When does a film belong to its actor rather than to its director? This is a question better explored not though production history and movie gossip, through the tittle-tattle of newspaper articles and malicious columns, but by simply looking at the work in relation to the respective oeuvre. Auteur criticism isn't bad because it credits the director in cases where empirically the praise seems undeserved, but that it simply isn't always the most useful way of comprehending the film under discussion. In this sense The Bad Lieutenant: New Orleans Port of Call is parenthetically a Werner Herzog film, but centrally a Nicolas Cage vehicle. It is true that Timothy Treadwell in Herzog's documentary Grizzly Man could almost be played by Cage in a fictional account. But it was the man in the wilderness that interested Herzog much more than the hard-drinking social catastrophe that Treadwell claimed to be in advance of his retreat into nature.
Cage though is nothing if not a social catastrophe: in dress, speech and manner Cage seeks credence but looks as if he is asking for it so eccentrically that it's as though there is a strange game being played: for someone to give him respect it would seem to rob them of their own in the process. Cage is rarely the weak figure who demands someone's humanity. He is the hyperbolized self, daring others to take him seriously, but wondering if they do so whether he should be taking them seriously. Cage's characters often function like a variation of the Groucho Marx joke of refusing to belong to any club that would accept him as a member.
There are numerous ways in which Cage's characters undermine the possibility of seriousness. It might be the snakeskin jacket in Wild at Heart, the shell suit in Kiss of Death, the Elvis suit in Honeymoon in Las Vegas, the tufty hair in Adaptation, the moustache in Zandalee, the protruding teeth in Peggy Sue Got Married, or the mismatched shoulders after the accident in Bad Lieutenant. Then there is Cage's emphysemic, nasal voice, often sounding as if a little short of oxygen, wheezing for more air. Even when Cage is muscled up, as in Kiss of Death and The Rock, it seems self-parodic, as though he is aware of the absurdity (post-Stallone and Schwarzenegger) of the beefy body.
Cage is clearly a physical actor, and so it makes sense that when Cynthia Baron writes on acting in Adaptation, in a Cineaste article, she quotes thinkers like Francois Delsarte, Jacques Lecoq and Rudolf Laban - all theorists of the body - but she concentrates on the latter, saying what was important about Laban was that, according to Ira Partsch-Bergsohn, he was someone "who emerged as the first European dance artist to develop a clear concept of dance movement as an art form separate from free movement, different from gymnastics, and independent of music." From such a perspective what can be interesting about an actor is not the depth given to the role, but the physicality of the gestures. When Patrick McGilligan says in Cineaste he feels that the influence of Stanislavski and acting techniques based on emotional accessing has been much more respected by the Academy than roles where an actor creates the physical, the exception tends to be biopics, where an actual person can be compared to the performance, and the physical serves the plausible.
Cage, with neither the depth of the Method, nor the physicality of the real recreated, is consequently, like his characters, unlikely to be an actor taken too seriously, no matter his own Oscar of course for Leaving Las Vegas. Add to this the forty plus roles he has played in less than thirty years of acting, and we have the idea of actor as hack - someone who goes where the money is and makes more bad choices than good decisions. He is an actor not unlike Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper or even Herzog's own actor fetiche, Klaus Kinski - someone who flouts deprecation from others in the self-deprecation the performances often contain.
In Bad Lieutenant, Cage plays the cop whose back has been ruined after saving a criminal close to death in a prison cell during the flooding of New Orleans. But the injury Cage sustains doesn't give his character the nobility of bearing that a walking stick would provide; instead it gives him the opposite: a Richard III quality indicative not of heroism but of shrunken mediocrity. Metonymically the posture eradicates all trace of the heroism of the act, an absurdist, physical version of there being no good deed that goes unpunished. In one scene in the film he is waiting in the pharmacy for his medicine, all the while the shop assistant is on the phone and can't be bothered to attend to Cage. He's been waiting for the best part of an hour; eventually losing his patience and his temper he goes behind the counter to get the medicine himself. The security guard is called and Cage shows his badge and pulls out his gun. There is of course nothing in his general demeanour that indicates what he happens to be, and even late in the film we might be slightly surprised when his boss talks of him being the best investigative detective they have.
