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Mainstream mavericks

Scott and Cage stay unique and still manage to succeed

As nearly every obituary of Katharine Hepburn pointed out, she was labeled “box-office poison” shortly before she met Spencer Tracy and made her comeback with “The Philadelphia Story.” Longevity in Hollywood seems to require nothing less than total failure, at least for a short spell.

Who knew that Tom Hanks would follow “The Bonfire of the Vanities” with a pair of best-actor Oscars?

Who guessed that director Ridley Scott would rise from the ashes of “Legend” and “1492: Conquest of Paradise,” or that Nicolas Cage could survive “8mm” and “Gone in Sixty Seconds”?

Sean Penn, Cage’s one-time co-star and friend, famously gave up on him, telling The New York Times that Cage was “no longer an actor” after he’d followed up a well-deserved Academy Award for best actor - as the boozing suicide of “Leaving Las Vegas” - with a couple of soulless action flicks.

The British critic, David Thomson, once claimed that Scott “has no character . . . He is a decorator who often grows awkward or vague over storyline.” He was far from alone in his suspicions.

Both have endured and survived these assaults, and in spectacular, Oscar-nominated fashion: Cage with his casually witty dual-role performance in “Adaptation,” Scott with back-to-back nominations for orchestrating the violence in “Gladiator” and “Black Hawk Down.”

Like his director brother, Tony Scott (“Top Gun”), Ridley Scott’s attention-getting visual style sometimes earns him the pretty-but-empty label. Cage, whose uncle, Francis Ford Coppola, directed “The Godfather,” has another kind of family association to live with — and up to. But those connections are rarely cited these days.

Thanks to the recent turnarounds in both their careers, “Matchstick Men,” starring Cage and directed by Scott, is one of the most anticipated movies of the fall. A throwback to the con-artist comedies of 1973, when “Paper Moon” and “The Sting” dominated the Academy Awards, it’s been heavily promoted for the past month as an antidote to the megaplex mediocrities of summer 2003.

It’s also a notable departure for Cage and Scott, who have now been in the business for well over two decades. Scott, who usually stays far away from comedy, has compared “Matchstick Men” to a Laurel and Hardy match (Sam Rockwell plays flirtatious Laurel to Cage’s twitchy Hardy). Cage may be more accustomed to playing material for laughs, but his goofiest roles came early in his career.

Career starts
Born in 1964, Cage was still Nicholas Coppola when he made his big-screen debut in a tiny part in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982). He was transformed into Nicolas Cage the next year, playing his first leading role in “Valley Girl,” a lightly satirical Southern California love story in which he was cast as an endearingly punkish Romeo to Deborah Foreman’s shopping-mall Juliet.

The role won notice while at the same time typecasting him. Directors looking for a showily eccentric leading man lined up to cast him movies as different as “Birdy,” “Peggy Sue Got Married,” “Raising Arizona” and “Moonstruck.” At the same time, Cage was experimenting, appearing in his uncle’s expressionistic teen nightmare, “Rumble Fish,” and eating a cockroach for his art in the over-the-top “Vampire’s Kiss.”

That one bewildered even his most devout fans, as did his brief Elvis-inspired phase, represented by the gruesome “Wild at Heart” and the lighter “Honeymoon in Vegas.” Then Cage appeared in a clever made-for-TV film noir, “Red Rock West,” that landed in theaters in the early 1990s, largely on the basis of his sly performance as a drifter mistaken for a hitman.

Around the same time, Scott (born in 1939) was redefining his career with “Thelma and Louise,” a controversy-stirring 1991 road movie that goosed the careers of Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis - just as his first hit, “Alien,” had made a star of Sigourney Weaver and created a franchise for her.

Both became feminist landmarks, and they hold up remarkably well today. “Alien,” in particular, now seems to have a lot more on its mind than scaring audiences with gore-dripping monsters; the plot about a ruthless company that regards its employees as expendable couldn’t feel more up-to-the-minute. When it’s reissued in an expanded “director’s cut” for Halloween, there may be even more of this.

Scott was briefly in danger of becoming typecast as a testosterone specialist (“Black Rain,” “The Duellists”), yet his early work with actresses hinted at the versatility that would become his hallmark in the 21st century. Mimi Rogers has rarely improved on her work in Scott’s heartfelt romantic thriller, “Someone to Watch Over Me,” while Scott’s moody science-fiction classic, “Blade Runner,” gave Daryl Hannah, Sean Young and Joanna Cassidy their career-peak roles.

Failure was still possible. In the late 1990s, Scott’s “White Squall” and “G.I. Jane” were only slightly more successful than “1492.” Julianne Moore failed to erase memories of Jodie Foster in “Hannibal,” Scott’s “Silence of the Lambs” sequel.

Success stories
It took a worldwide phenomenon, “Gladiator,” to pull Scott back to the top. A daring attempt to rework elements of “Spartacus” and “Ben-Hur” for a modern, action-addicted audience, it also functioned as a kind of preview for “Black Hawk Down,” his contemporary war movie that conveyed a similarly rough, fatalistic mood.

Although “Gladiator” won Oscars for best picture and actor (Russell Crowe), the Academy Award for best director eluded Scott. No doubt he will get another shot, or at some point the kind of honorary award that goes to a director whose best work can now be compared with such Oscar losers as Kubrick and Hitchcock.

Cage, whose career will get the A&E Biography treatment Oct. 14, often mixes great success with simultaneous failure. He slipped last year with his universally roasted directing debut, “Sonny,” which came out around the same time he was earning that second best-actor nomination for “Adaptation.”

He can follow John Woo’s best American movie, “Face/Off” (an acting showcase for Cage and John Travolta), with an unnecessary American remake of “Wings of Desire” (“City of Angels”). The intense sincerity he brings to Martin Scorsese’s “Bringing Out the Dead” and even a Christmas bon-bon like “The Family Man” can be overshadowed by the wince-inducing miscasting of “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.”

Cage and Scott are always willing to make leaps of faith, which is why their first collaboration arouses more-than-usual expectations. “Matchstick Men” may never be regarded as their most satisfying work, but at least it represents something neither has done before.