Monday, September 14, 2009

Question of the Day: Nicolas Cage -- Horrible actor, or good in the right role?

Pretty straight forward question today: what do you all think of Nicolas Cage? I personally think he deserves what he gets for things like The Wicker Man and Ghost Rider, but I also think he deserves to be recognized for how great he can be in the right role: Wild at Heart, Leaving Las Vegas, Adaptation, and The Weather Man just to name a few. What are some other good roles? Or do you think he's always bad? I've always found Cage to be a curious actor who makes curious decisions. I think it's safe to say there's a good actor buried under there, and even though he may be bad in certain roles...he's never uninteresting. One needs only to see The Wicker Man for proof.

I was thinking about this because of the new Herzog/Cage collaboration Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans...the trailer is interesting to say the least. If you haven't seen it yet the trailer comes after the jump...

Click here to view video


  1. In an interview on TCM with Robert Osborne, Sydney Lumet was asked about Rod Steiger, an actor also saddled with the reputation for uneven performances but known for some classic films. To paraphrase, Sydney said, "I'd rather have an actor with that type of volatility inside, because even if I manage to suppress it, you'll always see some of that in his eyes. It is much harder to direct emotion out of a performer who is flat."

    In most of his best performances, Cage is being directed by someone with a strong hand when it comes to performances.

  2. Tony pretty much sums up my thoughts on Cage, as well. With the right director who knows how to reign in his more overactor-ly tendencies (or harness them for good), Cage can be a very good actor.

    Otherwise, you get Next, Wicker Man, and Ghost Rider.

    There doesn't seem to be an average performance from Cage -- it's either very good or extremely poor.

  3. Hey Kevin, first congrats (I didn't get a chance to say anything after your honeymoon). I looked up Cage's filmography on imdb after your post and I realized there are quite a few films of his that I really like and think that he was really, really good in. It seems as if his film choices run to both end of the spectrums but when he's good, he's very good, imo. I'm really looking forward to Bad Lieutenant ("favorite Crack pipe?") and I hope he's got some other good roles lined up. I hope the rumor about him working with John Carpenter comes about, because I'd definitely see that one also. Great posts lately too, Kevin, and keep 'em coming.

  4. Cage is one of the best actors of his generation who is wasting time giving ridiculous performances for pap. I understand that he makes more money that way and probably has a lot of fun, but he's given enough classic performances that I just feel robbed sometimes.

    This is going to sound weird, but one of the films that best encapsulates what makes Cage great is Face-Off, follow me here. His character has a quirk in the film where he puts his hand over the face of loved ones. It's a pretty cheesy and too on-the-nose concept, and that all comes through when Travolta is playing the character, but Cage is somehow able to imbue it with real feeling and legitimacy that's heartbreaking.

  5. Tony:

    That is a great quote, there. I agree with you that Cage is only as good as his director.

  6. Troy:

    Yes, Cage is an either/or director -- there is no middle ground with him. Some of his manic stuff I actually enjoy as a guilty pleasure...I mean sure the movie sucked, but his performance in The Wicker Man cements its status as a so-bad-it's-good cult film for years to come. I also quite enjoy his action work like The Rock, Face/Off, and Con Air...he seems to be having a lot of fun in those roles, and it's fun watching him.

  7. Hans:

    Thanks for the kind words and for stopping by and commenting.I wasn't are of the rumors of him and Carpenter doing a movie together. That would be awesome. I think we're all in agreement here about Cage's abilities. Thanks again for stopping by!

  8. Krauthammer:

    I agree with you about Face/Off. Actors in John Woo films are handicapped because his films are so heavy on action and melodrama...but you're right, despite the cheese of that movie it's one of my favorite Cage performances -- especially before the 'ol switch-a-roo where he's just having a hell of a time hamming it up as the bad guy.

  9. Here’s a good one. This guy at Martiniboys ( says “This is going to be silly and bad, but hopefully it’s self-consciously silly and bad. The movie will offer proof that either both the director and star are completely nuts or they both have been planning an elaborate in joke that we just didn’t get.”

