Cage Turner

[Book] Nicolas Cage: Hollywood’s Wild Talent by Brian J. Robb

Following the runaway success of my abridged version of Danny Dyer’s biography, I present for your enjoyment, the abridged version of a used ten year old Nic Cage biography I found on Amazon. Much like Nic’s face, the cover is creased and slightly worn. It only covers his career up to 1999, so I guess somebody else will have to write the second instalment.

 Cage of innocence

Born Nicolas Coppola (the nephew of Francis Ford), Nic grew up watching Kurosawa and the work of silent stars like ‘man of a thousand faces’ Lon Chaney. Nic would similarly go on to be recognised as ‘the man of one face, often confused.’

Young Nic was plagued by nightmares, from visions of scary clowns to giant female genies who would pester him when he was on the toilet. ‘I used to have nightmares that my mother’s head was attached to a cockroaches body. That really freaked me out, so I was really horrified of bugs.’

In fourth grade he was the subject of attention for a bully who would steal his Twinkies and beat him up. ‘I got some Ray Bans, stuck some chewing gum in my mouth, got my older brother’s cowboy boots, and had this swagger when I got on the bus.’ Nic pretended to be Nicky Coppola’s tough cousin. He told the bully that if he messed with Nic he’d ‘get his ass kicked.’ His bravado worked and the bully backed off. ‘They bought it. They never beat me up again. It was really my first experience with acting. I learned I could act.’ It was Nicolas Cage’s first (some say only)  great performance.

Nic’s first romantic encounters were somewhat awkward. His high school Prom took a distinctly weird turn when Nic’s fear of his date overwhelmed him. ‘We’re at the Prom and I kissed her. When she responded I was so nervous I started throwing up. The limo driver wouldn’t let me back in the car as I had vomit on my shoes. So I walked home.’

It was watching The Godfather which provided the young Nic with his first sexual thrill. ‘ There was that scene where Al Pacino kisses the beautiful Sicilian woman and she takes her bra off. It really turned me on.’

From Cage to screen

Nic started taking acting classes, much to the chagrin of his father. ‘You’re never going to become an actor Nic! Why don’t you just forget about it!?’ His father wasn’t the only one with misgivings, Nic reasoning, ‘I don’t think people were equipped to take me seriously as an actor under the Coppola name.’ It was definitely the name that stopped people taking him seriously.

One of his earliest auditions was for the role of Brad in Fast Times At Ridgemount High, but he lost out to acting heavyweight Judge Reinhold. Nic fumed that it was his name that had lost him the part. He was, however, cast in the smaller role of ‘Brad’s buddy’ but was mocked by his fellow cast members (including Reinhold), who would regularly stand outside his trailer and shout ‘I love the smell of Nicolas in the morning!’

More disappointment followed when Nic auditioned  for the role of Dallas in Coppola’s The Outsiders. In preparation, he locked himself in a hotel room for two weeks, drinking beer and staring at a picture of Charles Bronson. Amazingly, this didn’t seal the part. Nic was damned three times: his father didn’t want him to act, the film industry didn’t take him seriously, and now even his own uncle had rejected him. This was the final straw. Nic decided to reinvent himself and pull off the greatest acting challenge of all: he’d change his name and play a struggling young actor for real.

Nicolas uncaged

Determined not to build his career on nepotism, Nic adopted the surname of black comic-book superhero Luke Cage. Ironically by putting himself in a Cage, he would set himself free.

After a small role in Rumble Fish, Nic got his first lead in the romantic drama Valley Girl. In preparation for the role, Nic decided to get rid of some of the copious amounts of body hair Mother Nature had lumbered him with. Determined to achieve ‘that Superman look’ of a neat V-shape of chest hair, he got the razor out and began shaving ruthlessly. Reviewers were fascinated by Nic’s looks rather than his obvious acting and shaving prowess, using phrases like ‘hangdog expression’, ‘sleepy eyed’ and ‘dopey sexuality.’

