GRAPHIC BY RIEL WHITTLE / THE FLAT HAT

As I first began to tell my friends and loved ones that I was setting out to watch all 95 films in which Academy Award-winning actor Nicolas Cage has appeared as a credited actor, it became clear to me that most people regarded the nuances of Mr. Cage’s filmography with disdain. Nearly all of them choose to hold Mr. Cage’s critical failures in the front of their memory and neglect his greatest triumphs. They choose to regard Mr. Cage as a tactless, over-acting hack and put him in a Rubbermaid Big Max Ultra 10.5ft x 7ft Storage Shed labeled “bad actors.” In choosing to embark on the cinematic odyssey which I have charted for myself, I am attempting to release myself from all preconceived biases surrounding the work of Mr. Cage and allow myself to be wholly immersed in the artistic career of this beautiful, chimeric man. At great risk to my own mental, physical, academic, and spiritual well-being, I intend to determine whether Mr. Cage is truly an overrated charlatan or a misunderstood genius. 

To accomplish this Sisyphean task, I will watch each film in which Mr. Cage has received an acting credit in chronological order of their release. After watching each film, I will grade it on three metrics: my personal rating of the film’s overall quality on a scale of 1-5, a similar rating of the quality of Mr. Cage’s performance on a scale of 1-5, and the “Cage binary”, a metric of my own devising which describes whether Mr. Cage’s performance improved the quality of the film or not. I intend to use these three metrics to quantify the quality of Mr. Cage’s career as it progresses from his first credited film appearance in 1982’s “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” to his most recent in 2019’s “Grand Isle” (it is worth noting here that Mr. Cage will be appearing in four films which were originally set to be released in 2020 that are currently delayed due to the ongoing pandemic). Additionally, I hope to craft a definitive ranking of all of Mr. Cage’s performances. It is my most sincere hope that this critically-minded expedition through Mr. Cage’s smörgåsbord of thespian work will open my eyes to the nuanced career of an actor who four-time Academy Award nominee Ethan Hawke once called “the only actor since Marlon Brando that’s actually done anything new with the art of acting”. 

In following the chronological career of Mr. Cage, we must begin with his first credited appearance in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”. Mr. Cage is credited by his legal name, Nicolas Coppola (Mr. Cage is the nephew of esteemed filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola). The film is wildly uncomfortable to watch in 2020 as a human being with a fully developed sense of empathy. Beside the rampant sexualization of children, racist character tropes, homophobia, troubling depiction of male-female relationships and over-reverence for the particular brand of capitalism popularized by Ronald Reagan in the early 80s, this movie is almost competently crafted. The cinematography, sound mixing, lighting and casting are all entirely acceptable. This film is notable in that it includes the work of esteemed actors such as Forest Whitaker, Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Judge Reinhold in the early stages of their careers. For the purposes of this project, however, the shoddy work of those deep-Hollywood hacks can go out the window. I’m here to watch Mr. Cage chew scenery. I gave this film more attention than it deserved, and as far as I can tell, Mr. Cage only appears in two scenes. In both of them, he turns in a stellar performance as a silent background artist. When I first saw him waltz across my screen in his fast-food cook uniform, I was struck by how slight Mr. Cage looked. In my 21 years as a watcher of cinema, I had grown accustomed to a more mature, beefy carapace for Mr. Cage. With Mr. Cage only 18 years old at the time of this film’s release, it is no surprise that he had not yet bloomed into the statuesque man I knew he would become, yet his particular appearance was nonetheless jarring. The performance Cage turns in is undoubtedly worthy of a positive mark on the Cage Binary, as my enjoyment of this film was drastically improved by his appearance in it. Unfortunately, because Mr. Cage was not given the screen time I know he deserved, I cannot grant his performance a score higher than 3 out of 5. The film itself, meanwhile, earns a 2 out of 5.