  10. For me, Cage lost his mojo after he won the Oscar. He really needs to hook up with Lynch again... or fire his agent. That being said, the trailer for the new BAD LT. film looks hilarious! Shades of Cage's unhinged performance in VAMPIRE'S KISS which still stands as one of the oddest tour-de-forces that Cage has ever graced us with. We shall see.

  11. Phil:

    That quote is interesting because that's what I thought Labute and Cage were trying to do with The Wicker Man. Thanks for stopping by and supplying the link.

  12. J.D.:

    Yes, he lost A LOT of his mojo after the Oscar, but I still stand by The Weather Man, a film I will endlessly defend. It's one of his best performances. It just worked on all levels for me.

  13. Over the weekend I saw Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead. Words can't begin to describe my love for the film. Cage gave my favorite Cage performance to date because, this time, he seemed like a naturalistic actor- not like the raving maniac in Jewison's Moonstruck or Lynch's Wild at Heart.

    No- Scorsese tamed Cage. In Bringing Out the Dead, his character does more listening than talking, and that pleased me. I hear that Scorsese picked Cage for the role after De Palma recommended him "during a Christmas dinner". He made the right choice.

    Otherwise, I've always had a love/hate relationship towards Cage's performances. In the worst hands (i.e. Michael Bay or Jon Turtletaub), he can be dreadful. In the hands of a master, well... it dependson a screenplay. I'll be looking forward to Bad Lieutenant even though Herzog's American releases are rarely as interesting as his native German projects.

  14. Adam:

    Great call with Bringing Out the Dead, one of my favorite Scorsese films. I'm almost embarrassed I forgot to add that to the list of great Cage performances. I think it's easily one Scorsese's most underrated films. I would rank it in his top five, and Cage's performance (and tendencies) are perfectly juxtaposed with the manic nature of the film. There are times in the film where Cage's character loses it, and we see glimpses of the outrageous Nicolas Cage we've seen in countless films, but you're right, for the most part Scorsese took Cage and toned him down -- which seems odd at first since the film is so kinetic, it seems like he want Cage's natural energy to match that, but he goes for the opposite effect and it really makes Cage's performance stand a good way.

    Great insights, Adam. Thanks as always for stopping by.

  15. Oh, goody!

    As much as I love to loath Cage, the answer is both, but leaning toward horrible.

    What does that mean?

    It means that, yes, as Tony and others have suggested, the right director can stimulate the right performance from Cage. But this shouldn't surprise us. That's a director's job: to get the shots he/she wants. The list of generally horrible actors who turn in significantly better performances given strong directors/material is pretty long. So in my mind that's a reflection of a director's ability more than the actor's.

    Personally the only wholly satisfying Cage performance is his double turn in Adaptation, a film I still can't believe I love given that Cage is all over it. I also think some his more Cage-esque performances, if you will, in movies like Honeymoon in Vegas and The Rock, are defensible for what they are ... not good, but somehow appropriate to the whole mood, wherein being "good" would have stood out like an upper-crust British accent at a teamsters rally in New Jersey.

    I think Cage has always been wildly overpraised for some of his earlier work, like Raising Arizona. In my opinion, he was lucky enough to deliver such oddball performances when people assumed they were a stretch. If Cage gave the same performances now, a lot of us would roll our eyes.

    Back to the topic of why I lean toward horrible: Before we go and blame Cage's recent suckiness on the films he's been in, consider Harrison Ford, another actor who has churned out movies over the years but who isn't a guy you'd credit for having great range or transformability (he's always kind of Harrison Ford, you know?). Well, Ford can't elevate sucky movies (I'm looking at you, Firewall), but few of us would walk away from those movies citing Ford as an obstacle preventing our enjoyment. With Cage it's hard to say the same thing, and too often of late he creates these chicken-and-egg debates. "Did Knowing suck because of Cage, or did Cage suck because of Knowng?" That kind of thing. I think that's telling.

