Nicolas Cage arrives at the premiere of ‘The Weather Man’ at Frederick P. Rose Hall October 24, 2005 in New York City.
Nicolas Cage arrives at the premiere of ‘The Weather Man’ at Frederick P. Rose Hall October 24, 2005 in New York City.

Nicolas Cage is mostly known as a mainstream actor who appears in a ridiculous number of bad movies. I like to think of him as a beacon of audacity in an otherwise mundane Hollywood.

Christened Nicolas Kim Coppola, he was born on January 7, 1964 in Long Beach, California to parents August Coppola, a professor of literature and member of the Coppola family, and Joy Vogelsang, a dancer. The Coppolas comprise quite a few big names in the art realm, which endowed Cage with a sturdy platform off which to launch his fledgling acting career. He has been married three times (among the ex-wives is Lisa Marie Presley, daughter of Elvis Presley) and is currently married to Alice Kim. He is 6’0”, 200 lbs. He lives in Las Vegas, Nevada.

All of this seems normal enough, at least for a movie star, but take a closer look at any aspect of Cage’s life and see that it’s far from ordinary: a mere glance at his fiscal history reveals the chaos that bubbles beneath those stoic eyes. One benefit of his seemingly willy-nilly role selection is its proclivity to earn him a boatload of cash. He earned $40 million in 2009, according to Forbes. That year, Cage also filed a $20 million lawsuit against his business manager with the charge of negligence and fraud alleging that his business manager “had failed to pay taxes when they were due and had placed [Cage] in speculative and risky real estate investments ‘resulting in [Cage] suffering catastrophic losses.’” This is somewhat unsurprising. Cage’s finances are 100% catawampus: he has held a continuously revolving door of property in California, The Bahamas, New Orleans, and in many other sites; he is an avid comic book fan and has spent a significant portion of his money on collectors items; he is the owner of a Tarbosaurus skull, for which he paid $276,000 in an auction, outbidding Leonardo DiCaprio; he also bought nine Rolls Royces and The Shah of Iran’s Lamborghini; though he attempts to stay apolitical in his work, Cage has donated about $5,000 to the Democratic Party since 1994. The list of odd financial anecdotes could go on for pages, but I think you get the point. He’s a super rich guy who likes to buy things (and owes the IRS more money than the country of Belize spends on its military).

For Cage, though, all of this is beside the point. “In my opinion, I don’t want to see personal aspects of someone’s life eclipse the work itself,” he’s said. He’s also said, “What difference does it make if Bill Clinton had an affair—how does that affect his performance as President?” So let’s take a look at his work.

Cage’s films have drawn a range of reviews. They’ve run the gamut on Rotten Tomatoes from 98% (for The Wrestler, 2008) to an astounding 0% (for Deadfall, 1993). Yes, that’s right: Rotten Tomatoes hands out 0% ratings. Many — if not most — of Cage’s performances draw reviews that lie somewhere between very poor and utter garbage. That’s unsurprising. But many critics, including Roger Ebert (who won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, the first film critic to do so), have given him astoundingly positive ratings, describing his performances as ‘operatic’. Ebert even went so far as to say that Cage should be included in “the great living male movie stars,” with the likes of “De Niro, Nicholson, and Pacino.”

But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Cage’s career is his role selection. With titles like Bangkok Dangerous, Windtalkers, and Ghost Rider, there is never an expected Nicolas Cage movie. I’ll take this opportunity to run through a few of the more bizarrely premised Cage films:

Raising Arizona (1987), a Coen brothers’ production, is entertaining if only for the fact that Nicolas Cage steals a baby (though far from as exciting as stealing the Declaration of Independence).

The Wicker Man (2006) has it all: Cage infiltrating a neo-pagan cult; Cage in a bear suit; Cage punching women; Cage dying via bee helmet.

Matchstick Men (2003) could be considered one of Cage’s better performances, playing a conman with OCD who discovers he has a daughter.

Con Air (1997). “I said, put the bunny back in the box.” Enough said.

Vampire’s Kiss (1989) stars Cage as a mentally ill man becoming a vampire.

And there are oh-so-many more. It could be the thrill of the challenge or his love of the art that draws Nick Cage to such daring/strange/horrible roles… or maybe it’s the $40 million yearly income.

