You can't put Nicolas in a cage: A celebration of Hollywood's king of chaotic energy
25 years after he won his Oscar, there's still no one who commits to weird quite like Mr. Cage
Anne-iversaries is a bi-weekly column by writer Anne T. Donahue that explores and celebrates the pop culture that defined the '90s and 2000s and the way it affects us now (with, of course, a few personal anecdotes along the way).
In March 1996, Nicolas Cage finally achieved golden proof of his greatness: he won the Academy Award for Best Actor in Leaving Las Vegas, beating out Anthony Hopkins, Richard Dreyfuss, Sean Penn, and the late Massimo Troisi to snag his first Oscar.
"I know it's not hip to say it, but I just love acting," he gushed in his acceptance speech. "And I hope that they'll be more encouragement for alternative movies where we can experiment and fast forward into the future of acting."
Ask and ye shall receive, Nicolas. Because as the rest of the 90s chugged along, Cage's roles became just as iconic as they were strange. And as a result, he cemented his place as one of the leading men of the decade (albeit one of the weirdest ones).
Of course, I probably would've told you that if you'd asked me that year. At age 11, my only real introduction to Nick had been the 1994 romantic comedy It Could Happen To You (he played a New York City cop named Charlie who wins the lottery and splits his winnings with a down-on-her-luck server played by Bridget Fonda). But I was certain that Nicolas Cage — both the actor and the man he played — embodied kindness, honour, generosity, and incredible talent. I began to seek out the rest of his filmography in hopes of further proving my burgeoning thesis: Cage was a man of the people, and a gift our generation didn't deserve. (Never mind that I couldn't actually rent most of his movies without a parent or guardian present, and confused "based on a true story" with "here is a biopic of Nicolas Cage, set in an alternative universe.")
I wasn't ready.
The Nicolas Cage I began to meet through movie trailers, pay-per-view screenings (thank you, parents I babysat for), and classmates' conversations I pretended to understand was no mid-decade rom-com heartthrob. Nicolas Cage was an action star. A villain. A man who was slapped not only by Cher but by the responsibility of having to help land a prison plane. He was the living embodiment of tank tops and medallions, and yet he was an alluring mix of soulful brown eyes and an earnestness seen only in the most serious of theatre kids — a Party Mix of personas, constantly.
And yet, my original theory about him was still half right. Because the roles he chose over the course of the 1990s were a testament to his range and commitment to exploring strangeness — cementing him as the poster boy for weird.
Cage had already established himself as a cinematic treasure through roles in Moonstruck, Raising Arizona, and Peggy Sue Got Married in the 80s. Not to mention he hails from a Hollywood dynasty, which is arguably how he got his start: as the nephew of Francis Ford Coppola and cousin of Sofia Coppola (my personal best and close friend), he shares a birth name with them both. But he still opted to build his own legacy. After being directed by Francis Ford in Peggy and Rumble Fish, he embarked on a career that was all his own, ghost-riding into a decade that gave him endless material and enough room that he could become exactly as romantic, mean, strange, scary, and screaming as he saw fit. The Rock and Con-Air strengthened Cage's good guy chops, while spicing his storylines up with terse inner conflict and jam-packed action scenes. Face/Off allowed him to answer the age-old question: "What if I traded faces with John Travolta?" City of Angels gave him the chance to experience falling in love with Meg Ryan, despite being her literal guardian angel. And then there were Snake Eyes and 8mm — majorly grown-up thrillers that plunged Cage into darkness by forcing him to navigate the worlds of high stakes gambling and snuff films, respectively.
Cage's commitment to strange earned him his place as one of the decade's definitive actors. At the time of his Oscar win in 1996, he was in his early 30s and his filmography was expansive, but he also differed from other leading men. He was intense. He was eccentric. He wore a wig with such commitment in Con-Air that it should've been billed as its own character. And his actual characters could be scary. They could be weak. They were at times unapologetically sexual (and in a multitude of ways). They were boring (Charlie the Cop — bless him, but yikes). They were psychotic. They represented the decade's tendency to exist without rhyme or reason. Cage was a tornado, spinning toward newer and newer ways to escape being typecast; to avoid being defined as a particular type of actor (or person). And what embodies the spirit of the 90s more than this kind of commitment to rejecting existing norms?
Enter: the 2000s. Because if the 90s established Cage as an everyman superstar of cinema, its succeeding decade tossed him out of the mainstream and further into the fringe, which he seemed to thrive on. In 2000's Gone in 60 Seconds, he spearheads a car-stealing enterprise in an action movie so perfect that it inspired me to ask a friend if we should start stealing cars (she didn't say no, but we haven't really revisited the conversation since). Then, in The Family Man, he's a terrible dad who learns through Christmas magic that there's more to life than work, money, and being a ghoul. Iconic? Absolutely — but still nowhere near as much as his intent to steal the Declaration of Independence in 2004's National Treasure (and 2007's subsequent sequel). Or as Ghost Rider, whose origin story begins after he makes a deal with the devil to save his father's life. And this was only one of many spans of time in which Nicolas Cage cranked out hit after hit (or choice after choice) and stayed true to his commitment to weird. Which not only makes him an incredible actor, but a man of a very conflicted generation.
Of course, in 2021, Cage is no longer truly on the fringe. He's known for taking on every imaginable project to be proposed, playing his roles with abandon, and then shocking us with either his latest choice or how much we liked it. (I would watch him in National Treasure forever, and he made me weep in Kick-Ass.) He is an entity unto himself — an island in an industry that's very concerned with seeming digestible or marketable.
25 years after his first Oscar win, he still embodies the chaotic energy of the 90s, especially as the decade tried its best to figure out exactly what it was. He was, and always will be, a leading man, but not one you can tack up on your wall or pray for a Cameo shoutout from. He is the ultimate type of 90s man: a man who can be anything, and can plunge himself into the depths of strangeness as a means of evading the curse of being typecast. A singular figure who is equal parts tank tops, wigs, bees, screaming, and lottery tickets. Simply put, he is Cage.