Essay: The Absurdity of Passion: Nicolas Cage

In this essay, I explore the craft of acting through the work of Academy Award-winning actor Nicolas Cage.

The Absurdity of Passion: Nicolas Cage


“There are often lists of the great living male movie stars:
De Niro, Nicholson and Pacino, usually. How often do you see the
name of Nicolas Cage? He should always be up there.”

(Ebert, 2008)


In this essay, I explore the craft of acting through the work of Academy Award-winning actor Nicolas Cage, in particular the films Wild at Heart (1990), Leaving Las Vegas (1995), and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009), and I explore the manner in which Cage approaches his craft, from the influence of method acting, or “working from the inside out”, in his early days (Gibb, 2015, 20), to his slow refutation of traditional ‘realism’ and embracement of both “working from the outside in” and more surreal styles from the early 1990s to present-day. (Gibb, 2015, 22) It is this interest of his in larger, more dramatic acting styles that I primarily focus on, and I explore his creation of new, personal acting styles: “Western Kabuki” (Gibb, 2015, 28) and “Nouveau Shamanic” (Nordine, 2014). Through this exploration of the many forms that Cage has taken throughout his career, I argue that his range, diversity and fearlessness to experiment places Cage in the highest tier of modern actors.

As a young actor trying to find his place in the business, Cage, after having studied at the American Conservatory Theatre for three months (Cage, 2003), found an interest in method acting, inspired by Robert DeNiro and in particular his performance in Raging Bull (1980) (Cage, 2003). The style of method acting derives from Lee Strasberg’s teachings, which in turn were inspired by Constantin Stanislavski’s idea of “the system” (Hirsch & Bell, 2014). The idea is to get into the character “from the inside out”, so as to fully understand the character you are portraying, and in doing so, create a sense of truth in the performance. Whilst acting in The Cotton Club (1984), Cage decided to take the method acting technique and apply it to real life, so as to get fully into the head of his character, a psychotic gangster – he approached a street vendor selling remote control cars and smashed one of them in front of the man, paying the man after the incident. (Cage, 2003) Another example of his dedication to method acting early on was his role in the film Birdy (1984), in which he played a Vietnam War veteran: to get into character, he had two of his teeth pulled out and wore a bandage over his face throughout the shoot. (Gibb, 2015, 22) It is this kind of method acting that some actors undertake to fully understand their character in search of truth on screen: if they can be this character utterly, then the audience watching will be further able to empathise with them.

But before too long, Cage started experimenting with other styles of acting. He found that the naturalist style that resulted from method acting can be incredibly effective but can become boring, and he did not want to become a boring actor. (Gibb, 2015, 20) By his appearance in David Lynch’s 1990 film Wild at Heart, Cage was becoming tired with method acting and wanted to try new styles. It was through this film that he was able to shed method acting as his primary acting style and move towards the “from the outside in” style that he refers to as being a more British style of acting. (Cage, 2003) This style of acting has a focus on the look and exterior mannerisms of the character – Stella Adler said that “[w]hat you put on […] affects you inside. What’s outside what makes you feel certain things inside” and that as such, “the costume is the character.” (Adler, 2000, 200) One example of this in Wild at Heart is the snakeskin jacket worn by Cage’s character Sailor throughout the movie. Cage owned this jacket himself, and asked Lynch if he could wear it in the film. David Lynch liked the idea, and added it into the script. (Wood, 2015) The jacket ends up having a large connection to the character of Sailor: Sailor is a rebellious man, and a big believer in being himself, and he expresses this through his choice of clothes, saying on a number of occasions that his jacket is a symbol of his individuality. (Lynch, 1990) Another facet of Cage’s performance in Wild at Heart is Sailor’s voice and demeanour, a clear homage to Elvis Presley – as a testament to Cage’s wide range of influences in his acting styles, he claimed to have been inspired to play Sailor as Elvis as a reference to Andy Warhol’s famous duplicates, as well as an attempt to specifically break the rule set by Stanislavski that an actor should never imitate someone else. (Gibb, 2015, 41) Sailor is also an incredibly animated character: he dances, flails around, fakes kung fu moves, sings Elvis songs, beats people up – all of this showing Cage’s physical dedication to his craft, and backing up his view that naturalist, low-key acting was not the way to go for the role, and showing his increasing interest in more surreal styles of acting.