The apparent inability for people to take his character seriously is also evident in a scene where his prostitute lover gets beaten up in a hotel room after one assignation. Cage arrives and notices she has a black eye, threatens the man who has beaten her, and takes all the cash the man has on him. 'Bad move' the person says, and though Cage has pulled a gun on the character, it seems as if the gun is curiously irrelevant next to the suit and the posture: that the gun can't quite give credence to Cage's mustard suit and stooped body language. If it is a well-known dictum that to bring a gun into a movie is to create drama; sometimes when Cage takes out a gun it indicates farce. It is the same when he pulls out the gun in the scene in the pharmacy. It doesn't register his authority; like the badge he shows it hints at multiple forms of madness. When the security guard asks what is up, and Cage shows him the badge, the security guard doesn't quite know how to act. He expresses neither fear on seeing the gun, nor subservience when seeing the badge, but bemusement over the whole situation. When the man who has beaten his lover up leaves the hotel room, Cage would have been as well to have pulled out a clown's gun that unravels a sign saying pop as he pulled the trigger: a gun in itself does not give Cage credence.
Partly what makes Cage an interesting actor is that attempts at ego-aggrandizement and prowess are usually contained by a self who is weak and not strong. There are numerous 'weak' actors - Dustin Hoffman, Jack Lemmon, Bruce Dern etc. - and just as there was an article written in the early eighties called the Last Hard Men by Tim Pulleine (Bronson, Coburn and Marvin) so we might think of the last of the soft men; tracing Cage's lineage to actors for whom any external show of strength is countered by an internal fragility that undermines seriousness of intent. We can think of Dustin Hoffman in Straight Time, a ruthless heist merchant on the one hand; a nervous wreck on the other; or Dern's suicide in Coming Home: his recapitulations and self-promotions in The Driver; or Jack Lemmon in The Apartment, willing to forego his own place for a deceitful friend and the friend's lover. One needn't insist that the softness manifests itself in the same way: Hoffman and Lemmon are rather different from, say Dern and Cage, not least in the latter being big men and the former smaller ones. But they all seem to share a certain incapacity to be taken seriously in numerous situations.
Now of course that people don't take Cage's characters seriously is not quite the same thing as saying the characters cannot do dangerous things, and the brutal killing Cage's character offers near the beginning of Wild at Heart, and the killings he administers in Kiss of Death, show that he ought to be taken very seriously indeed. Cage's characters in films like Wild at Heart, Kiss of Death and The Bad Lieutenant are not weak in the passive sense of the term; as though incapable of violence. It is more that their violent capacity is linked to a weakness of persona that makes the violence unpredictable. When Hoffman finally turns violent in Straw Dogs, he is going against his character. When Cage's heroes often turn violent they are finding a dimension of their being, a dimension that is very much part of who they are, but not easily discernible because of the misalignments in their personality.
This is evident in the strangely misogynistic remake of The Wicker Man. Cage here gets to punch out a couple of women while he determines to find out whether his daughter is alive. Now what is strange about this action is that it isn't the tough guy slapping a woman around that was so prevalent in pre-PC American film of the seventies, and part of the sort of hard man credentials we've been crediting to Bronson et al, but closer to the numerous examples in the nineties of women proving their credentials against men, where a woman shows she can out-punch a man evident in Kate Winslet's swing in Titanic. How weak must a man appear to be for such a scene to work more like Winslet's punch than a hard man's slap? In one scene the admittedly butch bar woman has it coming, and looks like she can take it, but what about the rather more frail Leelee Sobieski? One might wonder about the gender politics of such moments, muse over what it is saying about the twenty first century and the director's own previous work. It is written and directed by Neil La Bute, best known perhaps for the problematising of misogyny in In The Company of Men, and also The Shape of Things, where the central male character is used by the woman he falls in love with. He thinks she loves him; he's just a social experiment as she changes his image. It brings us back to the auteurist and the actor, a la The Bad Lieutenant. Where the misogynistic is a central element of La Bute's work, it manifests itself in The Wicker Man through the particulars of Cage's personality. Another actor in the role couldn't have convinced us of their basic weakness that could then be countered by physical force. The film is finally without much interest, yet there is something fascinating about Cage as someone perceived as the opposite of the hard man; as the punches he administers have nothing to do with the sort of hard man slaps Bronson and others would give to keep a woman in her place or to knock her out of her neurotic state.