  16. Jason:

    Damn, that's a good argument against Cage. I like your point about Ford, but I would say that anything post The Fugitive shows Ford as an actor interested in only cashing in a paycheck. He just kind of grumbles and grwoles his way from one terrible performance to another. I do think that K-19: The Widowmaker was bad because of Ford and his horrrible attempt at an accent. His acting was so awful in that movie that it distracted from Kathryn Bigelow's direction...which granted was one of her lesser films, but more because of Ford's performance than anything she did.

    But you're right, he's less hated than Cage. I mean there are a lot of actors, as you mention, who seem to be okay with the right director (Affleck gets the same backlash as Cage, but he's not taken nearly as seriously when offered a serious role), but I also think it shows an actor with considerable talent who is willing to put forth the effort because they see the director's vision.

    I mean can we blame Cage for being hacky in Next or Ghost Rider? It's not like those movies instill the need to hit it out of the park as an actor -- besides human actors are afterthoughts in modern action movies filled with CGI. If you watch Cage in real movies made by competent filmmakers you see an actor who makes interesting decisions.

    I find Cage to be a fascinating actor. Sure, I don't go see everything he's in because you can usually tell what's going to suck by the look of the trailer; however, I think more so than any other actor working today the decent-to-great films he does end up making are unfairly ridiculed because of the bad stigma that gets placed on him when he gets (rightly) panned for stuff like Bangkok Dangerous or Gone in 60 Seconds.

    I think there's something there. I know I may be in the minority among the blogging community, but watch The Weather Man, and you'll an actor who is known for being over-the-top dial it down and play subdued -- going for understated, dark laughs.

    Thanks for supplying a great counter argument, though, Jason. I definitely see where you're coming from.

  17. Question of the Day: Nicolas Cage - Horrible actor...?


    Oh, wait: there's more?

    Like Jason, I'm surprised to find Cage's performance in "Adaptation" my favorite. You'd think that two of him would be twice as bad as one, yet the splitting of his persona has the surprising effect of neutralizing his most annoying aspects.

    Unlike Jason, I also love Cage in "Raising Arizona." His work in "Moonstruck" is wonderfully imaginative. And he develops a sweet and charming rapport with Bridget Fonda in the movie about the guy who wins the lottery that got the generic title nobody remembers. (I recall instead the title that got dropped: "Cop Gives Waitress $50 Million Tip.")

    Is it a coincidence that his best roles seem to come from comedies? Nearly everything else, especially this endless action-hero bullshit...yeesh. Even that still of him putting his hand over his mouth in the "Bad Lt." remake, all I could think was, "What a douche."

    Always leave open the possibility for redemption, though.

  18. Craig:

    I think you're right about Cage's charm in comedies. The movie you're thinking of was called It Could Happen to You...and that's all I remember about it. I'm hoping more people will show up and sit on the side of the argument that you and Jason do...because as I've stated numerous times...I think he's pretty good and unfairly judged in some roles.

    But I certainly understand that is not a popular I'm waiting for more people to take me to task, hehe.

    Thanks, as always, for stopping by.

  19. I mean can we blame Cage for being hacky in Next or Ghost Rider?

    I didn't see Next, but I'd respond to the second part of the question with this: If we're to assume that Cage is underrated, is there any major star who would have been worse in Ghost Rider than Cage? In other words, I agree with you: often the material has no value and Cage's poorest action is signing on to the movie in the first place. Heck, as laughable as Cage is in Ghost Rider, he's a hell of a lot better than Wes Bentley. Then again, when's the last time you left one of his movies and said, "I just love seeing Nic Cage!"?

  20. Heck, as laughable as Cage is in Ghost Rider, he's a hell of a lot better than Wes Bentley. Then again, when's the last time you left one of his movies and said, "I just love seeing Nic Cage!"?.

    True and more true. Hehe. I usually do find myself quantifying the Cage movie I want to see by saying "Spike Jonze directed that...or Scorsese is working with him..."; however, the one movie I did take a chance on because the trailer just looked so odd was The Weather Man. I thought he was great in that...aided again by a good screenplay.

    I think we can all be in agreement that Cage isn't one of the best actors working today -- he doesn't have the ability to rise above the poor material he so often works with and make something memorable of it.

    Thanks for clarifying, though, Jason. You raise a valid point.

