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Actor Nicholas Cage. Peter Sabok/CoolMedia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Why Nicolas Cage endures

Pig invites fans of Nic Cage, the meme, to rediscover Nic Cage, the movie star.

When the trailer for Pig hit the Internet, Twitter erupted into rapture and disbelief. The idea of Nicolas Cage starring in a film about a truffle hunter who goes on the hunt for his stolen pig was too much. Some made comparisons to the John Wick series; others to Mandy, the psychedelic blood-drenched horror film in which Cage starred in 2018. The expectation was clear: This movie would be bonkers, so bonkers that only an actor like Cage would take the job.

Judging from those trailer reactions, Pig is not the movie most people expect. It is pensive and broody, mixing a grizzled and frequently silent Cage with sensuous sequences of high-end food preparation. It is partly a film about the not-quite-seedy underbelly of Portland’s gourmet food scene, but more fundamentally, it’s a poetic and introspective odyssey, probing the way loss, memory, longing, and love are twined together with our senses. (There is also some punching.)

We’d say it’s a career-best performance from Cage, except that, well, it is Nicolas Cage we’re talking about here. Among American actors, he is inarguably singular. Defining his work is weirdly slippery; just when you think you kind of understand what his thing is, he does something entirely different. So it could be that Cage’s best performance still lies ahead.

Still, what the actor’s turn in Pig crystallizes — especially alongside the various reactions to the trailer and the expectations they reveal — is that we all have some idea of who Nicolas Cage is, and that he is always surprising nevertheless. In his public persona, he’s something of a shapeshifter — at some times, a live wire with a predilection for extravagance; at others, a thoughtful conversationalist with deeply considered ideas about acting and art. This malleability is a byproduct of his life both on- and offscreen, and it has essentially cemented his status as a living, breathing meme: unhinged, over-the-top, and unpredictable. It all adds up to a persona that’s beloved both personally and professionally, and a man whose slippery nature has paradoxically made him a permanent part of the cultural landscape.

From good movies to terrible ones, Cage’s onscreen performances show he certainly has the range

Nicolas Cage, born in 1964, is actually a Coppola; Francis Ford Coppola, director of the Godfather series and Apocalypse Now, is his uncle. (Directors Sofia Coppola and Roman Coppola are his cousins, and, in a fun twist, so is actor Jason Schwartzman.)

Early in his career, Cage chose to drop the Coppola name. “Other actors on the set of Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Rumble Fish would tease him because he was Nicolas Coppola,” says Keith Phipps, author of the forthcoming book Age of Cage, about Cage’s career. “He wanted to break with that and create his own identity.”

As a teenager, Cage had asked his famous uncle to help him get started in Hollywood, and when he was 15, Cage petitioned him: “Give me a screen test — I’ll show you acting.” Though he auditioned for and lost roles in Coppola’s films, Cage did eventually work with the director, starring in Rumble Fish (1983) and Peggy Sue Got Married (1986).

He blazed his own trail pretty quickly. The 1980s were a fruitful launch for Cage, establishing for him a reputation as one of his generation’s greatest actors. He worked constantly, with sometimes two or three movies coming out in a year. In 1984, he starred in Alan Parker’s film Birdy, about two friends and the trauma they experienced from fighting in Vietnam. Among other things, the production revealed him to be slightly eccentric; he had two teeth removed without anesthetics, lost 15 pounds, and went around set swaddled in bandages to really feel the character’s pain.

“I could have taken those bandages off, but I didn’t. I left them on for five weeks,” he told the New York Times in 1984. “I slept in them. I’d wake myself up in the middle of the night and say, ‘Don’t sleep on that side; that’s the side that was hurt.’’

Nicolas Cage and Matthew Modine in Birdy (1984).
Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images
Cage at the premiere of Moonstruck in 1987.
Ken Faught/Toronto Star via Getty Images

In 1987 alone, Cage played the flammable, amorous Ronny in Moonstruck opposite Cher, as well as petty thief Hi McDonough in the Coen brothers’ Raising Arizona. He’d starred a competitive rower in 1986’s The Boy in Blue, and then went on to play a literary agent with a cocaine problem who thinks he’s a vampire and eats a cockroach in 1988’s Vampire’s Kiss (after Dennis Quaid dropped out of the role), and a young lover on the run in David Lynch’s 1990 crime film Wild at Heart.

