You Can't Explain Nicolas Cage. It's Time To Stop Trying.
Nicolas Cage, at this point, has spent decades as an actor and celebrity, a household name amongst the population of the United States and most of the world. However, the twists and turns of his occupation at the front of pop culture, and the waffling sentiments that have come with them, place him in distinct company. He’s one of a particular collective of actors that, though they’re undoubtedly in the higher tiers in terms of recognition, and arguably consistently someone that could be considered “A-List,” seems to simply feel slightly… wrong to fit in that category. Not because they’re less, or they lack draw, but because it feels like a cage too small for the expansive reputation on and off-screen that they’ve built.
There was a span of time where he was thought of or referred to as a “joke,” but I think even the people saying that knew it wasn’t the correct terminology. It was too derisive, too dismissive for someone that people still held, as Andy Samberg would say, in high praise. It was only with time that the correct term emerged, one that perhaps the legend of Nicolas Cage had been waiting for. And that term was “meme”.
To say someone has “become a joke” implies that they’re useless. It’s the pop culture equivalent of suggesting at a family function that it’s just about time for Grandma to go to a home. But someone becoming a meme doesn’t implicitly label them as less-than, or derisive. Jokes are laughed at, but memes are often laughed with. They’re a crystallization of a feeling, an image or representation that captures a certain essence perfectly. We choose certain celebrities that reflect what feels like a domain of human emotion, and they’re raised into a pantheon that exceeds their filmography and history. We can identify a couple actors who have achieved this status of societal avatar.
Vin Diesel, who’s ridden on the shoulders of souped-up muscle cars to become an avatar of the gentle giant. A strange, bald, muscle-bound ronin who has as much mystery as he does muscle mass. Vin Diesel is the friend who played college football but owns a pet rabbit, or the construction worker feeding ducks on his break.
Keanu Reeves, who’s filled the shoes of the reluctant savior. The energy he brings to his roles echoes off-screen, as someone who always seems surprised, but appreciative of the love he receives. He’s the friend who’s shocked you threw him a birthday party, even though there was never a question that you would. The friend who picks you up from the airport and whistles on the drive back.
John Malkovich, the lovable grump. Even as he seems to visibly show distaste for impressions of him, you at the same time never feel that he’s a bad sport, or a sense of ill will. He’s your friend that you watch complain about the length of a diner menu with glee. The father that grumbles about his perceived notion of the quality of meat at the local supermarket.
Brad Pitt, the golden boy. Someone who, on paper, should seem to inspire annoyance and hate, but in the flesh, seems to be immune from wrong. The friend who everything goes right for, but who somehow forever eludes jealousy. A perpetual winner whose stumbles and failures inspire no schadenfreude.
Yet, if we were to walk into a hallowed hall where these figures adorned the walls, it seems to me the statue you would come upon at the end would be that of Nicolas Cage. An agent of controlled chaos, a representation of human exploration and curiosity. A being of disarray and focus in equal parts, a representation of the certainty of uncertainty. Someone only predictable in their unpredictability.
He is someone that you can feel you know so much about, only to be constantly startled and surprised by. People love a mystery, and, perhaps to Cage’s chagrin, he’s become one of our favorites. Culture has been determined to nail down exactly who Nicolas Cage is for the entire length of his career, and each time we think we’ve mapped it out, we discover a new continent. What other actor’s school of work is most aptly described only by their own name? And is that achievement not perhaps the pinnacle of the chameleonic ideal of acting?
He went through a period of disparagement, especially during a period of forced prolificity caused by financial misfortune. These went against our commonly agreed ideas of what a fine actor’s career should look like, of carefully selected roles, with short shrift given to roles considered strange or inartistic. But, as the actor himself said, and any viewer of his work can attest, even the smallest, strangest roles were never given any less than his full energy.
Cage has spoken about the idea of actors being modern-day shamans, even referring to his own acting as “nouveau shamanism.” Though even that characterization has been open to mocking, it’s an apt description of the way he performs. He brings an ancient energy to his performance, one less that of the dramatic, pensive characters that seem to be considered high acting by awards committees and chin-stroking film-as-art critics, and more that of the storytellers and traveling troupes of the past, performers that value communicated joy over accuracy and humanism.
Off-screen, he lives his life with the same sort of full-bodied pursuit of goals and needs known only to him. When he buys a dinosaur skull, when he has a pyramid built to serve as his future tomb, when he chooses as a pet a two-headed snake, everyone wants to know why. Cage seems to reacts to these inquiries, often, with a mixture of annoyance and confusion that seems more directed not at the specific question being asked, but at the stubborn, everlasting compulsion of people for everything to be explained.
Nicolas Cage, it seems to me, lives in the pursuit of wonder, in a perpetual state of balanced curiosity and acceptance. I have no idea if Cage is a fan of Vonnegut, or Cat’s Cradle, but I find myself, watching or reading interviews with him, being constantly reminded of a particular Bokononism:
Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder 'why, why, why?'
Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.
It’s time we stop asking Nicolas Cage to explain himself. To make him dissect himself for our understanding is to ask a great sacrifice. Nicolas Cage knows exactly what he’s doing. We, luckily, are along for the ride.