This softness of character can even incorporate extremity of violence; perhaps can even on some occasions demand it. In Wild at Heart, at the beginning of the film of course Cage beats a man to death, smashing his skull numerous times against a marbled floor so that his brains start to come out the back of his head. Yet throughout the film, and after he is released from prison for the crime, other characters treat him not with the respect of a hardened criminal, but as a soft touch. When he beats somebody up at a night club, he is a man who has to be taken seriously contingently. Nothing in his existential demeanour indicates he is someone a priori not to be messed with. While numerous films characters played by Eastwood, Bronson and others get harassed in bars, there is often a sense that they're taking on a possible equal, and that to best them is a conquest. Cage's characters give the impression they can be beaten without much of a challenge, no matter if they have proven their prowess and one might expect it to become part of their mode of being in the world. One often talks of the hardened criminal, as though the years of violence and crime create a figure of twisted antipathy to life, and that is exactly what, say, David Cronenberg offers with his deliberately short-hand take on the bad guys at the beginning of A History of Violence. Stephen McHattie's character is all that Cage cannot quite be; he is a figure who can walk into a coffee bar and immediately look like trouble: he is unequivocally a hard man. When Cage in Wild at Heart gets into a fight with a literal punk in a nightclub, Cage looks not so much harmless as hapless. He is a figure of self-caricature with his snakeskin jacket and his sweaty hair falling into his eyes, and offers a curious gesture where his outstretched arm points at the punk as if casting a spell on him. Cage of course beats him up, but the actor lacks the sort of performative preliminaries that can psyche someone out: the psyching out boxers often practise before a fight, and that the hard man, like Henriksen in A History of Violence, seems constantly to effect in their every day manner.
This helps explain Cage's own equivocal position as an actor well known for independent roles, and also appearing in big-budget action films. When he accepted the Oscar forLeaving Las Vegas in the mid-nineties, his Oscar speech mentioned the importance of the sort of independent cinema he so admired, and that on a number of occasions he seems to have reneged on, appearing in Face Off, The Rock, Con-Air and others. However, it is as if Cage cannot quite sell-out, that any action film will contain within it, if Cage has a leading role, a dimension of the absurd. It is not so much that Cage is over the top - though he often is - it is more that others are underwhelmed. In Wild at Heart, Willem Dafoe's horribly villainous Bobby Du Prez may well know that Cage has been inside for brutally killing someone, but as far as Bobby's concerned Cage is a fall guy: someone he will use for a bank robbery and promptly kill. If there are hardened criminals like Du Prez, there are apparently softened criminals as well: the sort for whom extreme violence like Cage's at the beginning of the film is not quite in character enough for others to assume they will do it again.
