10 Nicolas Cage Performances That Could Prove He’s Either The Best Or The Worst Actor Ever

Nicolas Cage1 10 Nicolas Cage Performances That Could Prove He’s Either The Best Or The Worst Actor Ever

There doesn’t seem to be another actor who can do the things Nicolas Cage can do. Maybe it’s better said that there isn’t another actor who is crazy enough to, first of all, come up with the ideas Nic Cage employs on a regular basis, and second of all, think of them and say “yeah, that’s something I should probably try.” His choices are uniquely his own, for better or for worse.

One thing you can’t say about Mr. Cage is that he gives anything less than 100% in any given role. On one hand, there’s something admirable about this. His level of commitment to a part is, dare I say, quite possibly on par with someone like Daniel Day-Lewis; it’s just that his taste in roles is slightly less, shall we say, discerning. It seems like he’ll do anything. And he’ll do it as if it’s the role he’s wanted to play all his life. Then again, when someone is performing in a bad movie, part of us wants some indication that they know what they’re doing is completely stupid, some sign that they’re laughing along with us at the pitiful quality of the film before us. Nicolas Cage does not do this. I wonder if he believes there is such a thing as a bad movie. Or a bad performance. He’s like a gambler who goes all in on every bet, and every now and then it’ll pay off in a big way for him, but most of the time, especially recently, he loses his shirt, his shoes, his dignity, all of it.

I don’t think it matters at this point whether he’s pulling a fast one on all of us and the latter half of his career has been a big, weird performance art piece, or whether he’s just crazy enough to be in a movie like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and play it as straight as an arrow. All that matters, to me and other Cage-obsessed weirdos, is that he is consistently incredible to watch. Here are 10 performances in particular that show he is someone with a set of skills that no one else can, nor wants to touch, making him perhaps the best actor of all time, or the worst, or the most bizarre combination of both.

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1) Raising Arizona

Raising Arizona 10 Nicolas Cage Performances That Could Prove He’s Either The Best Or The Worst Actor Ever

The Coen Brothers’ follow-up to their masterpiece Blood Simple was a stark departure from their more serious first effort, but just as stylized. It’s also a ton of fun, thanks in no small part to the goofy lead performance by a young Nicolas Cage. Released in 1987, it was one of Cage’s first big lead roles, and remains one of the few silly comedies he’s been in (that is, one of the only intentionally absurd movies). It showcases just how good Cage can be in comedy, because of his level of commitment to a character, but also it seems as though he plays these comedic roles in a much more quiet and understated way than some of the role he has become known for. We saw this more recently in an appearance alongside Andy Samberg on Saturday Night Live, in which Cage sat right next to a guy impersonating him and didn’t blink.

We see this straight acting on display in Raising Arizona, with Cage earnestly portraying a hapless criminal named Hi who kidnaps a quintuplet baby so he and his wife can have a proper family. The beauty of Cage’s performance is his belief in Hi’s commitment and love for his wife, Ed. This is the type of movie that relies completely on the cast really grasping the tone of the film. For it to work comedically, they have to seem deadly serious about everything they do. It was one of the first hints we got that Nicolas Cage could take a seemingly ridiculous person and make him somebody real, and sympathetic. A lot of other actors have tried and failed at this.

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2) National Treasure

National Treasure 10 Nicolas Cage Performances That Could Prove He’s Either The Best Or The Worst Actor Ever

Up until 2004, Nicolas Cage was actually a fairly well respected actor, with a reputation for taking weighty, complicated roles and making them very much his own. It seems hard to believe now, but his announcement as the star of the new Disney/Jerry Bruckheimer adventure heist collaboration came as a pretty big surprise. He had, after all, just been nominated for an Oscar, and although he had been in action movies like The Rock and Gone in 60 Seconds years before, this seemed like far more of a departure for a serious performer like Cage.

This seems impossible to believe now. At this point in time, Cage is synonymous with dumb movies with ridiculous premises and over the top performance, usually featuring some sort of supernatural element. Quite a difference ten years can make. But National Treasure sort of kickstarted this phase of Cage’s career. Helming a movie wherein a guy named Benjamin Franklin Gates uncovers a Freemason conspiracy can do that, I guess. His stone-faced delivery of the line “I’m going to steal the Declaration of Independence,” spoken with the matter-of-factness a person would use to describe what they ate for breakfast, immediately attracted a bunch of offers from people saying “Hey, can you take my completely insane idea for a movie and make it seem legit?”