Another example of his use of physicality is in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. True to the idea of outside-in acting, Cage plays the character of Lieutenant McDonagh with a constant limp, due to a back injury attained whilst saving a prisoner from drowning, which gives him a lumbering and threatening demeanour. But another element of this physicality is in the use of his face and voice: McDonagh frequently loses it, shouting and screaming at whoever is close to him, and speaks through gritted teeth due to the pain he is constantly in. In The Art of Acting (Adler, 2000), Stella Adler speaks of the power of words, and the importance of knowing how and when to speak in certain ways. (Adler, 2000, 205) Cage demonstrates his knowledge on the use of words and speech extensively throughout Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, showing a man who has become embittered by, and is angry at, the world, who constantly harasses and abuses the people around him; even to the people he meets in passing, he hisses at them aggressively, the pain inside him too great to suffer other humans. It is the character lashing out at the world due to what he sees as the unfair afflictions in his life – but even in the darkness, he recognises his love for his girlfriend, a prostitute. She is the only character that he speaks to with a quieter, more caring demeanour, showing his affection for her by not lashing out at her like he does everyone else. The only other character that he really treats like this is the criminal he saves at the start, when he meets him again at the end: the man is attempting rehabilitation, and expresses gratitude to McDonagh for giving him that chance. He and McDonagh go and sit in an aquarium, Cage’s voice now hushed to a contemplative mutter: he is given a moment of tranquillity where his pain is not making him lash out any more, his lack of venom showing us the character in a moment of a peace that has been lacking in his life since he damaged his back. It is this use of extremes in his use of speech that help to paint a truthful picture of the character and give the audience some insight into why he acts like he does throughout the movie.

Cage compared his performance in the film to impressionistic painting, in that his character is constantly on drugs but he played the character sober, and instead imagined “how the drugs would affect the character’s vocal quality or facial mannerisms” (Keough, 2010) – he identified each drug that McDonagh was on and added different elements of them to different parts of the performance. To achieve this, he used the technique of sense memory to recall past times where he had been drunk or high, making the portrayal of a man unhinged from drug use blurry around the sides but no less truthful. Sense memory is a technique used in different forms of acting, and was one of the earliest techniques he learned whilst he studied at the American Conservatory Theatre. (Cage, 2003) The idea of it is to draw upon past memories and bring them out in the performance, so as to make the performance as visceral as possible and without overthinking it too much or turning the performance into an intellectual endeavour that could stunt the immediacy of the performance. (Weston, 1996, 150)

In 1995, Cage won the Academy Award for Best Actor, for his portrayal of Ben Sanderson, a suicidal alcoholic, in Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas. (Gibb, 2015, 38) This performance finds Cage acting from both sides of the spectrum, both inside-out and outside-in, and also shows Cage being both extreme and reserved. His work from the inside-out came from his research of alcoholism, and how he took to drinking in preparation for the role – but as opposed to what the young Cage would have done, he did not drink himself through the film, recognising that that would have been too much of a gamble. (Ebert, 1995) The outside-in came from Cage finding physical objects that he felt connected him to the character (the character of Ben Sanderson, in both the film and the novel it is based on, is a semi-autobiographical portrayal of the novel’s author, John O’Brein, who committed suicide before the film was made), so as to build the character’s persona around the things that he owned. (Ebert, 1995)

One of the elements of Cage’s costume in the film are his sunglasses: these can be seen as an ‘object correlative’, an item that is linked to a character and which says something about their personality. (Butler, 2007, 58) Sanderson is a man tired of life, who has a wish to drink himself to death in Las Vegas. His sunglasses, which he often wears indoors, show how closed off he is to the rest of the world, as the sunglasses allow him to avoid eye contact and seem distant to the people around him. He is not always wearing these glasses, and as his relationship with the prostitute Sera continues, he wears them less and less, now being more open to human contact. Another more obvious object correlative is the alcohol: he is never without a drink to hand, both when he is indoors and out in Vegas. Indoors, he has a cache of drinks of all varieties, from whiskey to beer, often drinking from multiple drinks at once. This object correlative is the signifier of his desire to die, as it is the tool that he is using to commit suicide.

Whilst playing a more down-to-earth character than the wild Sailor, Cage was drawn to the melodrama within the script, and took to the piece by acting in a style he referred to as ‘operatic’ (Ebert, 1995), playing heavily on his emotions and the mental state of the character. He plays Sanderson in many ways: quiet, loud, happy, sad, tired, restless, living, and, finally dying; it is a role of extremes, where he employs his full “bag of tricks” (Weston, 1996, 160) in an attempt to portray this character as vividly and truthfully as possible. Every actor can bring their own take on a character, as the script is a “skeleton” until the chosen actor has identified what it is that they think makes that character tick, and how most effectively to portray that character and their relationships with other characters (Moss, 2004, 111); as recognised by the Academy, Cage brought to the role something powerfully unique – it was his range of (and love for) extremes that allowed him to play it so powerfully.

