Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Nicolas Cage

Though haunted by cries of nepotism early in his career, engaging, sleepy-eyed American star Nicolas Cage, nephew of director Francis Ford Coppola, led anything but a charmed existence growing up amidst the placid suburban comfort of Long Beach, California. His mother's hospitalizations for severe depression kept her away from the family for long intervals, and his parents' subsequent divorce, coupled with his adolescent feelings of "dorkiness" made it easy for him to identify with James Dean's outsider status in 1955's "East of Eden". Credited as Nicolas Cage for the first time, he channeled his frustrations through his initial leading character in "Valley Girl" (1983), his name change inspired by Luke Cage, the black comic-book hero who suffers from depression and insecurity. He has always looked at the world as a very strange place, and his correspondingly dark vision has colored his work from the beginning.

Cage graduated from teenage angst after providing a strong presence in a small part in his uncle's underrated "Rumble Fish" (1983), making his first serious dramatic waves as the sensitive, strong and fiercely loyal friend of Matthew Modine in "Birdy" (1984), Alan Parker's duet for emotionally scarred Vietnam veterans. Although roundly criticized at the time for his over-the-top choices in Coppola's nostalgic "Peggy Sue Got Married" (1986), they attracted the attention of Cher who, likening his strangely compelling performance to watching a two-hour car crash, proposed him for the role of Ronny in "Moonstruck" (1987)--then walked out of the production for a day until the producers gave in. "Moonstruck" was his first really big box-office hit, and though some critics objected to his portrayal of the inarticulate but philosophical baker he patterned after Cocteau's alienated monster from 1946's "Beauty and the Beast", it was unmistakably vintage Cage.

Cage showcased his goofier qualities in such movies as the Coen brothers' screwball comedy "Raising Arizona" (1987) and David Lynch's odyssey, "Wild at Heart" (1990), in which no amount of overacting as Elvis-acolyte Sailor could ever be too much for Lynch's anything-goes universe. He probably single-handedly guaranteed a perpetual cult status for "Vampire's Kiss" (1989) when he ate a live cockroach in yet another method-acting stunt (he had knocked out a tooth for the filming of "Birdy"), and though the critics united with the public in ignoring "Amos and Andrew" (1993), it was his wacky charm that was central to the success of Andrew Bergman's comedy "Honeymoon in Vegas" (1992). Unfortunately Bergman couldn't repeat the formula for "It Could Happen to You" (1994), despite the presence of Cage in that cast. Returning to the Nevada city in Mike Figgis' "Leaving Las Vegas" (1995), Cage delivered an uncharacteristically subtle, multi-layered performance as an alcoholic writer out to commit suicide. Bringing warmth and humor to what could have been an unsympathetic role, Cage earned rave notices, earning nearly every possible award, including a Best Actor Academy Award.

Following his Oscar win, Cage reinvented himself as an action hero, starring in a trio of blockbuster muscle movies that elevated him to the ranks of aging icons Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Harrison Ford. "The Rock" (1996) teamed his at-first geeky FBI biochemist with Sean Connery (as the only man ever to have escaped from Alcatraz) to free hostages on the famous island while "Con Air" (1997) matched his bad-luck good guy with offbeat Federal Marshall John Cusack to foil the machinations of some of the hardest criminals ever assembled. After playing a psychotic terrorist who gets to swap identities with FBI guy John Travolta in John Woo's "Face/Off" (1997), Cage enjoyed a respite from actioners in "City of Angels" (1998), a love story inspired by Wim Wenders' "Wings of Desire" (1988), before taking his turn in Brian De Palma's crime thriller "Snake Eyes" (1998). In 1999, Cage starred in two edgy thrillers, the vile "8mm" directed by Joel Schumacher and the intriguing but ultimately unfulfilling "Bringing Out the Dead" directed by Martin Scorsese.

2000 brought Cage back in touch with his action movie side, starring in the car theft movie "Gone in 60 Seconds" with Angelina Jolie. While the movie was short on character development and plot, it was big on fast car chases (Cage was a well-known automomotive enthusist in his private life) and was a hit at the box office. However, Cage's next three films did not fare as well, with "Family Man" (2000), "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" (2001) and "Windtalkers" (2002) all receiving lukewarm reception with audiences and critics.

After becoming better known for his unorthodox personal life (such as his three-month marriage to Elvis Presley's daughter Lisa Marie in 2002), Cage was ripe for a comeback when he starred as real-life screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and his fictional twin brother Donald in the reality-bending "Adaptation" (2002), in which Kaufman and director Spike Jonze (who previously teamed on the unconventional "Being John Malkovich") attempt to mix the fact and fiction behind Kaufman's attempts to adapt the bestselling novel The Orchid Thief into a motion picture. Cage, finding an ideal vehicle for his talents, finally returned to the kind of edgy, quirky and unpredictable characterizations that distinguished him early on, and gets to appropriately indulge in some of his latter-day showiness as well. Cage's whimsical portrayal of the Kaufman brothers earned him a Best Actor Oscar nomination, his second. Also in 2002, Cage saw the release of his first directorial effort, "Sonny," about a man (James Franco) who wants out of the family business as a professional gigolo, which opened quietly amid mixed to unfavorable reviews.

Cage followed up his "Adapatation" triumph with a much-admired turn in director Ridley Scott's "Matchstick Men" (2003) as a small time con man with an abundance of pathological quirks who nevertheless comes alive when he discovers the 14-year-old daughter he never knew existed. Then he returned to action fare--this time in a more lighthearted and appealing mode--with the panned-but-popular Jerry Bruckheimer-produced "National Treasue" (2004), this time playing Benjamin Franklin Gates, the descendent of a treasure-hunting clan who seeks a war chest hidden by the Founding Fathers after the Revolutionary War. Next was his turn in "Lord of War" (2005) as Yuri Orlov, a globetrotting arms dealer struggling to stay one step ahead of his enemies--a relentless Interpol agent, his business rivals, and his notoriuous dictator customers--while also grappling his own conscience. The movie polarized critics--some hated it and others praised it, but all agreed Cage turned in a finely etched performance. Even better was his portrayal of the successful Chicago weather forecaster Dave Spritz who nevertheless inspires total strangers to throw fast foot at him in director Gore Verbinksi's seriocomic, existential "The Weather Man" (2005). Playing a newly introspective man wresting with his own mediocrity and plagued with an inability to meaningfully connect with his family members--his accomplished writer father (Michael Caine), his estranged wife (Hope Davis) and his children--in ways both hilarious and heartbreaking, Cage delivered one of his most measured, effective--and surprisingly low-key--performances, and sparked much awards season buzz. A lifelong comic book fan (as his adopted surname suggested) who flirted with virtually every comics-to-screen role that would come down the pike, from Superman to Constantine, the actor finally played a four-color character when he appeared as the hellish, motorcycle-riding superhero "Ghost Rider" (lensed 2005).

In addition to his high-profile acting career, Cage frequently made headlines for his high-profile romances. After a frequently unorthodox marriage to actress Patricia Arquette, Cage had an on-again, off-again relationship with Lisa Marie Presley. When their brief marriage ended for good in 2004, the actor surprised many with his marriage to Alice Kim, a former sushi waitress 20 years younger than Cage, a mere two months after his divorce from Presley was finalized.

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