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3) Leaving Las Vegas

Leaving Las Vegas 10 Nicolas Cage Performances That Could Prove He’s Either The Best Or The Worst Actor Ever

I imagine whenever the kids today hear that Nicolas Cage once won an Academy Award they find it hard to believe. But he did, back in 1996, for Leaving Las Vegas, in which he played a man at the end of his rope who travels to Las Vegas with the intention of drinking himself to death, only to meet a woman whose own problems rival his and they form a strange bond. It’s an interesting look at people’s inability to escape their vices and the loneliness that comes with this lack of power or control over one’s own life. Cage is a real tragic figure here, at once repugnant but pitiful in the sympathetic sense of the word. He’s all over the emotional map, and essentially intoxicated the whole time, but he really brings something special to the quieter moments. It’s a sad movie, but Cage’s work in it is remarkable, hence the award recognition. But this sort of thing feels like forever ago for him now.

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4) The Wicker Man

The Wicker Man 10 Nicolas Cage Performances That Could Prove He’s Either The Best Or The Worst Actor Ever

The Wicker Man marked a new low for Nicolas Cage. Though it was released in 2006, it wasn’t until the DVD release with an extended version of the now infamous honeybee torture scene that changed the context of Cage’s career from respectable and intriguing to baffling.

This movie is insane. It has the quality of those movies that are so bad that they become amusing, and then the filmmakers try to argue that this was their intention all along. This one seems as though it started out like a serious attempt at a loyal remake, but somewhere along the line they decided to go Snakes on a Plane with it and just throw caution to the wind. Cage’s performance is central to this. It’s impossible to tell with Nicolas Cage whether he’s doing deadpan comedy or serious drama. I doubt he approaches either genre any differently. In Wicker Man, his earnest delivery of lines like “How’d it get burned??” and “You bitches!!” have become legendary. At the end we’re wondering “How’d it get made?” and “Why did you agree to do this? You won an Oscar!”

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5) Adaptation

Adaptation 10 Nicolas Cage Performances That Could Prove He’s Either The Best Or The Worst Actor Ever

This is probably Nicolas Cage’s best performance. Playing the twin brothers Charlie and Donald Kaufman, he carries a pretty heavy load in portraying two characters that are set up to be antithetical to one another. His range is on full display as we see him simultaneously being the life of the party guy who doesn’t think about things too much and receives loads of adulation, and then also the quiet, insecure guy who resents the other guy for everything he is and stands for.

He’s aided in large part by the genius script written by the real Charlie Kaufman, and so he gets a lot of fun mannerisms to play with, profuse sweating and eye contact aversion and nervous laughter. Down to the smallest of details, Cage gets to the heart these two brothers, from their opposing vocal tones to their posture. It’s kind of a master class in itself of what Cage can do. Maybe it’s a microcosm of his career trajectory, in fact. On one hand he could have gone the way of Charlie, being a deep and serious actor who took roles to express something true and good, but instead seems to have leaned more on the Donald route, preferring simple plots that are mere mechanisms to string together flashy action sequences that become dull and repetitive after a while.

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6) Drive Angry

Drive Angry 10 Nicolas Cage Performances That Could Prove He’s Either The Best Or The Worst Actor Ever

By now, Nicolas Cage is almost like a parody of a parody. For a while it’s enjoyable to see a talented actor play against type and do a few fun roles. We appreciate the irony and like the seriousness with which they treat an otherwise throwaway role. It’s more interesting than most action movie performances. Ben Kingsley has been doing that a bit lately and it’s cool. Or other guys like Timothy Olyphant in Die Hard 4 and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Mission: Impossible 3. But then they go back to doing more serious stuff again, because it’s easy to get locked into a type of role and never escape.

So maybe Cage doesn’t want to escape. Maybe he enjoys drinking beer out of a human skull and surviving getting shot through his eye hole and shooting up bad guys while he bangs a lady. And as weirdly awesome as all those things in Drive Angry may be in a sick fantasy kind of way, it becomes tiring. We know Nicolas Cage can do more than this. We’ve seen it. He used to make terrific choices, and maybe it’s come down to the roles he’s offered at this point. But there comes a point where you just see a trailer for a movie like The Season of the Witch and think “oh, there goes that Nic Cage again…” We see William Fichtner in Drive Angry and think there’s a character actor having some fun. We see Nicolas Cage in it and wonder how much debt he’s in.