Of course the softened criminal is merely one aspect of Cage's work, and while it helps make sense of Cage's action side; what about roles like Raising Arizona, Leaving Las Vegas, Snake Eyes, Bringing Out the Dead, The Windtalkers and all relating to The Bad Lieutenant, where Cage is a character in an apparently downward spiral involved in actions that look likely to end in his own demise either directly or indirectly? In Leaving Las Vegas of course this is through deliberately drinking himself to death as he takes off for Las Vegas with a drink-drive. When Gilles Deleuze talks intriguingly of alcoholism in relation to the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Joe Bousquet in The Logic of Sense, he mentions that "alcoholism does not seem to be a search for pleasure, but a search for an effect which consists mainly in an extraordinary hardening of the present." "One lives in two times", Deleuze notes, "the two simultaneous moments are strangely organized: the alcoholic does not at all live in the imperfect or the future; the alcoholic has only a past perfect". This leads to one enjoying "a manic omnipotence" What happens is that the past is sealed off and so in "drunkenness the alcoholic puts together an imaginary past, as if the softness of the past participle came to be combined with the hardness of the present auxiliary: I have loved, I have done. I have seen." Does this account, we may wonder, for the intransigent sentimentality of the drunk, of a figure trapped in the past memory, and also in the present drunkenness? Director Mike Figgis doesn't want a narrative tension to come out of Cage's character's drinking; he doesn't want to play up the twofold potential suspense of the possibility that Cage will stop, or the desperation of looking for alcohol. Cage's Las Vegas hotel room is so full of booze that Elizabeth Shue's prostitute comments on it when she comes to his room, and he makes clear even when they fall in love that he has no interest in giving up alcohol. It is as though what Figgis saw in Cage was the doleful weakness of someone closer to the sentimental than the belligerent, a drunk who wasn't desperate for liquor or desperate to give it up, but was simply succumbing to its pull as one does to sleep.
Part of the softness we have noted in Cage's persona resides in that sentimentality. It lies almost inevitably in Cage's face, with the eyes wide and receptive, the mouth gentle and irresolute, the nose a little like that of Kilgore graffiti. If Cage is not a strong figure, nevertheless there is a certain quality to the sentimental that passes for a type of strength. There is the scene early in Raising Arizona where Cage is getting his mug-shot and fingerprints done for the umpteenth time. The cop (Holly Hunter) usually on duty tells him that her man has walked out on her, and Cage says as far he is concerned the man is a damn fool. He'll happily tell him so as well, and if he wants to discuss it with him, he'll find Cage's H. I. McDonough in the correctional facility he is being dragged off to. Such a moment captures well Cage's capacity for sentimental indignation, contained within the clearly absurd. It is a nice reversal of the idea that someone will go round and give another person a piece of their mind. The incarcerated H. I. is asking her to tell the ex to visit him in prison so he can tell him what's what. As he's finishing his righteous rant, another cop yanks him out the door and off to prison.
In Raising Arizona the scene is a funny moment in a clear-cut comedy, but the sentimental crosses genres, evident not only in comedy and drama, but thrillers like Snake Eyes, the war movie The Windtalkers, and the cop films, like Bringing out the Dead andThe Bad Lieutenant. In both Snake Eyes and The Bad Lieutenant, Cage is the corrupt cop, a man in the former whose friend says he can take another bung after he knows Cage is harbouring a young woman his even more corrupt and murderous best friend, a naval officer, wants dead. Cage's corruption however isn't at all inhuman, and it is the sentimental streak that reveals him. At one moment he is sitting on the stairs with the young woman he is protecting, and she tells him how his friend is doctoring evidence to push through new weapons technology, that his friend was responsible for the senator who was assassinated at the beginning of the film. Cage is caught between two sentiments; the many years of friendship with the naval officer, and protecting an innocent young woman from the friend. He eventually chooses the latter, though the protection costs him a severe beating. In The Bad Lieutenant the tart with a heart of gold is pulled off not especially by Eva Mendes in the role, but Cage's capacity to be sentimental enough to be in love with someone whose heart is yet softer than hers.
In Bringing out the Dead and The Windtalkers both films use flashback to point up the sentimental. Cage's cop in the former can't quite get a woman he failed to save out of his mind, while the latter flashes back to the moment when his buddies failed to survive an attack earlier in WWII. It is one thing to be guilty, but with Cage in the role guilt manifests itself in sentimentality, quite different from the sort of repressed guilt we find in a Clint Eastwood film like Gran Torino, where the horrors of the past don't make Eastwood soft-hearted but hard-headed, a difficult man unwilling to confront his demons.
