Did you see The Runner, a political drama starring Nicolas Cage as a Louisiana congressman embroiled in a sex scandal while trying to hold BP responsible for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill?
No. Of course you didn’t. No one did. As with many Nicolas Cage movies, The Runner barely touched the theatrical circuit in August before being shunted to Video On Demand, where Cage’s waning star power can trick enough viewers into spending $5.99 on a variety of subpar action thrillers, political dramas and even an historical Chinese epic in which he plays a “legendary Crusader-turned-bandit.”
Does Nicolas Cage do it for the money? Maybe. His troubles with the IRS are well-known, and he recently returned a stolen dinosaur skull to Mongolia, meaning he lost the $276,000 “investment” he made in the object when he outbid Leonardo DiCaprio for it in 2007.
Nevertheless, Nicolas Cage is a good… nay, a great actor, with a bizarre, off-kilter presence that can’t be ignored. Perhaps he’s a character actor who somehow ended up playing a movie star. Perhaps he was meant to be a movie star and he just gets bored easily. Whatever the case may be: Nicolas Cage rules. And even though the Cage is perfectly capable of playing “normal” roles as “normal” people (see: The Family Man or World Trade Center), we prefer him when he’s getting a little nuts.
So here are the 15 Craziest Nicolas Cage Performances Of All Time.
15. H.I. McDunnough in Raising Arizona (1987)
In one of Cage’s sweetest performances, he plays H.I. (pronounced “Hi!”) McDunnough, a wild-haired ex-con with a distinctive mustache and a soft spot for babies. After marrying Edwina (Holly Hunter), a police officer he met while she was taking his mugshot, Hi sets out to get the love of his life a baby no matter the obstacle. When it turns out that Ed is infertile and they can’t adopt on account of his criminal record, H.I. resorts to theft, stealing one of five quintuplets from local furniture magnate Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson).
While the story could work as a dark, morose thriller, Raising Arizona plays as a comedy, with Cage and Hunter projecting such sweet naïvety that you want to root for them, even if they’re literally stealing children. When two of H.I.’s old pals (John Goodman and William Forsythe) escape from prison and ensconce with the baby, it turns into live-action Wile E. Coyote cartoon, only accentuated by the Looney Tunes-esque Mr. Horsepower tattoo on H.I.’s bicep.
Written and directed by the Coen brothers (their second film and first comedy), Raising Arizona offers Cage plenty of opportunity to act out, like when he pulls some pantyhose over his head and robs a convenience store, only to have his upset wife drive away in the getaway car. Yet, unlike in some other films that’ll pop up on this list, it never seems as though he’s overplaying his hand. The slack-jawed, dimwitted H.I. McDunnough is simply at one with the heightened reality of the movie.
14. Charlie and Donald Kaufman in Adaptation (2002)
If we were solely judging Cage’s performance as real-life screenwriter Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation, we probably wouldn’t consider it too crazy. The same goes for his performance as Charlie’s fiction twin brother Donald, which also, in itself, isn’t particularly wacky. But when you put both performances together, it’s pretty wild.
Cage plays Charlie as a sweaty, hunched-over, neurotic artiste, fresh off the success of Being John Malkovich and struggling to adapt Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief for a Hollywood system that doesn’t always appreciate his brand of self-aware, meta-textual comedy. As Donald, however, Cage stands up straight, charms everyone he meets and gamely writes screenplays full of the hoariest, most clichéd Hollywood tropes imaginable.
As Meryl Streep enters the movie as real-life author Orlean, the viewer gradually comes to understand that they’re watching the screenplay that Charlie is writing (and indeed, the film was written by the real-life Kaufman). While the movie begins a bit like Charlie (small, meta, “indie”), it ends a bit like Donald (with a formulaic car chase and a gun fight). It’s not so crazy that Cage can play both of these characters, in both of these contexts, but rather that he can move so seamlessly between them.
13. Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider in Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012)
Despite starring in two poorly-received adaptations of the comic, and potentially earning the ire of comic book fans everywhere, Nicolas Cage is a huge fan of Ghost Rider. So much so that the makeup team of the Ghost Rider movies had to cover up a flaming skull Ghost Rider tattoo on the actor’s bicep. In the first film, helmed by Daredevil director Mark Steven Johnson, Cage donned an awkward hairpiece and channeled Elvis Presley to play Johnny Blaze, a stunt motorcycle driver who transforms into a biker with a flaming skull after making an ill-advised deal with the devil (Peter Fonda). The film was not well-liked by fans, but it earned a slight profit at the box office.
Five years later, Sony realized that their rights to the character might expire, so they greenlit a second entry in the franchise at nearly half the budget of the original. This time, Cage dropped the toupée, and the gonzo directorial team of Neveldine/Taylor (the Crank franchise) took over the project, moving Johnny Blaze from America to eastern Europe, land of the film production tax credit. While this version of Johnny Blaze no longer seemed to be an Elvis impersonator in biker drag, Cage amped up the intensity, delivering his trademark “Cage-isms” with verve, most notably when Blaze threatens a heavy that the Ghost Rider (his fiery alter ego) is “scraping at the doooooor!”
While on set, Cage apparently wore a voodoo mask and carried mystical objects around with him. According to co-star Idris Elba, he also spent a night in Dracula’s castle, in order to “channel the energy.” We don’t know if these things added to the weirdness of his performance, but they certainly didn’t detract from it.
12. Ben Sanderson in Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
Way back in 1995, Nicolas Cage wasn’t the subject of any viral memes and, for the most part, he had yet to star in any poorly received action movies. At that time, he was a respected character actor, known for taking on off-beat roles in small movies and knocking them out of the park. In that regard, one could argue that Leaving Las Vegas is Nicolas Cage’s best performance (he even won an Oscar for it), but we wouldn’t try to argue that it’s his craziest. That said, when an actor like Cage takes on the role of an alcoholic who plans to “drink [him]self to death,” it can lead to some pretty weird places.
Cage plays Ben Senderson, a Hollywood screenwriter with nothing to lose, so he heads to Las Vegas to spend the last of his money on booze and end his life. He spends hardly a moment sober, which could be the plot of a comedy, but here it’s mostly just sad. The only moments of reprieve come from the relationship Ben develops with Sera (Elisabeth Shue), a down-on-her-luck prostitute who accepts him for who he is.
11. Al Columbato in Birdy (1984)
Birdy is a film about a Vietnam veteran, nicknamed “Birdy” from his youth, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and comes to believe that he is actually a bird. Despite being in keeping with a certain bird-themed Cage meme, the man who plays the man who thinks he is a bird is not Cage, but his co-star, Matthew Modine, who really gives it his all, getting up onto the bed in his psychiatric ward, bending down on his knees and flapping his arms like, well, a bird.
A young Nicolas Cage plays Birdy’s childhood friend, Al, another Vietnam vet who tries to bring Birdy down from the edge but can’t manage. Despite the fact that his on-screen character isn’t all that cray, especially not in comparison to the dude who thinks that he is a bird, Cage reportedly went through hell for the role, pulling out his remaining baby teeth and wearing head bandages for the entirety of the five-week shoot, both on set and off.
10. Captain Antonio Corelli in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2001)
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is one of those hoary, old-fashioned Hollywood romances set in a war-torn land where Hollywood stars speak in corny foreign accents to show that their characters aren’t from America. This works fine for sturdy, predictable actors like John Hurt and Christian Bale, but one wonders if it was really a good idea for Nicolas Cage to speak in an exaggerated Italian accent for the duration of this film. It’s entertaining, sure, but it’s got all the subtlety of Joe Mantegna’s “Fat Tony” voice performance in The Simpsons.