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7) Matchstick Men

Matchstick Men 10 Nicolas Cage Performances That Could Prove He’s Either The Best Or The Worst Actor Ever

To find another example of Cage doing good work we have to go back to 2003. Working under director Ridley Scott, Cage takes a part in Matchstick Men that, again, and this is becoming a recurring theme, could have been completely played up for laughs rather than drama and emotion and brings to it the level of realism that it requires. The weird tics and stutters of the Roy character would be very easy to make into a caricature. Often mental disorders like OCD and phobias and verbal outbursts can seem gimmicky, and initially it almost appears like this movie is set to go down that road, but Cage finds a way to make them just a sample of the many dimensions of a character, rather than the whole of a person. They’re big gestures but they’re handled in smart way. We’ve only seem him this good one other time since 2003. That’s a span of 10 years with mostly disappointing roles for a talented dude. It’s too bad.

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8) Ghost Rider

Ghost Rider 10 Nicolas Cage Performances That Could Prove He’s Either The Best Or The Worst Actor Ever

If there’s one role that solidified Nicolas Cage as the go-to guy for campy supernatural hero fiction, it has to be Johnny Blaze in Ghost Rider. Like Blaze, it’s as if Cage sold his soul to the devil on this one. The movie is fun, to be sure, but campy as hell and one example of Cage’s work coming off as more hammy than fun or interesting. It did score him a franchise though, allowing him to reprise the character in the even more lifeless sequel Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. Of course, what the ensured for Cage, especially with the popular success of Ghost Rider, is that he’ll have plenty more of these roles waiting for him if he wants them.

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9) The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Bad Lieutenant 10 Nicolas Cage Performances That Could Prove He’s Either The Best Or The Worst Actor Ever

This is the one really great performance Cage has delivered since Matchstick Men, and Adaptation and others before it. It’s almost a throwback to his performance in Leaving Las Vegas, as he plays a pretty drug-riddled guy again with all sorts of problems, except this time there’s an added catch: he’s a police sergeant. But this is one of those unique aspects Cage can bring to a performance, especially the latter-day Nicolas Cage we’ve come to know. He can play a crazy person and play off the crazy persona that he’s fostered for himself in recent years. But he doesn’t do it with a special kind of intensity that makes it seem like he’s eccentric but successful, the way someone like Tom Cruise likes to play. He comes off as someone who is an all-out mess. And in this case, we get to see things from his perspective, and this does not disappoint, featuring weird hallucinations and general madness. This is the last known example of Cage using his talent for good.

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10) Kick-Ass

Kick Ass 10 Nicolas Cage Performances That Could Prove He’s Either The Best Or The Worst Actor Ever

Kick-Ass may be the perfect summation of Nicolas Cage’s entire career, because in the end, I have no earthly idea what to make of it. One thing is for sure: it’s weird as hell. Playing the character of Big Daddy, he delivers a lot of his dialogue in a weird Adam West Batman-style of speech, which is bizarre. But maybe he’s supposed to be a little insane, because after all, he’s a grown man who dresses up to fight crime with his pre-teenage daughter. Then there’s his death scene (which you can view below). It’s an incredibly emotional moment, and much of this is brought about by Cage’s insane screaming. But then at the same time it seems like it’s appropriate for us to react like, why is he yelling like that? What is going on with him? WTF, Nic? You are crazy. And that’s as close as we can come to a conclusion on whether he’s doing something genuinely inspired or just downright crazy. Which of course leads to all sorts of questions of the distinction between the two, and if there even is one.

If there’s anyone who can blur the lines between mad genius or just plain madness, it’s Nicolas Cage.

What do you think? Is Nicolas Cage the best actor ever? Maybe the worst? Does he defy explanation? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.


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  • Mark

    “If there’s anyone who can blur the lines between mad genius or just plain madness, it’s Nicolas Cage.”

    As Nic would say, “That’s high praise!”

    I think he’s awesome in Kick-Ass. That death scene is amazing. I’m sure the director wanted him to ham it up as much as possible. He was on fire afterall, right?

    Great article.

  • pick up bart

    It’s nice to be reminded just how good Nicolas Cage really is, I think I’ll rewatch some of these.(the good ones)

    But I’m pretty sure National Treasure will come a knockin to complete the trilogy; “I’m going to impregnate the Statue of Liberty.”

  • Lev186211

    Isn’t he broke and thats why he takes on every single role offered to him?

  • Mohit Kumar

    I don’t think he is a bad actor, it’s just that he is broke. I quite enjoyed his performances in Adaptation but the movie was so tense that it took me a month to get it out of my head.
    I also enjoyed the National Treasure, it is a good timepass.. but Ghostrider is just horrible.

