHOUTING, flicking his fingers disdainfully. It is pure joy to behold, a Super 8 labor of love made on a budget of $80 million.

In retrospect, Face/Off looms as the peak of Cage’s career, and what follows looks like a descent. Now a fully-fledged movie star, Cage endured the intrusions into his personal life that go along with the position. Phipps details numerous accounts of the press gawking at Cage’s extravagant tastes. “He bought shrunken heads; rare comics; an octopus; dozens of cars . . . and a dinosaur skull he had to give back to the government of Mongolia when it turned out to have been stolen,” Phipps recounts. The clear takeaway here is that Cage is a cool guy who likes blowing money on cool shit. Give me Cage buying looted dinosaur bones over Matt Damon hawking cryptocurrency any day of the week. But puritanical gossipmongers clucked their tongues, and as the box office revenue of Cage’s movies slipped, a caricature began to take hold: Cage was broke, washed-up, a hack who would do anything for a paycheck.

I’m not going to strike a contrarian pose and claim that, say, USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage is some neglected masterpiece. Cage has made a lot of movies over the last 20 years, some of them mediocre, a few genuinely lousy. Phipps is so thorough that he summarizes movies I hadn’t even heard of. There’s an entire market for so-called ‘geezer teaser’ movies, where long-in-the-tooth action stars show up on set for a couple days and pocket a million dollars. Cage has acted in such movies, sure. But Cage is still searching for that Super 8 feeling. Get him the right director for the right project and he’ll turn in a performance that ranks up there with his best work.

My personal favorite entry in the Late Cage canon is 2018’s Mandy, a heavy metal fever dream of a movie directed by Panos Cosmatos. Cage plays a logger whose girlfriend is murdered by a psychotic cult leader. He sets out on a journey of revenge, fighting off meth-addled bikers and swinging a chainsaw like a broadsword. What I love about the movie is that Cage takes that Super 8 approach and applies it to stuff like Black Sabbath albums and Piers Anthony novels, talismans from my own youth. It’s as if Cage meets me in my own childhood backyard, eager to play with action figures.

It's that sense of ludic joy that Cage still conjures like no other actor, and which Phipps captures so astutely in his book. If I have a quibble, it’s that sometimes I wished the book were more personal. I wanted to hear more stories from Phipps’ own life, and how Cage’s movies have played a role in it. But that’s a minor point. No matter which flavor of Cage is your favorite — the action star, the gonzo experimenter, the soulful romantic — Age of Cage has something to offer.

And it appears we’re on the verge of a veritable Cage-aissance. April sees the release of his new movie, The Massive Weight of Unbearable Talent, in which Cage plays, well, Cage. Washed up, broke, the movie sees Cage agree to appear at a party thrown by his biggest fan, only to learn the fan is an international arms dealer. The recent GQ profile states that working on the project finally dug Cage out of debt, meaning he can afford to be more discriminating in his choice of roles. He’s currently filming Renfield in New Orleans, portraying none other than Count Dracula himself — at last, a vampire for real. He’s poised to enter an elder statesman phase of his career. But no matter how distinguished he may become, he’ll always remain the kid in the backyard, messing around with friends, searching for the feeling that only movies give.

Adam Fleming Petty is the author of a novella, Followers. His essays have appeared in the Paris Review Daily, Electric Literature, Vulture, and other outlets. He lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.