Earlier in the piece we talked of Cage being a physical actor, and sometimes one senses he wears his psychology rather as one wears a jumper turned inside out. If Eastwood is buttoned up, Cage is often floppy and loose. He might wear a T-shirt in Red Rock West and Wild at Heart as tight as Eastwood often does, but he possesses almost no internal aggression, no sense of a man who is harbouring violence. When the elderly Eastwood changes merely a light bulb in Space Cowboys, or cuts carrots in The Bridges of Madison County, he manages a show of strength in the triceps. The equivalent tricep work in Cage comes in films like Red Rock West and Kiss of Death, where he does one arm push ups. If numerous actors have the ability to convey contained violence, Cage often practices maintained violence: offering regular shows of prowess as he insists he is no weakling. It is consistent with what we have been saying about Cage and the gun; he cannot assume the status of hard man - he must constantly justify it. One can see how in the former instance the hard man needs to practise a high degree of stillness, an economy of gesture that makes clear the capacity for violence. Here the body language accounts for much of the aggression by closing off the avenues for communication. The eyes narrow, the mouth remains tight, the body movements are minimal and the language used is functional and direct. The body becomes a weapon unto itself and so we can see why often Cage cannot quite be taken seriously even when he pulls out a gun. There is of course that famous scene in Dirty Harry where Eastwood wonders if the man he has shot feels lucky. Has Harry used up all the bullets in the chamber or is there one left? Harry tells the man slumped against a wall that the gun Harry has in his hand is the most powerful hand gun in the world, and that the remaining bullet, if there is one, could blow his head off. The man doesn't feel lucky, yet as Harry turns away he asks whether there was another bullet in the chamber. Harry points the gun at him and pulls the trigger. The gun doesn't go off and Eastwood turns away laughing, the easy laugh of a man who is in control of the situation and who has scared the life out of someone without actually killing him. It is about as antithetical a scene from the early one in Wild at Heart and much of Cage's work as one can imagine, and we could do worse than to understand these differences through body language.
Cage is basically a dispersive actor, someone who uses more energy than he needs for the givens of a situation. If one takes the scene in Leaving Las Vegas where his alcoholic shakes are too extreme for him to sign a check, one can see the amount of surplus in the sequence. Ben goes up to the reception and the woman asks him to sign the check, and he asks if it can't be cashed without a signature. He makes an attempt but his hand can't stay still. As he speaks he hugs his own body, and constantly blinks and gulps. Realizing he needs a drink before he can sign the check, he goes over to the bar and gets into an argument with the barman who's looking after Ben's interests as he says what he needs is a coffee and not more alcohol. Afterwards with his nerves assuaged by the booze he goes back to the desk and stands in the queue talking dirtily into his tape recorder. Though his profession is scriptwriting, this isn't professional behaviour, but an anti-social gesture hardly even attempting to hide behind the role. Cage is the opposite of an economy of means; he is the dispersive actor par excellence, and it is partly why so often critics comment on Cage's overacting.
However rather than seeing this as a critical comment, better to see it as a mode of behaviour an actor adopts to comprehend certain ways of being in the world. Economy of gesture is merely one manner in which to be, no matter if it is often highly respected and in numerous professions actively taught. Thus a teacher who goes off topic, a lawyer who doesn't get to the point, and an actor who overacts, are all committing the sin not of omission but of digression. Yet many cannot stay on the point, or keep their body language within the confines of the immediate situation. Now if one sees an actor's role as simply furthering the story and nailing characterisation, maybe Cage is a bad actor. However if one sees every actor as a law unto themselves, working through a persona over simply playing a character, Cage brings something interesting to film. He is a weak persona, but that needn't be the same as saying he is a weak actor. Just as Pauline Kael once said in a New Yorker article that Eastwood wasn't much of an actor because of his minimalism, would the same accusations be levelled at Cage from the other extreme? If Kael could say that Eastwood wasn't good or bad (he would have to do something to be judged an actor), Cage contains so many surplus tics in the roles he plays, that someone might assume the character disappears under the actor playing it.