  21. Just a bit off topic but in defense of Harrison Ford, I think his strongest work came in the 1980s where he took some truly adventurous projects. In between boffo box office paycheck movies like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and the STAR WARS films, he did great work in diverse films like BLADE RUNNER, WITNESS, FRANTIC and THE MOSQUITO COAST. Very impressive. But I wonder if the commercial failure of some of those films scared him off of doing more riskier material in the 1990s and onwards?

  22. J.D. To be clear, I'm not slamming Harrison Ford. I'm a fan. (Note: I was lucky enough to skip K-19: The Widowmaker, which I believe is as painful as Kevin describes.)

    Heck, just in the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies Ford creates some amazing moments that are too easily overlooked. Then again, when I recognize Witness as one of Ford's best films, I certainly don't see it as some kind of untouchable performance, like Brando in On the Waterfront. Now, sure, few can match Brando at his best. It's an extreme comparison. But hopefully you can see where I'm coming from.

    I brought up Ford because (K-19 aside) one of his greatest strengths is his ability to avoid delivering offensive performances. Robert Redford has the same skill. Cage and, say, Kevin Costner? Not so much.

  23. J.D.:

    Good observation about Ford's career in the 80's. True, as Jason says, he's not specifically what makes Witness, Blade Runner, and Frantic so great, but he has a quality in those films that isn't there in the movies he made in the late 90's and 00's. I caught part of Six Days, Seven Nights on Starz the other night and I have to say that it's as bad as I remember it being. He had zero chemistry with Anne Heche (which may have more to do with her), but mostly I just noticed that the Ford who could turn that performance into a fun one was gone. He seemed to just kind of sleepwalk through that role. Ford always had a charming quality about him in those types of roles, and after The Fugitive it's like he didn't care anymore.

    I blame Ally McBeal.

  24. Jason:

    I think Robert Redford is another example of an actor who can make anyting interesting. Yes, I'm with you on some opf Ford's performances as not being "untouchable", but I would say his ability to "avoid offensive performances" has subsided. Hollywood Homicide was was the aforementioned K-19, What Lies Beneath, Random Hearts, and the horrible Crash-esque Crossing Over.

    It's sad, too, because he was so memorable as Jack Ryan, serviceable in the movie about the president (I can't remember the title...but Gary Oldman was the bad guy), and really quite charming in Sydney Pollack's underrated Sabrina.

    As for Kevin Costner...well...I feel the same way about him that I do about Cage. I think he's an actor who too often unfairly taken to task for past crimes. Yes, he was possibly the stiffest and most horrid Elliot Ness we've seen in film or on television, but he has a charming quality about him in his sports movies not named For Love of the Game. I loved Open Range, and thought his performance in JFK was outstanding.

    Perhaps I just have a strange affinity for the actors who get picked on a lot. I'm not saying their above it and don't deserve for the crap roles they choose, but I really don't think there's anything too horribly offensive about Cage and Costner, either. I actually think Costner is the reason to see a movie like Swing Vote...certainly not the most memorable film, but I liked it enough for what it was, and I really can't imagine someone else in the lead role. He plays irresponsible slob well, hehe.

  25. Jason Bellamy:

    Thanks for the clarification. I didn't think you were slamming him - altho, his post-FUGITIVE work is certainly ripe for roasting. I've always found Ford to have a limited range as an actor but he really knows how to work within that range (much like Clint Eastwood) and I think the wide range of roles he played in the 1980s certainly showed that he knew just how much to push the boundaries of his range as an actor without over-extending himself.

    I certainly do see where you're coming from, though.

    Kevin J. Olson:

    Good call on Ford sleeping walking through some of his more recent roles. I know it is fashionable to dump on the last INDY film but hell, at least Ford look like he actually gave a crap for once in how many years? And I think it is interesting to note the films that he turned down - TRAFFIC and SYRIANA which really could've revitalized his career and given some meatier material to work with.

    "and after The Fugitive it's like he didn't care anymore."

    Well said!