But Cage is misunderstood. More people have watched “Nicolas Cage Losing His Shit” on YouTube than Leaving Las Vegas (1996) in theaters, for which Cage won the Academy Award for Best Actor. This rep certainly wasn’t alleviated by his large budget movies, National Treasure and Ghost Rider, which no amount of Academy Awards could exfoliate. A closer look at Cage’s approach to dramaturgy reveals something much deeper than what at first seems to be mere hysterics.

Cage’s choice in roles (and lifestyle, for that matter) is telling of his approach to acting. PBS Idea Channel with Mike Rugnetta has tossed around the concept of Nicolas Cage as the intersection of YOLO and Taoism, particularly in his role selection. Rugnetta suggests a theory of the “Tao of Nick Cage,” and that this ineffable Tao would resemble that of Master Zhuang and his self-titled magnum opus of philosophy. Master Zhuang — much like Nick Cage — concocts preposterous scenarios through which he reexamines our understanding of truth. Through this departure from realism, both Master Zhuang and Nicolas Cage act as a conduit to another mode of thinking, which I would argue all “good” art does, if nothing else. According to Master Zhuang, the ideal man is pure in spirit, uninterested in life and death, good or bad (of course, Master Zhuang meant good and bad movie roles, not the concept of goodness and badness). In other words, the ideal man is Nicolas Cage. (Nor is this the first historical Nic Cage doppelganger — the others being physical rather than philosophical. A Civil War era photo has resurfaced on the internet showing the spit and image of Nicolas Cage. Cage’s humanity has of course been called into question before, as his face has been said to resemble closely some depictions of the Virgin Mary, and the idea of vampirehood has been considered by some to be the only explanation.)

Cage came on the acting scene in the early 1980s, and has since made over 70 films. He says, “I started acting because I wanted to be James Dean. I saw him in Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden. Nothing affected me — no rock song, no classical music — the way Dean affected me in Eden. It blew my mind. I was like, ‘That’s what I want to do’.” From the beginning of his career, Cage has been cranking out films, each one with a new, surprising performance. Cage’s performances are Mentos in Diet Coke bottles in cardboard boxes — chaos within a very flimsy form of reason. Cage has said, “I feel movies are best left enigmatic, left raising more questions than answers,” which is exactly how his audience often reacts—confused, raising more questions than answers. And Cage himself is nothing if not “enigmatic.”

Cage has developed his own method of acting, which he has titled “Nouveau Shamanic.” When asked about this style, he said, “…thousands of years ago, pre-Christian for example, the medicine men or the tribal shamans were really actors. What they would do is they would act out whatever the issues were with the villagers at that time, they would act it out and try to find the answers or go into a trance or go into another dimension, which is really just the imagination, and try to pull back something that would reflect the concerns of the group.” This may sound ridiculous, but if anything it is an image of what cinema accomplishes, ironically, when it rises above mere entertainment. This style, though, is certainly a departure from the norm, which may be the reason why many audiences gag at the sight of Cage flailing on screen. Ethan Hawke notes this innovation, extolling his fellow thespian by calling him “the only actor since Marlon Brando that’s actually done anything new with the art of acting,” adding that Cage has “successfully taken us away from an obsession with naturalism into a kind of presentation style of acting that I imagine was popular with the old troubadours.” And this is certainly something he aimed to do, noting his performance in Vampire’s Kiss (1989) as his first veer from the mode of realism with which cinematic acting is enthralled. This realism is what audiences want; one might even say it is a manufactured style à la The Culture Industry — a standard imposed top-down by Hollywood. It is what draws audiences into the film, allowing them to forget that, in fact, they are sitting there unemployed, alone, hungry, etc. staring at a screen for two hours. But Cage, in many of his performances, shoves this fact right in your face, leaving no choice but to recognize the bizarre and the surreal.

So: is Nicolas Cage really the cheesy-crusted icon of absurdity, or is he a genius? I, for one, think it is long past time to reconsider Nicolas Cage (although public opinion is not at the top of Cage’s priorities, which certainly explains his public image…) His histrionics have broken barriers, whether or not we even knew those barriers were there.