One of the advantages of thinking not of acting as a technical craft, and a craft devoted to the development of character and story, but instead chiefly as a means of expressing bodily states and situations in the world through film, is that such an approach makes terms like overacting and over the top seem irrelevant: one can concentrate instead on what a certain type of acting is doing. Hence if we think of Erving Goffman's book about the roles we play in life, and some of the ideas that Cynthia Baron addresses in her article in Cineaste, we have a more useful entry point than that of craft. Goffman's thesis in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life is that we act constantly in coping with social existence, while Baron addresses the bodily aspect of Cage's performance in Adaptation. Goffman notes that we often work with the fixed props of houses, car and clothes, and usually give off signs of stability and consistency that allow us to be read by others. Yet Cage is an actor who seems to want instability and inconsistency. We noted earlier the exaggerated props of performance Cage often utilizes: the snakeskin jacket of Wild at Heart, the quiff and teeth in Peggy Sue Got Married, the shell-suit and chains in Kiss of Death. If Goffman can say "information about the individual helps to define the situation, enabling others to know him in advance what he will expect of them, and what they may expect of him", Cage often removes this certainty. Meanwhile, Baron mentions the Polish director and theoretician of theatre, Jerzy Grotowski and the idea of "the germination of a living impulse and its manifestations through physical action." Taking the two points together, there is an opportunity for the actor, rather like the dancer who doesn't conform to the demands of music, but finds the dance chiefly out of the body, for the actor to discover the performance on the outer edges of the character, and create new modes as a consequence. The performance isn't contained by the narrative, just as unusual behaviour in life isn't contained by the social, but searches out mild violations through attending to the peripheral and the apparently irrelevant.
Now one thing that makes someone often weak is that they are not centred: the impulse and the periphery de-centre them. One notices it in the manner in which someone can't concentrate on the conversation to hand because of noises off in the distance, the way in which the person will offer non sequiturs, or put on funny voices. Cage is a weak actor partly because of this decentring. When he reacts as he does to the man in the bar in Wild at Heart he is like a man assuming a role not in the socially demanding manner in which someone becomes weak and shrunken, the man with no personality, but expansive and absurd. In Raising Arizona, his comment about asking Holly Hunter's ex to come and see him in prison for a talking to shares the same decentring. Even his drunkenness in Leaving Las Vegas as he starts talking into his tape recorder, and his yowls and yelps in the first few minutes of Snake Eyes during the boxing game, all indicate this form of the decentred self as extravagant personality. The opposite is the shrunken self, and of course there have been hints of it in his Charlie Kaufman character in Adaptation, and also his character in The Wicker Man. This is where weakness of character isn't expansively announced, but timidly in retreat, though even here, in the question Charlie asks the Robert McKee figure (Brian Cox) in Adaptation, in the faux pas when Charlie inopportunely asks someone out in the same film, in the violence indulged in The Wicker Man, the eccentric external behaviour manifests itself.
Throughout this piece, we've been looking at Cage as a bodily actor more than a psychological one, and a weak character instead of a strong one, all the while suggesting that they are interlinked. This isn't to say there aren't 'weak' actors who are internally driven, but if we accept that the hard man is someone usually possessed of economy of gesture, then weakness would seem to be illustrated best through its excess. While Justin Smith in an article on A Clockwork Orange in the book Don't Look Now can say that "in trained screen or theatrical styles there is an economy of gesture", it is also the case there is, however deliberate or otherwise, the possibility for the sort of body language that seems over the top from a trained perspective but fascinating from a more general behavioural one. The Bad Lieutenant seems like a summation of Cage's career thus far as he manages to play a top cop without much credence, to assert himself without much success, and to get himself into trouble with his boss, with gangsters and with his girlfriend, and to resolve all of these problems without great agency on his part. When near the end of the film various plot strands dissolve, with a thug backing down, with a gangster arrested, and Cage's debts eradicated, it feels strangely anti-climactic. A hard man would never allow so much contingency into his life. Yet it seems consistent with Cage's weaknesses, with a man too weak finally to dictate even the terms of the film's plot. Obviously this article isn't a blanket appraisal of Cage's career, but weakness does seem to be at the core of his persona, and he finds in an external acting style a manner in which to convey it.
© Tony McKibbin