  26. Kevin: Wow, you rattled off a list of Ford movies that I (smartly) never saw and (just as brilliantly) managed to forget altogether until now. Wow. Then again, without seeing them, did you walk away from What Lies Beneath saying, "Oh, lord, Harrison Ford is just unbearable!"? Maybe you did. But if not, well, my use of Ford as a counterpoint to Cage might still hold, because people certainly have that kind of reaction to Cage.

    As for Costner, I think he's both fairly and unfairly criticized. I get annoyed when people gripe that all he can play is that all-American guy character in sports movies: Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, Tin Cup, For Love of the Game. I don't necessarily disagree, but that doesn't mean that one can't appreciate those performances. Costner doesn't bother me like Cage does, but he'd be wise to avoid accents.

    J.D.: He turned down Traffic and Syriana? Wow. Didn't know that. Unfortunate.

  27. J.D.:

    I knew he turned down Traffic...but I didn't know about Syriana. I agree with you about the newest Indy film, too. Not that great, but at least he looked interested in what he was doing on screen for the first time in a long time.

  28. Jason:

    Yeah, I didn't walk away thinking how bad What Lies Beneath was because of Ford (it was just a crap movie), but I did say that in regards to the other films I listed. It was his performances that were the most egregious thing about those movies.

    I agree with you about Costner and accents, hehe. Thirteen Days, anyone? But his performance in A Perfect World is one of the criminally underrated of his career, and showed an actor with considerable range.

  29. Good call on A PERFECT WORLD, perhaps my fave Costner performance (right up there with FANDANGO and BULL DURHAM) where he plays a fascinating flawed character. Eastwood really got a great performance out of him on that one. I also think it might be my fave Eastwood directorial effort as well. Such an underrated gem of a film.

  30. I agree, J.D. It's one of my favorite Eastwood pictures, too.

  31. I am one who believes Cage is an extremely overrated actor.

    But I enjoyed the thread and will remain silent.

  32. Don't hold back, Sam! Let it fly! Haha.

  33. I must defend Cage here. True, he has an oddball energy that can be difficult for him to keep reined in. But harnessed properly (again, the best analogy for me would be Rod Steiger) he can come up with some classic stuff: Adaptation, Bringing Out the Dead, Face/Off, Leaving Las Vegas, Moonstruck, Raising Arizona, Wild at Heart. Even Knowing is surprisingly good, and he underplays an awful lot in the film considering the subject matter. That's a hell of a resume, there.

    Flat lifeless actors cannot rise to the occasion no matter how good a director is, i.e. Ben Affleck who someone mentioned earlier in the thread always seems to distract me with his TMJ syndrome in every performance (yes, even in Chasing Amy and Dazed & Confused).

    And even great actors can suck under a weak director... Marlon Brando in Don Juan DeMarco or Candy; Robert De Niro in Analyze This or That; Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman and everything post-Carlito's Way.

    Cage is no Brando, but he's not a bad B-level actor. It's just disconcerting because his florid style is a callback to the mannered performances of the late fifties rather than the Method-inspired perfs more prevalent today.

  34. Cage is no Brando, but he's not a bad B-level actor. It's just disconcerting because his florid style is a callback to the mannered performances of the late fifties rather than the Method-inspired perfs more prevalent today.

    Well said, Tony. I couldn't agree more, and I'm glad you're in here sticking up for Cage with me! Hehe. Oh, and good call on the acting "giants" not being great when stuck with a poor really is sad to watch Al Pacino now, isn't it? Have you seen Righteous Kill? Very depressing.

  35. Tony: Good counter arguments, particularly bringing Ben Affleck into it. (I'm not sure I'd agree with you that Cage underplays anything in Knowing but rather that he underplays things from time to time relative to his norm of overplaying things. But this is subjective. I'm not trying to convince you.)

    This part, however, I'd like to debate: "And even great actors can suck under a weak director ... Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman and everything post-Carlito's Way."

    I see what you're getting at, and I agree with the first part. But when it comes to Pacino, I don't agree at all. Because, well, what evidence do we have that the guy is a "great" actor anymore? He was a great actor at one time, yes. He hasn't been lately, though.