Not all of these movies were good — not by a long shot. But it was clear that Cage could do pretty much anything. He displays an animal quality when he’s onscreen, as if whatever passion or emotion is animating him at the moment — rage, love, fear, confusion, delight — is bigger than his body, about to explode through his eyes. Of his Moonstruck performance, Pauline Kael wrote in the New Yorker that “Cage is a wonderful romantic clown: he can look stupefied while he smolders.” Cage and his Birdy co-star Matthew Modine earned high marks from critics for their sensitive performances. Even when the movie around him fell short, critics seemed to agree, Cage was pretty interesting to watch.

At the same time, the actor was self-consciously constructing a persona as an outsider, an artist, a bit of a weirdo. “He didn’t start doing interviews until a couple of years into his career,” Phipps says. “There’s a really funny profile series in the LA Times that ran in 1983 about new stars of Hollywood, short profiles of Demi Moore and a few other people you’d suspect, and he didn’t speak to the Times. His agent just said, ‘He wants his art to speak for himself.’ Which of course is its own form of getting your public image out there. But he volunteered one detail: that he would like you to know he did recently purchase a lizard.”

A few years later, in 1986, a longer LA Times profile of 22-year-old Cage opened with the actor showing off his pet baby octopus to the journalist before speaking thoughtfully about the movie business. He was clearly wise, tuned in to both the craft of acting and the business of filmmaking, but also unconventional — a persona that would persist into the next phase of his career.

In 1995, Cage won an Oscar for his leading performance Leaving Las Vegas, in which he plays Ben Sanderson, an alcoholic screenwriter who leaves Hollywood for Las Vegas, where he plans to drink himself to death. Cage beat out a formidable field of contenders for the trophy: Richard Dreyfuss (Mr. Holland’s Opus), Anthony Hopkins (Nixon), Sean Penn (Dead Man Walking), and Massimo Troisi (Il Postino). It would seem Cage had established himself as a prestigious performer who gave every role his all.

Cage in Face/Off (1997).
Paramount Pictures

In the years following Cage’s Oscar win, the actor’s career took a few leaps and bounds, most notably into blockbuster territory. Not every film he made was a big-budget box office magnet — in 1999, he starred in Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead — but a lot of them were. He worked with Michael Bay, playing an FBI agent, in the 1996 megahit The Rock. The next year, he was an off-the-hook action star in Con Air and Face/Off. Then, as a romantic leading man, he starred opposite Meg Ryan in City of Angels in 1998 — the same year he was a corrupt cop in Brian De Palma’s conspiracy thriller Snake Eyes. Movies like Gone in 60 Seconds, in which he plays a reformed but notorious car thief, and the fantasy comedy The Family Man followed in 2000.

The sheer variety of his roles is wild. “That’s the Nicolas Cage performance style,” Phipps says. “He’s not afraid to go big. He’s not afraid to not be naturalistic. And when it works, it’s in sync with the material in ways that no one else might have expected.”

Sometimes Cage is a soulful romantic lead; sometimes he’s a goofy comedy character; sometimes he’s an action hero. His movies range from earnest dramas to rambunctious schlock. You might be forgiven, watching all of his films in a row, for thinking Cage is a chameleon, or able to divide himself into multiple personalities. In Face/Off, after all, he had to essentially play John Travolta.

In 2002, following the disappointing release of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin a year earlier, he seemed to split himself in half, and earned his second Oscar nomination. In Adaptation, he played both Charlie Kaufman — the movie’s actual screenwriter — and Kaufman’s fictional brother Donald. (Tom Hanks was originally cast in the role.) In the film, Charlie is twitchy, phobic, and ridden by anxiety; Donald is cool-tempered, breezy, full of confidence.

“As the twins,” Roger Ebert wrote, “[Cage] gets so deeply inside their opposite characters that we can always tell them apart even though he uses no tricks of makeup or hair. His narration creates the desperate agony of a man so smart he understands his problems intimately, yet so neurotic he is captive to them.” Cage lost the Oscar, but the performance is one of his finest.

Since Adaptation, Cage’s roles have been even more all over the map. He headlined the critically panned but wildly successful National Treasure franchise, the first installment of which launched in 2004. His star seemed to start falling in 2006, with the release of the widely derided remake of The Wicker Man, but he kept working, starring in box office winners like Ghost Rider (2007) and Knowing (2009). In 2009 he also starred in Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, one of the strangest and most hallucinatory films he’d appeared in to date; at the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote that Cage’s performance “requires adjectives as yet uncoined, typed with both the caps-lock key and the italics button engaged.”