Now an established actor, Nic got his big break in Uncle Francis’ The Cotton Club, but his trailer-trashing Method antics didn’t endear him to cast and crew. ‘I would walk down Christopher Street and say, “How much for that remote-control car?”, then I’d lift it up, throw it on the pavement and smash it.’ Bloody mental.

Fellow wild man Jim Carrey recounts, ‘When we first hung out, he was a little crazy, a little frivolous, with a lot of anger. He was embarrassing to be around. Everybody would whisper in my ear, “He’s really talented but what the fuck is he doing?” Getting a tattoo was also part of Nic’s rebellion phase. He acquired an eight inch lizard on his shoulder, but in typically offbeat fashion the lizard is wearing a top hat. A top hat!

To play the parts of young thugs he was often cast as, Nic thought it would be a good idea to play that role off screen too. Although this would alienate him from a lot of people, it also got him involved with a group of lifelong friends, among them Sean Penn and Johnny Depp, who he met on a particularly wild night in a club playing Monopoly – presumably where he got the top hat idea.

Cage earner

Despite now making a comfortable living, Nic was still working against the Hollywood machine, rather than with it – he was Cage Against The Machine, if you insist. After a Coppola well paid if insubstantial roles, Nic snagged the leading role in Peggy Sue Got Married. Again, he seemed intent on sabotaging his own career. The voice became the key to the role for Nic, and a source of disturbance for everyone else. ‘Kathleen Turner was frustrated with me. Here she is in this great star vehicle and her leading man comes along with buck teeth, talking like Pokey (a clay horse) from The Gumby Show.’ At the time Nic’s performance was described as ‘a wart on an otherwise beautiful movie.’ Like all great artists his genius wasn’t recognised at the time, though it was later re-evaluated, being seen as part of a larger project, only visible in retrospect. His experimental style did, however, catch the eye of some of Hollywood‘s more outré talents, and his career was set to take off in earnest.

His next role saw him team up with the Coen Brothers for Raising Arizona. The shoot was in jeopardy at one point due to an erroneous ‘h’ on the back of Nic’s chair, but fortunately a piece of strategically applied masking tape allowed the course of film history to run smoothly. Co-star Holly Hunter was quick to notice Nic’s talents, ‘As an actor, Nic is not a people pleaser.’ Despite these misgivings, the film cemented Nic’s credentials as an offbeat leading man and gifted moustache wearer.

He followed up this success by taking his biggest role to date: one-handed baker Ronny in Moonstruck. But it wasn’t the chance to star opposite Cher that appealed to Nic. As he explained, ‘In my childhood, I used to watch The Sonny And Cher Show, and I was always fascinated by Sonny Bono’s moustache.’

The fruits of Nic’s successes allowed him to live the lifestyle he craved. He refurbished his fake gothic castle in a style he referred to as ‘hot rod gothic’ and spent most of his time chasing poontang on the Sunset Strip with Jim Carrey. It was at this time (1987) that Nic would meet his future wife, Patricia Arquette, at a hip LA eatery. ‘I remember she’d just eaten liver and onions. I fell in love there and then. I said “Listen, you don’t believe me but I want to marry you!” She said no. I said “Put me on a quest.” And so she went back to her table and she wrote a list of things she wanted.’ Nic never did acquire the fibreglass statue from Big Bob’s hamburger joint and the relationship fizzled out. For now.

His career took another swift about turn when he starred in Vampire’s Kiss, a black comedy about a businessman who believes he’s become a vampire after getting a lovebite off the bird from Flashdance. Nic’s summation of the film described his career in microcosm: ‘It’s not a movie that can or should be analysed. It’s like a bad dream or a scary painting. People either hate it or absolutely love it – both viewpoints are valid.’ Cage’s Method madness did mean he was finally able to expunge childhood fears of his mother becoming a cockroach, by eating a live one on screen. His performance again gained rave reviews, with the New Yorker noting, ‘Cage delivers a remarkable portrait of a completely obnoxious jerk.’ Box office receipts were disappointing however, as were those for Fire Birds, despite the killer premise of it being ‘Top Gun with helicopters’ and being helmed by the director of Buster.