After that brief stint as a background artist, Mr. Cage received his first film credit as a leading man in 1983’s “Valley Girl.” “Valley Girl” tells the story of a romance between a young woman from L.A.’s upscale San Fernando Valley and a young man (played by Mr. Cage) from the rough and tumble Hollywood region. This movie is poorly made to a catastrophic extent. It is truly difficult to tell where the flaws in the film’s production end and the issues with Mr. Cage’s performance begin. To be entirely blunt, Mr. Cage is less engaging here than some conversations I have had with the bees I keep in my front yard. I am not at all surprised that this film has drifted into obscurity. Unfortunately for the young Mr. Cage, this film seems to have ended the possibility of him becoming a teen heartthrob. I will admit however, there were many moments when I found myself pausing the film to take in the youthful glow of Mr. Cage’s soft, gentle features. For “Valley Girl,” I give Mr. Cage a negative mark on the Cage Binary, 2 out of 5 for his performance, and 2 out of 5 for the film as a whole.

1983 also gives us “Rumble Fish,” Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s 1975 young adult novel of the same title. In the film, Mr. Cage plays Smokey, a young man in the remnants of a gang led by the film’s protagonist Rusty James. My perception of this film may have been skewed (I watched it at four in the morning immediately after finishing “Valley Girl”); however, the positive impact that a competent script and director had on the young Mr. Cage is truly remarkable. Mr. Cage turns in a competent and shockingly measured performance. Unfortunately for him, by the restrictions of the Cage Binary, a positive mark can only be rewarded if the film is improved by his presence within it. Mr. Cage’s restrained performance may have been what his uncle wanted, but as watcher of this film, I felt none of the childlike glee I know that I am meant to feel when I see Mr. Cage walk across my screen. I will be awarding him a zero on the Cage binary, a 3 out of 5 for his performance, and a 3 out of 5 for the film.

It is worth noting that in “Rumble Fish,” we see Mr. Cage begin to tackle the role that Hollywood would typecast him in for the next three films of his career: the abrasive and inconsiderate friend of a kind and earnest main character. “Racing With the Moon” and “Cotton Club,” two movies in which Mr. Cage earns positive marks in the Cage Binary, both provide us with a continuation of this characterization. We see Mr. Cage progress through a series of iniquities in these three films. In “Rumble Fish,” Stormy betrays the trust of his best friend. In “Racing With the Moon,” the story of two teenagers in California enjoying their final weeks of civilian life before enlisting to fight in World War II, Mr. Cage’s character cheats at the pool, disrespects women and repeatedly shows signs of alcoholism. In “Cotton Club,” a film about bootleggers and performers in Harlem in the early 1930’s, Mr. Cage plays a racist, foul-mouthed, and greedy enforcer for one of the gangs the film centers around. Over the course of these three films, Mr. Cage journeys through sin and vice. Each rendition of this character becomes fouler and more loathsome with each passing film. Only by watching these films in sequence can we get a glimpse into the overarching narrative of this early stage of Mr. Cage’s career. I believe that after his catastrophic performance in “Valley Girl”, Mr. Cage used his next three roles as a self-devised penance. In order to exorcise his intensely negative self-image, he portrayed characters who were as outwardly foul as he felt. By creating a new aspect of himself, Mr. Cage was able to place all his shame into a new spiritual vessel. Mr. Cage was a Jekyll crafting his own personal Hyde. This performative purgation culminates in “Cotton Club,” where Mr. Cage is finally liberated from that vessel when his character, Vincent, is unceremoniously murdered in a phone booth in retaliation for his greed and uncouth nature. At last, Nicolas Cage is free from his torment, and takes one massive step closer to artistic and spiritual liberation. Through the medium of film, Mr. Cage managed to accomplish the kind of personal catharsis that we all lust after in every waking moment. Who would not wish to see the worst aspects of themselves violently eliminated from their psyche? 

The first five films of the Cage canon are certainly not perfect films. Would I describe any of them as “good” or “worth watching”? Absolutely not. Am I troubled by the fact that only one of them does not overtly sexualize minors? Most definitely. However, more important than all these other questions, we must ask whether these films give us a brief, celestial glimpse into Mr. Cage’s mind, and to that the answer is undoubtedly “yes.” 

The Top Five ranking stands as follows:

  1. “Racing With the Moon” (1984)
  2. “Cotton Club” (1984)
  3. “Rumble Fish” (1983)
  4. “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982
  5. “Valley Girl” (1983)

 

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