Cage plays Captain Corelli, the mandolin-playing head of an Italian division that has yet to fight in WWII. Instead, they’ve been tasked by the Germans with occupying Cephalonia, a beautiful and peaceful Greek island. The Italians do so by charming the residents with song and dance because Corelli has taught his soldiers to choral sing. Soon, he falls in love with Pelagia (Penélope Cruz), the daughter of the island’s doctor (John Hurt). But it can’t last for long, as Greek soldiers return to the island and the Italian government surrenders to the Allies, leaving the inexperienced occupying force in a precarious position.
Made with a seemingly enormous budget and a fairly large sense of self-importance, it’s pretty obvious that Captain Corelli’s Mandolin was meant to win Oscars, which it failed to do after garnering some scathing reviews. It would be easy to blame Cage for this, given the way he introduces the character by yelling “Bella bambina at two o’clock!” but at least Cage’s exaggerated mannerisms are less boring than the melodrama that surrounds him.
9. Johnny Collins in Zandalee (1991)
There ain’t much to say about Zandalee other than that it’s one of worst independent movies to come out in that post-Sex, Lies, and Videotape era when any kind of rumination on horny artists seemed able to get funding.
Cage plays Johnny Collins, a pretentious New Orleans painter with a Frank Zappa goatee and a mullet. He has recently come in to contact with his childhood friend, Thierry Martin (Judge Reinhold), an impotent poet-turned-corporate stooge who in turn introduces Johnny to his wife, Zandalee (Erika Anderson), a beautiful boutique store owner in the French Quarter. As is wont to happen in “erotic thrillers” like this, a love triangle develops, as Zandalee finds herself attracted to Johnny.
Besides the scene of Nic Cage throwing paint on himself in an emotional moment, Zandalee also gives us Nic Cage with a New Orleans accent (funny) and several Nic Cage sex scenes (scary), in which he carries the intensity of his performance into bed with him and it becomes… uncomfortable. It’s also Cage’s first New Orleans-set film, which could explain why he’s had a connection with the city for quite some time, or maybe it was all the cheapo post-Katrina action films he made there while the tax credits were good.
8. “Crazy” Charlie Bodell in Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)
Though he was born into Hollywood royalty as part of the storied Coppola family, Nicolas Cage only made three films with his esteemed uncle, Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, etc. – he’s pretty good), before apparently harshing the familial relationship on the baby boomer time-travel nostalgia romp Peggy Sue Got Married.
Cage plays Crazy Charlie, the aspiring singer and future husband of Peggy Sue (Kathleen Turner), who gets a second chance at high school and love after jumping back to 1960 during a particular stressful reunion. Charlie’s supposed to be the coolest kid in school, but you wouldn’t believe it given Cage’s decision to play him off as an eccentric, emotionally unstable teenager. Still, it would be hard to imagine a too-cool-for-school Ferris Bueller-type falling as unashamedly in love with Peggy Sue the way that Cage’s Crazy Charlie does. So perhaps the weird performance was a blessing for the film.
Not according to Kathleen Turner, however, who claimed that Cage almost sabotaged the film with his nasally voice, fake teeth, and eccentric acting style. In her autobiography, she also alleged that he’s been arrested for drunk driving and once stole a Chihuahua, though Cage sued her for libel and won.
7. Gallain/”The White Ghost” in Outcast (2014)
Despite getting top billing in this Canadian-American-Chinese co-production, Cage only appears in about 30 minutes of this overblown historical epic. Still, with long hair, a top knot, one permanently closed eye (it’s supposed to be missing) and a snake wrapped around his wrist that he uses to scratch his chin, he certainly makes an impression.
Cage and his co-star, the ever-wooden Hayden Christensen, begin the movie playing Crusaders, sick of fighting for a cause that isn’t theirs. Also, they both speak in atrociously bad British accents, as if they were amateurish improv actors imitating a Monty Python sketch. Sometime later, Jacob (Christensen) ends up in China, helping the heir to the Empire and his princess sister to escape from their older brother, a bad guy who wants the throne for himself.
