“Every great story seems to begin with a snake.” – Nicolas Cage.
As one of cinema’s most enigmatic and eccentric characters, it is challenging to pin down the personality of Nicolas Cage, particularly into just six definitive films, as his persona ranges so dramatically from role to role. Finely toeing the line between experimental innovator and cinematic provocateur, Nicolas Cage is a celebrated actor known for his Oscar-worthy performances, though is seen in the contemporary sphere as a cult icon for b-movie schlock.
Named “the jazz musician of actors” by the influential filmmaker and artist David Lynch, Cage is known for his experimental approach to acting, refusing to abide by the standard methods of Hollywood to instead bring his own brand of performance. Such can be seen throughout his filmography, from the early efforts of the Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona all the way to his bizarre performance in the Marvel comics adaptation, Ghost Rider.
Despite being recognised as somewhat of a modern cultural joke, Cage is no fool and has enjoyed working with some of cinema’s finest ever filmmakers throughout his career, including Francis Ford Coppola, David Lynch, Werner Herzog, the Coen brothers and John Woo. Continuing to redefine himself in the contemporary sphere of cinema, Cage is an acting enigma who defies a pigeonholed definition; instead, let’s track his career through six of his most definitive films.
Nicolas Cage’s six definitive films:
Raising Arizona (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1987)
As the nephew of the influential filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, Nicolas Cage was born with a distinct advantage over his fellow actors. His famous links provided his first-ever roles in the industry, including in Valley Girl and Racing with the Moon in the early 1980s. Shortly after, Coppola himself gave the actor a boost by including him in his own films, Rumble Fish and Peggy Sue Got Married in 1983 and 1986, respectively.
No doubt, his first significant role came in Raising Arizona from the Coen brothers, the second film from the duo following their breakout hit, Blood Simple in 1984. Quickly becoming a cult classic, Cage’s role as a hopeless father named H.I. McDunnough has become one of his most defining characters and one of the first to reflect the actor’s smart, stylish swagger that David Lynch’s Wild at Heart would later accentuate.
Vampire’s Kiss (Robert Bierman, 1988)
Though Vampire’s Kiss is far from one of Nicolas Cage’s finest films, his performance in the film has become something of a cinematic cult favourite, reflecting the experimental insanity that the actor is so well known for today.
Engaging with a brand new form of theatrical performance, Nicolas Cage’s role in Vampire’s Kiss involves the use of stylised body movements and accentuated facial expressions that would come to define his modern persona. Playing Peter Loew, a man convinced he’s becoming a vampire, Cage uses the film as a sandbox for his own development as an actor, trying out several bizarre techniques to help to try and find his niche.
Leaving Las Vegas (Mike Figgis, 1995)
Cage enjoyed sustained success throughout the remainder of the 1980s and into the ’90s, starring in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart as a mixture of his Vampire’s Kiss and Raising Arizona identity, before hitting a career peak in 1995 with Leaving Las Vegas.
Receiving an Academy Award for Best Leading Actor for his role as Ben Sanderson, an alcoholic Hollywood screenwriter who has hit rock-bottom, Cage excels as a broken man trying to piece the remnants of a new life together. The perfect actor to take on the tricky role, Cage totally commits himself to the role and brings together all of his acting skills to deliver a truly genuine performance.
Adaptation. (Spike Jonze, 2002)
Taking an unusual turn following his Oscar success, Cage turned to the world of action cinema, featuring in The Rock, Con-Air and Face/Off back-to-back from 1996-97. Bringing a dose of theatricality to each of his performances, his action career was certainly successful, bringing an extra edge to his already eclectic character.
Not dissimilar from his role in Leaving Las Vegas was his appearance in Adaptation from Spike Jonze, an ingenious film in which Cage portrayed two sides of the same Hollywood screenwriter struggling to adapt a novel to the silver screen. Truly showing off, Cage often acts against his own reflection, with the film providing the perfect illustration of the actor’s own genuine quality as a performer as well as a creative who enjoyed pushing the cinematic boundaries.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (Werner Herzog, 2009)
The turn of the new millennium seemed to have a profound effect on Nicolas Cage, with the actor noticeably switching his priorities away from artistic integrity and toward monetary gain. Helping to define his modern legacy, Cage starred in the likes of The Wicker Man, Ghost Rider and Knowing, with each performance being even more surreal than the last, showing an actor who had seemingly lost control of his own creative equilibrium.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans from the influential German filmmaker Werner Herzog was the first film to indicate just what exactly Cage was trying to do, with the film well riding the line between farce and compelling drama. A remake of the 1992 film starring Harvey Keitel, Nicolas Cage plays the protagonist, Terence McDonagh, a drug addict detective investigating a string of murders in New Orleans.
Equally as bizarre as many of Cage’s other recent projects, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans demonstrated how the actor could strike a balance between his two acting personas and strive for future success.
Pig (Michael Sarnoski, 2021)
Of course, Cage’s appearance in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans didn’t result in the actor immediately adopting a more serious tone, starring in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Season of the Witch in the early 2010s, two films that failed miserably to create a commercial splash.
The actor did take note from his role in Herzog’s film, however, as well as from Matthew Vaughn’s influential comic-book movie Kick-Ass, adopting a finely balanced comic and serious tone for the likes of Joe, Snowden, Mandy and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Such roles helped him to sculpt his character in Michael Sarnoski’s Pig, one of the actor’s biggest critical successes in many years.
Starring as a downtrodden truffle hunter living alone in the Oregonian wilderness, the film follows the man’s desperate search for his stolen pig whilst escaping the secrets of the past, which are constantly following him. An amalgamation of all the recent roles that the actor has become famous for, Pig demonstrates how Nicolas Cage can move forward as an industry great without becoming a mindless meme of multiple low-budget, low-effort projects of Hollywood fodder.