Cage’s offscreen persona has been just as unpredictable as what role he’ll play next

Cage’s unhinged onscreen image has long been emphasized in the way Cage has presented himself in life off the screen. He’s told stories about drawing acting inspiration from his pet cobra, about confronting an invader in his home while eating a Fudgesicle, about thinking of his acting style as “nouveau shaman.” As far back as 1980, he was known as a man of many impulses, sometimes to a maddening degree; he once told his fellow passengers on a commercial flight that he was a pilot and the flight was losing altitude. “It was a joke,” he explained later, “but everyone started screaming.”

In 2009, this public image hit an inflection point. The varied, sometimes erratic, always wide-ranging characters he portrayed in the movies seemed to leak offscreen when he filed a lawsuit for $20 million against his former business manager, claiming the manager had put him on the path to “financial ruin.” The suit alleged that Cage had to “sell major assets and investments at a significant loss” to keep from going broke, and that his reputation had been “irreparably tarnished.” The general public became aware of a seeming paradox: Cage had earned $40 million the previous year, with six movies set to come out in the near future, yet he was apparently strapped for cash and had received a claim from the US government for $6.6 million in back income taxes, interest, and penalties.

Cage’s ex-business manager shot back soon with a counter-complaint, alleging that Cage’s money problems stemmed from the actor spending prolifically and ignoring warnings for years, amassing “15 personal residences,” a “Gulfstream jet,” a “flotilla of yachts,” a “squadron of Rolls Royces,” and “millions of dollars in jewelry and art” — as well as a rare, stolen dinosaur skull (which Cage returned). Other lawsuits soon started pouring in: one from the mother of his 13-year-old son, alleging fraud; another from a bank to which Cage allegedly did not repay a $2 million loan; still another from an investment company that claimed he hadn’t repaid a $5 million loan.

Cage in the National Treasure franchise.
Disney

How those financial struggles wormed their way into Cage’s career is at times easy to see. He worked a lot in the 2010s, appearing in 42 films between 2010 and 2020 and producing two more. He starred in big-budget fare like Kick-Ass, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and a Ghost Rider sequel; did voice work in movies like The Croods, Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse; took on roles in the kind of indie horror films that find an adoring audience in midnight screenings at film festivals. There were standout performances, as the titular gruff father figure in David Gordon Green’s indie drama Joe (2013), as an unhinged criminal in Paul Schrader’s Dog Eat Dog (2016), as a recluse on a rampage in Panos Cosmatos’s cult revenge thriller hit Mandy (2018). And there were mega-duds, the apex of which is probably the 2014 Left Behind reboot, in which Cage appears to have lost the will to live.

But Cage’s apparent enthusiasm for working on tiny films with new directors is where the actor’s versatility and genius shines. At this point, the roles he accepts are not all about the money — and that shows in the risks he is willing to take. “He’s done interviews where he talked about how he likes to work, and also kind of feels the need to work. He’s not really good or a happy person when he’s not working,” says Phipps.

That drive to never stop working and stretching, to be someone new in every film, is what marks a Nicolas Cage performance. It’s like his characters are ripped out of his gut; in 2017, Cage said that “I don’t even like the word acting anymore because it implies lying in some way. I don’t act. I feel and I imagine and I channel.” In an era when actors are often hired because they give a dependable performance, Cage is a live wire, making choices that will always astound, no matter what the movie around him is like.

“He’s someone who has kept an element of unpredictability in his career choices and performances within them at a time when others have not,” Phipps explains. “And I think that’s why he has proven so enduring and such a continual figure of interest, because there’s really not anyone else like him onscreen. Offscreen, of course, we’ve got all the things that make his public persona fascinating. But onscreen, you don’t really know what’s going to happen when he shows up.”

Cage’s excesses made him into an internet icon — and his persona has come to embody digital culture itself

Perhaps because Cage’s acting career has been so varied, he was destined for online glory. Cage’s persona has subsequently become deeply embedded in modern internet culture in a way that very few other A-list celebrities can claim.

Much like his fellow ’90s action movie icon Keanu Reeves, Cage’s popularity on the internet has given him a distinct identity online — yet another facet of his slippery persona. Cage has been popular since the internet’s infancy in the ’90s, with early fan pages springing up in his honor across ancient websites and “web rings.” In the early aughts, influential meme sites like You’re the Man Now Dawg began to fill with homages to Cage’s over-the-top acting. Cage’s memeability has both cemented his status as a cultural icon and rendered questions of whether he’s a “good” or a “bad” actor largely irrelevant: Nic Cage is simply himself.

