During an Ask Me Anything session held on Reddit last year, Ethan Hawke praised a fellow thespian by calling him “the only actor since Marlon Brando that's actually done anything new with the art of acting,” adding that the performer in question 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.” Of whom was he speaking? Daniel Day-Lewis would be many people's guess; Joaquin Phoenix comes to mind as well.
“I have been exploring more operatic styles
Hawke actually was praising Nicolas Cage, he of former glory whose recent filmography might make that sentiment seem a bit odd. It may come as a surprise to anyone unfamiliar with Cage's best work, but Hawke is 100 percent right.
One suspects that many of Cage's detractors have seen the National Treasure and Ghost Rider movies, which are big in budget but slim in ideas, but not his collaborations with David Lynch (Wild at Heart) or Martin Scorsese (Bringing Out the Dead). A quick comparison of YouTube views and box office returns suggests the possibility that more people have watched the “Nicolas Cage Losing His Shit” video online than went to the theater for Leaving Las Vegas, for which Cage won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1996.
Has the quality of his corpus enabled some of these misconceptions? Certainly: 2009's sublime Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call — New Orleans and the upcoming Joe are bright spots among some tepid fare released in the last decade.
Cage turned 50 in January, and the sort of roles he was being offered in the '90s and early '00s now are more likely to go to a younger generation of stars. Nevertheless, a bad film starring the Long Beach native still tends to be more compelling than a mediocre one starring just about anyone else.
The American Cinematheque would appear to agree. It's presenting Out on a Limb: A Tribute to Nicolas Cage, April 4-6 at the Aero. Featured are Alan Parker's Birdy, the Coen brothers' Raising Arizona, Spike Jonze's Adaptation, Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant and an advance screening of David Gordon Green's Joe, which comes out next week. All are worth seeing; most are essential.
To actually speak to Cage for a phone interview is to have some preconceived notions instantly shattered. Asked about his current home near Las Vegas, a city whose embodiment of excess would appear to match the former castle-owner's own, he says it's simply a matter of being near the right school for his son. Cage is thoughtful and eloquent, displaying none of the manic energy for which he's become known. On the subject of the Aero's weekend retrospective, he sounds humbled and appreciative.
The most alluring screening at the series is Bad Lieutenant, given the postfilm Q&A involving Cage and Herzog. Cage plays a drug-addicted police officer in a loose reinterpretation of the Abel Ferrara classic; both Cage's performance and the movie itself represent chaos at its most controlled.
When told the film may represent the most fitting fusion between Cage's sensibilities and those of the filmmaker channeling them, he mentions meeting Herzog as a kid (“He was showing me his skull tattoo with a top hat and we were in the back of a car driving somewhere with my cousins”) before saying what this screening means to him: “I think it was important to show that, along with Joe, there was another movie that I made in recent years that evokes an independent spirit as well.”
In the very good Joe, Cage plays a man prone to rage who becomes something of a surrogate father to a boy whose own dad is a violent alcoholic. It's certainly a return to form for Green, who began his career with moving dramas including George Washington and All the Real Girls before venturing into the stoner-comedy realm with the likes of Pineapple Express, but to refer to it as such for Cage would falsely imply that he has only one form. “I have been exploring different styles of performance — I've explored more operatic styles, larger-than-life styles, what I call Western kabuki,” he says. “But at this point I kind of wanted to get into just feeling something without thinking too much about the shape of it.”
Asked about Nouveau Shamanic, the name he's given to his personal acting style, he seems slightly embarrassed by the question: “I can't really take credit for that. I read a book by professor Brian Bates called The Way of the Actor. I was really just recalling what I read in that, which is the notion that, 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.”
We've certainly seen Cage go into other dimensions, whether hallucinating a pair of iguanas in Bad Lieutenant or plumbing the depths of the writerly imagination in Adaptation, but his moving, homespun ruminations on the family unit in Raising Arizona are nothing if not down-to-earth. That he's as comfortable in one mode as he is in the other is hardly a secret, but it is an asset that few others share. He continues: “His point was that film actors in movies today are essentially doing the same thing. They may not know it; they may not call it that. It's just using an ancient word to describe a contemporary occupation…That's really all I was saying, and I realize that a lot could be made out of it, and it can sound like something really alternative in terms of its thinking. But if you look at it, it's pretty straightforward.”
There's something about that — “an ancient word to describe a contemporary occupation” — that recalls Hawke's mention of troubadours and hints at something essential about Cage. Perhaps it's because he's been acting for more than three decades and has appeared in as strange and diverse an array of projects as anyone else in that period, but no other actor comes to mind who so compellingly melds the old with the new, the extraordinary with the everyday.
OUT ON A LIMB: A TRIBUTE TO NICOLAS CAGE0x000A | Aero Theatre | April 4-6 | americancinemathequecalendar.com