Eventually, Cage’s character reappears as “The White Ghost,” a drunken, one-eyed bandit who agrees to help Jacob and the prince in one last stand against his evil brother and “The Black Guards,” because honor, or something. Outcast is not a great movie by any means, but it at least gives us the chance to hear Cage say “The Black Guards are as thick as flies on a farting goat’s ass because of you!”
6. Eddie in Deadfall (1993)
Nope, this isn’t the movie about Hitler that spawned a meme that will never die, that was Downfall. Nor is it the Michael Caine-starring heist movie from 1968. It’s not even the low-rent Eric Bana/Olivia Wilde thriller from 2012. Instead, it’s a low-rent crime thriller from 1993 starring… Michael Biehn? This Deadfall was directed by Christopher Coppola, who happens to be the brother of Nic Cage (né Coppola), which might explain why the Cageman himself shows up as Eddie, a jealous conman afraid that upstart Joe (Biehn) is about to take his place alongside Eddie’s partner, Lou (James Coburn), who also happens to be Joe’s long-lost uncle.
Watching Cage — acting with the assistance of a bald patch and a bad wig, a (fake?) moustache, an ever-present set of shades and penchant for bizarre, cocaine-fuelled, profanity-laden outbursts — makes you wonder if he was intentionally trying to ruin his brother’s movie. Perhaps it was the result of a sibling rivalry gone awry?
Nevertheless, Cage’s performance is more interesting than anything else going on in this boring genre flick, and it also leaves us with one of his best catchphrases: “VIVE LA F****** FRANCE, MAN!”
5. Castor Troy and Sean Archer in Face/Off (1997)
Famed Hong Kong director John Woo had a decade-long tenure in Hollywood, but it would be inaccurate to label his time there as anything other than inconsistent, which might be why he packed up his act and went home to China after the failure of 2003’s Paycheck.
Nevertheless, 1997’s Face/Off is the best film he made on this side of the Pacific, and boy-oh-boy is it a doozy. Starring John Travolta (the one Hollywood actor who might be even more eccentric than Cage) as FBI Agent Sean Archer and Nicolas Cage as criminal mastermind Castor Troy, it revolves around a secret facial transplant surgery that has Archer “stealing” Troy’s face (while he’s in a coma) to get some information from his brother in prison. Meanwhile, Troy wakes up from his faceless coma, forces the FBI doctors to give him Archer’s face, and then murders everyone who knows about Troy’s identity, stealing his arch-nemesis’ identity and, uh, his wife (Joan Allen).
For Woo, this is all an excessively complicated scenario for him to layer his top-notch, flying dove-infused action scenes, but for everyone else, it’s a chance to see Travolta act like Cage and Cage act like Travolta acting like Cage. Needless to say, neither actor leaves a lot of room for nuance, nor would we want them to.
4. Sailor Ripley in Wild at Heart (1990)
If there’s one director best suited to bringing out the crazy in any actor, it’s David Lynch. In 1990, the eccentric filmmaker behind head-trips like Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive and Twin Peaks cast Cage as a rebellious Elvis facsimile in Wild at Heart, a truly weird road trip through the kitsch mid-20th century Americana that formed Lynch’s aesthetic sensibilities. It is also, as many have pointed out, a bizarro-world remake of The Wizard of Oz.
Cage plays Sailor Ripley, a recently released prisoner who wears a snake-skin jacket that “represents a symbol of [his] individuality and [his] belief in individual freedom.” Together with Lula (Laura Dern), he breaks his parole and runs off to California, gets involved with a particularly disgusting gangster named Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe) and ends up attempting to rob a bank.
Of course, being a David Lynch film, things get a little weirder than that brief plot summary would suggest. Without spoiling too much, we’ll just mention that it ends with a musical number of Sailor singing Elvis’ “Love Me Tender” to his one true love (under a scorching hot sun rather than a rainbow).
