IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Nicolas Cage swings from cheesy to cinematic

You saw him in “Rumble Fish,” “Racing with the Moon” and “Birdy.” You said, “Hmmm.” Then he did “Peggy Sue Got Married,” “Raising Arizona” and “Moonstruck.” You exclaimed, “A star is born!” From then on, nothing could possibly go wrong. But it did, sort of. After scintillating performances in the indie thriller “Red Rock West” and in “Leaving Las Vegas,” for
/ Source: TODAY contributor

You saw him in “Rumble Fish,” “Racing with the Moon” and “Birdy.” You said, “Hmmm.” Then he did “Peggy Sue Got Married,” “Raising Arizona” and “Moonstruck.” You exclaimed, “A star is born!”

From then on, nothing could possibly go wrong. But it did, sort of.

After scintillating performances in the indie thriller “Red Rock West” and in “Leaving Las Vegas,” for which he took home an Oscar, Nicolas Cage went into what is now universally known as his “Con Air” period.

It began with the release of that title in 1997. It’s still going.

The latest entry in the Cage canon is “Drive Angry 3-D,” a revenge thriller that appears to be something out of Quentin Tarantino’s throwaway pile. Before that it was “Season of the Witch,” a period action film. Then there was “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call — New Orleans,” “Knowing,” “Bangkok Dangerous,” “Next” and a host of others that would probably not attract the term “highbrow.”

There is little doubt that Cage, the nephew of director Francis Ford Coppola, has considerable talent. But years from now, will he be remembered for it? Will the Academy someday consider him for its lifetime achievement award? Or will that honor come from the folks who hand out the Razzies?

“I don’t think it tarnishes you forever,” said Clint O’Connor, film critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, referring to Cage’s affinity for commercial dreck. “I think he’s talented enough to come back with better choices. But one detriment might be overkill. If he has four films coming out that are all mindless action films, then it’s like, ‘Oh, geez, another Nicolas Cage film.’ There’s that backlash.”

Movie fans and critics understand actors and actresses who take roles just for the paycheck. All cinema geeks ask is that the performer mix in an occasional prestige picture, just to remind the public that there is some desire to create art. And Cage has done this, even in recent years when most of the news from his camp has been of the head-shaking variety.

He's played some unusual, risky roles. In 2003, he received an Academy Award nomination for his work in “Adaptation.” He attracted critical acclaim for “Matchstick Men,” also in 2003. He starred in films like “Lord of War” and “The Weather Man” (both 2005), and 2006's “World Trade Center.”

Yet his recent choices, coupled with his off-screen financial difficulties — he is selling off homes to pay back taxes, and suing his former business manager — have strengthened the perception that he is in it only for the money.

“With a few exceptions, the last time I really liked him was in ‘Leaving Las Vegas,’ which was ages ago,” said Claudia Puig, film critic for USA Today. “It seems like ever since ‘The Rock,’ followed by ‘Con Air,’ and his re-invention as an action star —actually since his Best Actor Oscar for ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ — he's made some pretty bad choices.

“He may be the most uneven actor working in Hollywood, making the most all-over-the-map choices in roles. He should play to his strengths, which are well-written offbeat characters, and give Jerry Bruckheimer vehicles a wide berth.”

Jonathan Kuntz is a visiting professor of cinema and media studies at UCLA as well as a film historian. He pointed out that in the days of the old studio system an actor like Cage would not have much control over the direction of his career, a situation that had its pros and cons.

“Many of them were tied to long-term contracts, and the studios determined what films they made,” he said. “There was a stronger sense of stereotyping actors, because the studio heads wanted a steady flow of what was predictable. (James) Cagney played gangsters, so he was in gangster films for years for Warner Brothers.

“But performers like Cary Grant and Henry Fonda and Gary Cooper became big enough stars that they were able to be more selective, and connect themselves with talented people. Cage has tried to do the same thing but it hasn’t worked out so well.”

Because there is more uncertainty today in the movie business in general, said Kuntz, actors like Cage can wind up with a more erratic list of credits.

“These modern actors are essentially in control of their own careers,” he said. “And it’s always a gamble. They’re always gambling on a filmmaker or a product. The idea of a sure thing doesn’t exist in Hollywood.

“Nic Cage will be around. He could make a few films and be back on top in the public’s eyes.”

Angela Gygi, a movie buff from Los Angeles, had this to say about the actor: “Nic Cage was awesome back in the day, before he went full-tilt cheese. Remember ‘Racing with the Moon’? Remember ‘Birdy’ and ‘Wild at Heart’? Even ‘Moonstruck’ — he was over the top at times, but still great."

And Joseph Kaiser of Scotch Plains, N.J., enjoyed even one of Cage's weirder roles. “I liked him in ‘Face Off’ with (John) Travolta," Kaiser said. "He played a good psycho.”

So the sentiment exists for a Cage climb back to the Hollywood pinnacle from the depths of the big-budget rubbish bin. Said USA Today’s Puig: “He’s clearly capable of some great turns as an actor.”

Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to TODAYshow.com.