  • http://twitter.com/margin_walker_ Nate

    has anyone seen ‘Bringing Out The Dead’ with Cage directed by Scorsese. I saw it ages ago in the theatre and remember it being great. Been trying to find a copy on dvd or blu ray in vain all these years though …

    • bob

      Bringing out the dead was great!

  • uncle ed

    cage is the bomb! enough said.

  • Josh

    Nicolas cage is a great actor, wouldnt say he’s the best but he’s damn good, and kick-ass was a bad ass movie but this guy forgot about conair which is one of best movies hes done.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Melissa-Hamari/100000076759308 Melissa Hamari

      Saying he’s a ‘great’ actor is a bit of a stretch for me. He’s an okay actor that if you put him in the right role, he performs well, but he’s the same guy in every movie. He’s a lot like Kevin Costner. Neither of them can really, honestly act.

  • Lynnetta JOHNSON

    He is the best ever….brilliant and crazy (the two often go hand in hand ) serious and bizarre. phenomenal and odd.i love it all.

  • WoWed

    Nicolas Cage should be in every movie ever made, but no more (or less) than 5 minutes per film.

    • Lynnetta JOHNSON

      Is that a compliment?

    • Lynnetta JOHNSON

      Is that a compliment?

      • WoWed

        of course. i love Nicolas Cage, just in small doses

        • Lynnetta JOHNSON

          Ikr….I must admit, sometimesI have to scratch my head.

        • Jonathan Rogers

          Perhaps that’s why his role in Kick-Ass worked so well. It was just the right amount of Nick Cage crazy!

  • http://rainerflame.com rainer

    This article is summarize my though of the actor. complicated as hell.. ahaha..

    But actually as an actor he doesn’t have acting problem, he’s give the character certain taste. It just the movie script he choose is too awful. too bad.

    But, all in all I put him in interesting actor to watch.. Go Nic!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Melissa-Hamari/100000076759308 Melissa Hamari

    The Wicker Man and the two Ghost Rider movies were just awful. Everyone involved should feel bad about them being made and how they were made. They were a blight on the world.

    Kick Ass, however, was awesome and I am looking forward to the second one, even though he won’t be in it.

  • Jake

    I’ve always said Cage is not an actor but he is one hell of an entertainer.

    • Lynnetta JOHNSON

      Cage brings the “crazy”, no matter what the script calls for. And I love it!!!! Fan for life!

      • Jake

        My favorite film of his is gotta be Bad Lieutenant because its just the right amount of crazy for crack smoking dirty cop…the movie is one hell of a dark comedy and I mean DARK lol

        • Lynnetta JOHNSON

          Agreed

          • Jake

            That’s the great thing for me is that a not every film has to be the best in the world and obviously that’s not what they go for every time but people judge films so harshly when it comes to movies like this which were obviously just made for the entertainment value and a fun ride, you know? I don’t judge every movie the same for sure.

        • Lynnetta JOHNSON

          You may disown me for this, but I loved Drive Angry. The thought of him busting out of Hell while being chased/helped by the Accountant  all  while chasing a sadistic psycho is priceless. Sorry for those of you that haven’t seen it.

  • Roberto24

    I’m surprise that FaceOff and ConAir were not part of this review.

  • quarkhenares

    where’s Sailor Ripley?! there are few scenes more Cagely iconic than him singing Love Me Tender with a swollen nose to Laura Dern in the middle of traffic after getting a visit from the good witch!

  • TD

    I like Nicolas Cage he has enough roles under his belt that he can practically do anything. As far as Kick-Ass he really brought a much better dimension to the character of Big Daddy than is what revealed in the comics. He definitely brings a much better hero tone to the character and retains a lot of dignity. By the way He’s yelling commands over gunfire to Hit Girl to help her dispatch the last 5 or 6 henchmen that are currently shooting at her still, after she’s already offed like 20 and will continue to massacre another 15 or 20 so in the most awesome display of child gun-kata violence karate running. Plus he’s on fire, pretty strong nerves to not lose your focus on all the pain of burning.

  • vaishno

    And what about Red Rock West ?????

  • Jesse Pepin

    This list is actually pretty spot-on. I’d have to include 2 more titles, though. First, the other ‘bad’ film would be Con Air. I really enjoy the movie, but his accent and hair are just horrible in it.
    Second, Gone in 60 Seconds. It’s designed to just be an awesome car-chase movie, but his relationship with his brother comes off as genuine, and he seemed to just be playing a normal guy with a past he loves and hates. Not bad for a remake.

  • bramley

    Best = Red Rock West
    Worst = Peggy Sue Got Married