Nic Cage being Nic Cage also seems to have carved out a lasting space in the internet’s ever-shifting topography; rather than Nic Cage starring in a number of well-known memes, Nic Cage is the meme. (He even has his own entry on Know Your Meme.) Somewhat like early “Chuck Norris” memes where the punchline was always Chuck Norris showing up to kick some ass, Cage has become a go-to punchline if ever a situation calls for a mental non sequitur, an injection of absurdity, or a wholly wacky plot twist.

A few specific movies likely contributed to this theme, adding new layers to Cage’s offbeat real-life persona. The first is 1997’s Con Air, one of those largely inexplicable, delightful ’90s action movies that encapsulated the complete absurdity of the genre during the decade. Starring a plethora of the era’s icons like Cage, John Cusack, Ving Rhames, and John Malkovich, and packed with gratuitous Jerry Bruckheimer explosions, Con Air fueled jokes across countless early internet forums. Specifically, Cage’s antihero prison escapee became known for his laconic drawl and deadpan delivery of Dadaist one-liners like “put the bunny back in the box” — an early glimpse into future Cage extravagance:

Then came 2006’s The Wicker Man, a movie that notably commands its own subcategory within Know Your Meme’s Nic Cage catalog. That’s because The Wicker Man, an appallingly awful remake of a brilliant 1973 cult classic horror movie, was destined to become the stuff of internet meme legend the moment Cage stepped on set. The film became instantly notorious for its terrible script, garishly over-the-top scenes — moments where Cage’s character is tortured with a face cage full of bees, or punches multiple women in the face, including while wearing a giant bear costume — and Cage’s over-the-top acting throughout. Witness one famous line that’s been memed into immortality as an all-purpose joke and a popular reaction GIF:

The Wicker Man sealed Cage’s reputation for injecting movies of every genre with unexpected doses of “unintentional comedy,” as WatchMojo wrote in a list of Top 10 Nicolas Cage Freakouts. The Nic Cage Freakout — essentially any scene where Cage goes feral and screams a lot — is a major part of why he remains a fixture of internet culture: Whether he’s playing a role or just being himself, he’s one of few actors who seem to be able to capture something of the deranged energy of the internet itself.

Images of a yelling and wildly expressive Nic Cage underlay the text, “Despite all my rage, I’m still just Nicolas Cage.”
Cage has become a go-to online emblem of unhinged emotionality.
Know Your Meme

But while questions of Cage’s actual acting ability have largely become irrelevant to his continued popularity in the latter decades of such a hugely varied career, he has enjoyed recent critical and public reappraisal. This is arguably the result of 2018’s acid-trip horror film Mandy, a riveting revenge thriller that reframes Cage’s over-the-top performativity as a spectacular exploration of grief-fueled rage. Just as the John Wick franchise was the perfect vehicle to synthesize the onscreen and offscreen identities of Keanu Reeves for a new generation of filmmaking and fans, Mandy synthesized the oft-memefied version of Nic Cage with Nic Cage, serious actor, and gave us a startling new lens through which to view his well-known explosiveness.

All this leads us to Pig, which arrived in theaters mired in confusion. Its not-very-viral promotional campaign, #WhoHasMyPig, garnered the social media equivalent of golf claps. Meanwhile, the stunt itself — flyers advertising Cage’s lost Pig were posted in cities across the US — felt more befitting of a YouTube prank channel than the buzzy arthouse film that Pig actually is.

Pig’s marketing seemed to deliberately build on audience expectations of what a Nic Cage film is — bonkers, as previously stated, with an unusual plot that trades in action movie tropes and out-of-left-field twists. It also courted an atypical audience for this more restrained type of film, inviting the kind of Extremely Online internet citizen who’d watched the trailer and geared up for a wacky John Wick meets Fight Club flick to instead discover a much quieter work that’s more akin to Winter’s Bone meets First Cow. It’s hard to say whether that strategy was meant to highlight Pig’s unique story or whether this kind of marketing is simply an inevitable byproduct of having Nic Cage, walking meme, attached to the film.

Perhaps it’s both. You can’t cast Nic Cage in a film in 2021 without inviting Nic Cage, internet phenomenon, along for the ride. Like Mandy, Pig might just be the rare film that can accommodate Cage the actor and Cage the meme — without trivializing either of those ideas.

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