    I'd argue that Pacino now and Pacino then might as well be two different guys. Their instincts are different. To put it bluntly, I don't think Pacino is capable of turning in a performance today that would rival, say, Dog Day Afternoon. I don't think there's a writer or a director who could lead him back to greatness. I think it's gone.

    But maybe I'm alone there. I'd be curious to know what others think.

  36. Jason:

    You're not alone on the Pacino thing. Out of curiosity I watched 88 minutes and Righteous Kill and it's just sad to see the shell of Pacino sleepwalking through those roles. I don't understand it. Perhaps he's content doing what he's doing, but I think you're right, I don't think it matters who directs him...he's still going to stink it up.

    I think it's interesting to try and find just where he lost it. He only made 5 films in the 80's, and his 90's stuff is still a little underrated...I actually quite like Sea of Love and his performances in Heat, Donnie Brasco, Glengarry Glen Ross, The Insider, Dick Tracy, and Carlito's Way. All of those were good performances by an actor still making interesting choices. I think the disconnect came when he started doing the overblown roles. I mean Pacino always been a loud actor -- he's always gravitated towards those roles where that tend to be a bit over-the-top; however, something about his late 90's work and most of his work through the 00's has just killed his credibility (I'm talking about stuff like The Devil's Advocate, Any Given Sunday, The Recruit, Two for the Money, et al.

    I haven't seen Nolan's remake of Insomnia or the HBO movie Angels in America, so I can't comment on his performances there, but you're right Jason, his performances of late have left something to be desired.

    I don't know why that is,'s not like he was completely terrible in the 90's.

  37. If there's one thing I've learned, it's that actors are always one step away from a comeback (and one step away of F-ing it all up as well).

    Somebody just has to catch Pacino at the right time, and suppress his spirited histrionics (why has Scorsese never worked with him... it seems they'd be a natural fit).

    Lest we forget, where was Travolta right before Pulp Fiction (same place he is now); or Burt Reynolds before Boogie Nights (and arguably, Striptease... the only thing worth mentioning about that film); or Mickey Rourke before The Wrestler and Sin City?

    All of these guys were in even worse movies with crappier perfs than Pacino. Even Pacino want through a dry spell before coming back in Sea of Love. Every actor needs what we all need... motivation. And if an actor is in a bad enough monetary situation, or feeling forgotten, or just nostalgic for the time when he was the bee's knees, he can come back.

  38. Pacino was pretty good in INSOMNIA even if it was a completely unnecessary remake. As someone who knows someone suffering from insomnia, Pacino nailed that feeling very well.

    He needs to hook up with a strong director (like Mann again) to get him to rise to the challenge once more. Cage as well, which is why we might be seeing an inspired performance from him in BAD LT. thanks to Herzog. I'd love to see either Cage or Pacino in a Soderbergh film. He'd make 'em bring their A game.

  39. Pacino was in a Soderbergh film, Ocean's Thirteen. Although I missed that one. Don't know if he was any good in that one, but I suspect I would have heard, so...

  40. Tony:

    You're right...actors do always have the comeback in them. And I liked Soderbergh's Ocean's Thirteen quite a bit, but Pacino seemed rather annoying in the movie -- no different than his role in something like Two For the Money.

  41. J.D.

    I agree...I think Pacino needs to just try something else -- unless he just doesn't care. I think the difference between Pacino now and what Tony is referring to in regards to Travolta, Rourke, or Burt Reynolds is that those actors were not just churning out bad performances, they couldn't get good roles in relevant movies.

    Pacino is at least still getting roles for films with decent budgets and ad campaigns. He's still starring next to people who are still on the forefront of movie audience's minds. He hasn't fallen off the map -- his acting has, but his name hasn't...and that's the sad, major difference between the lows of the acting careers of the men Tony mentioned, and the lows of Pacino's career.

  42. That's right! I had forgotten Pacino was in OCEAN'S THIRTEEN. Yeah, he was pretty good in that one and it was a fun film.

    Kevin J. Olson:

    You make some good points. I really don't know what Pacino is thinking these days. He was very good in ANGELS IN AMERICA. That's probably the last really solid performance he's delivered in some time.