3. Edward Malus in The Wicker Man (2006)
Ah, The Wicker Man. The source of many an internet meme, whether it be Cage’s reaction to bees, a scene where he punches a woman while wearing a bear suit, or even just the way he asks how a doll got burned. The Wicker Man remake has become ground zero for people trying to explain the crazy appeal of Nicolas Cage. Just look at him! How can you not be entertained!
In this gender-reversed remake of a 1973 cult classic, Cage plays a traffic cop who heads to a remote island to try to find his daughter, who was seemingly raised by a matriarchal, neo-pagan cult. As he digs deeper into the culture of the island, he finds himself at the center of a conspiracy and begins to act paranoid. Lucky for us, a paranoid Cage is an entertaining Cage. Someone terrify this man!
Cage himself denies that his erratic acting style was meant to be taken at face value, saying (quite reasonably) that “you don’t go around doing the things that character does – in a bear suit – and not know it’s absurd. It is absurd.” Nevertheless, the line between self-parody and satire isn’t always so clear, and Cage’s histrionics seem to land somewhere in the middle on this one.
2. Lt. Terence McDonagh in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)
If David Lynch coaxed the crazy out of Cage in Wild at Heart, Werner Herzog merely set up his camera and watched it happen with this pseudo-sequel/remake to Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (famously causing a since-settled feud between the directors in which Herzog challenged Ferrara to a duel). The oddly titled Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is the result.
Cage plays Detective Terence McDonagh, a New Orleans cop with a bad back problem and an addiction to painkillers (along with seemingly every other kind of drug). After stumbling on to a mass murder case, in which five Senegalese immigrants were slaughtered, McDonagh sets about finding the killer, all while trying to keep the shakes off, pay down some gambling debts, and protect Frankie (Eva Mendes), his call-girl girlfriend.
While the plot may sound a bit derivative, Cage’s performance easily makes it worth watching. Herzog usually makes his bones as a documentarian these days, and he seems more interested in watching Cage get into character than the plot itself. Cage limps across the screen looking like a golem, with a hunch and a permanent grimace on his face, and he spazzes out at any number of things, like the hallucinatory iguanas on a coffee table during a stake-out, or the intransigence of two old ladies who won’t give up the location of a witness. But the best moment arrives when McDonagh tenderly describes finding a silver spoon in his backyard as a child. It’s always a treat to watch Cage go wild, but it’s even better when he maintains that wild-eyed intensity for something as simple as reciting a childhood memory.
1. Peter Loew in Vampire’s Kiss (1989)
Ah, here it is, the original crazy Nicolas Cage performance. This is the one where he recites the alphabet to his therapist in increasingly threatening – yet sing-songy – tones, the one where he eats a cockroach (it was real), where he buys cheap fake vampire teeth and wears them out to a nightclub, bearing his fangs like a ghoul and, most hilariously, manages to both weep and say the words “boo-hoo” at the same time.
Though Vampire’s Kiss was mostly forgotten after its 1989 release, it became something of a curiosity after some of its more ridiculous scenes started circulating on the Internet. Cage plays Peter Loew, an entitled, arrogant literary agent (remember the days when literary agents could be considered powerful?) who likes to party hard and psychologically abuse his secretary (María Conchita Alonso), in that order. He speaks in a fake British accent (sometimes) and believes that he was bitten by a vampire (Jennifer Beals). This leads him to start acting like a vampire, despite his being able to survive in the sun and lack of pointy teeth (that’s why he needs to buy them!).
The film was directed by Joseph Bierman, who has mostly worked in British television, but it was written by Joseph Minion, who also scripted Martin Scorsese’s similarly wild After Hours, but where that movie goes for laughs, Vampire’s Kiss goes for the gut. Sure, it’s funny, but Cage’s expressive mode of acting also demonstrates the characters descent into madness, and the harm this causes to the people around him.
It also features Cage running through the streets of New York and screaming “I’m a vampire! I’m a vampire! I’m a vampire!” so there’s that, too.
What’s your favorite crazy Nicolas Cage performance? Let us know in the comments!
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