It is through these mixing of styles that Cage started to formulate his idea of ‘Western Kabuki’. Whilst the Japanese theatre style of kabuki has gone through many changes, its main components are a “collaboration of acting, sound and physicality” (Gibb, 2015, 28), and can be seen as an avant-garde style of performance – fitting in with Cage’s desire to move away from realism. Cage sees the main part of his Western Kabuki style as the use of his voice, wanting to use it in “a heavy-metal or operatic or baroque way.” (Gibb, 2015, 29) Kabuki plays have been seen as less works of literature and more as vehicles for the central performers to “demonstrate their enormous range skills in visual and vocal performance” (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2014) – looking at some of Cage’s later films, such as The Wicker Man (2006) or Drive Angry (2011), it can be seen that Cage’s kabuki style has been taken to the fore of the films he stars in, but in films such as Wild at Heart and Leaving Las Vegas, and later Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, this exaggerated and experimental style is meshed with the subject matter of the film to bring out truths within the characters that he is playing. The side of kabuki centred around dance is evident, too: his mother, a trained dancer, likened his performance in Wild at Heart as similar to modern dance, due to his unbridled physicality and how unpredictable he was in how he used it. (Brockes, 2013) Eventually, his dabbling in Western Kabuki led to him creating another acting method, this one called ‘Nouveau Shamanic’ (Gibb, 2015, 30), in which Cage wanted to find parallels between ancient Shamans and modern actors. Shamans typically used spiritual practices to bring about altered states of consciousness, with rituals being the centre of those practices; rituals would induce “trance, mystical visions, out of body experiences, a radical shift in awareness, [and] soul-journeying” (Dox, 2014, 115). This acting method could be seen as the culmination of his experimentations with avant-garde acting: as a part of the method, Cage would attach ancient artefacts to his clothing, gather crystals and minerals that are known to produce vibrations, and paint his face black and white in the style of Afro-Caribbean shamans. All of this may seem somewhat over-the-top for preparation for the central role in Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012), but it shows Cage’s dedication to every role that he throws himself into: if he is to play a being from another dimension, then he will find the means to understand what it is to be a being from another dimension.

Cage is an actor that pushes boundaries, unafraid of results. Ethan Hawke has described him as the only actor since Marlon Brando to try new techniques within acting, an actor who has taken us away from an obsession with naturalism and into a performance-based style of acting more similar to those of the old troubadours. (Gibb, 2015, 31) The idea of linking Cage to an older style of acting is well founded; his acting style can be compared to that of a silent movie star (Gibb, 2015, 31), as well as him being compared to Werner Herzog’s old leading man Klaus Kinski in his movements and use of facial expressions. (Keough, 2010) More than that, he has stated that he grew up watching German expressionist films such as Nosferatu (1922) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) from a very early age. Influences such as these show how an actor like Cage could formulate his own acting styles away from those in the norm, refuting the method acting of the time and moving in a new direction entirely; not just returning to older, more exaggerated acting styles but also finding new ways to express himself, and in the process finding new ways to portray truth on the screen.

Judith Weston, when discussing whether to favour the inside-out style of acting or the outside-in acting style, states that “surely the best actors can do both.” (Weston, 1996, 145) Cage understands this. It is this restlessness in his search for truth that makes him so notable – looking at his body of work, he has played “yuppies, scumbags, honorable rogues, heroes, villains, a gangster, a lovelorn punk, a pair of screenwriters, a greasy weapons dealer, at least a dozen cops and ex-cons” (Gibb, 2015, 74) – the list goes on, and has taken to each role with his own take on it, more often than not fitting the part and turning the character he is playing into something unique. For this, he can surely never be called boring. His breadth of knowledge on the craft of acting indicates a man fully immersed in his craft: his use of voice and physicality, his use of working from the outside-in as much as inside-out, his understanding that costume and props can build a character, his interest in merging theatrical styles with more traditional screen acting styles, his lack of fear of playing characters new to him, his creation of new methods of acting; all of these things show an actor not just fully immersed in his craft but also fully dedicated to it. Weston states that “[t]he really great actors love their craft. They experience acting as a kind of laboratory of the soul, a means of exploration and growth” (Weston, 1996, 141) – this is certainly true of Cage, a man who has dedicated his life to exploration and growth not just in his life, but also in his craft. An actor who believes that it is important to “break as many rules as you can” (Cage, 2003), Cage always pushes forward, even when appearing in low-budget or mainstream films. It is this kind of attitude that sets him apart from most modern actors, many of whom are content to play similar roles time and time again, and it is this kind of attitude, along with his impressive body of work and expansive range, that puts Cage in the ranks of the greatest actors of all time.




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