After completing erotic thriller Zandalee, co-starring former nemesis Judge Reinhold (key scene: Nic punches a painting), David Lynch’s Wild At Heart proved to be the last hurrah for Wild Man Nic, both on and off screen. Shortly after filming he found out he was to be a father with ex-girlfriend Christina Fulton. In a symbolic gesture he gave his famous snakeskin jacket to Laura Dern. ‘But for my birthday my father gave me a jacket made out of cork. A cork jacket. It’s like leather, really strange….’

Coming of Cage

The birth of his son Weston saw Nic mellow and take on what he would call his Sunshine Trilogy of comedies: Honeymoon In Vegas, Guarding Tess and It Could Happen To You. These were roles which Nic played with aplomb because, according to James Caan, ‘Nic excels in the role of the not-so-smart ordinary guy.’ With another genre successfully bested, Cage’s career took its darkest, and yet most rewarding turn.

Mike Figgis had started work on Leaving Las Vegas, the story of an alcoholic who drinks himself to death. According to Figgis, ‘The story is so tough that I knew the film would only hang together if we were bold in the same way. It’s like, alright, we’re gonna be bold – let’s cast Nicolas Cage!’ The role was manna from Method Heaven for Cage. He soon set to work, filming himself while drunk. He later destroyed all the tapes as he didn’t want an embarrassing video of him falling into the wrong hands – the same reason Zandalee was very hard to come by on VHS. He also studied other great film drunks like Dudley Moore in Arthur and went on a two week Guinness-sampling tour of Ireland.

The film was hailed as an instant classic, with Cage Nicking the 1996 Best Actor Oscar, thanks in no small part to him improvising lines like ‘I’m a prickly pear’ and ‘I’m the kling-klang king of the rim-ram room.’

It was an even bigger year personally, as he finally married Patricia Arquette – a union sure to stand the test of time. After a chance meeting eight years after their first, Patricia called Nic. ‘Listen, I have to ask you something. Do you want to marry me?’ ‘Yeah, okay, I’ll do it’ replied Nic, his voice laced with the kind of emotion cinemagoers had become used to. The ceremony was a simple clifftop one where the couple posed for photos, before petting the attending sea otters and speeding off in Nic’s blue Ferrari. The euphoria was short-lived however, as Nic was named People Magazine’s Worst Dressed Man of 1996. Nic often rose above these minor irritations with one of his favourite indulgences: a hot bath. ‘Epsom salts, baking soda, sea salt, David Bowie’s Low – that’s a good bath.’

With the recipe for the perfect bath now formulated, Nic could move on to his next mission: redefining the action hero. His first attempt, The Rock, had been languishing in development hell for many years, and had even been rewritten at one point by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. Now with Jerry Bruckheimer producing, Nic played against the conventions of the genre by making Stanley Goodspeed a decent, clean living man, with no interest in killing. He was also able to bring his improv skills to the fore again with lines like ‘How in the name of Zeus’ butthole did you get out of your cell?’ The film was a box office hit and Cage and Bruckheimer repeated the trick with Con Air, this time directed by Simon West, whose previous work included directing the video for Respectable by Mel and Kim.

After completing the final part of his action trilogy – the seminal Face/Off – Nic declared himself done with action movies. ‘I like to really master a genre. I feel like I’ve really done it. I’ve done every genre of movie making I can imagine. I just want to have as many different careers within one career as I can possibly have and I hope to keep doing this to the end.

However feted Nic found himself in the late nineties, he was never celebrated for pulling off his biggest trick: inventing himself. After all, Nicolas Cage doesn’t really exist.

Related: Crack’d actor

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3 Responses to “Cage Turner”

  1. SolidChris Says:

    Bravo, excellent book review. You must take credit for adding some flavour.

    Have you ever mused on how much his performance in Snake Eyes is down to Columbian or Peruvian cocaine?

    • He clearly does crack when he’s making his next career choice.

      There are also rumours he was on crack during Bad Lieutenant. People just don’t realise it’s the power of Nic’s acting.

  2. I still like him… as an actor and as a person. I just hope he’s got his finances turned around…

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