Nicolas Cage named his son after Superman and once owned a castle. He’s been a sex symbol, an Oscar-winner and a punchline. A man from the school of acting where every line of dialogue must either be whispered or screamed. He’s Nicolas Cage, and he might be the Internet’s favourite actor. His entire star persona lends itself to the way the Internet absorbs and engages with pop culture. Few actors have ever been able to convey rage and madness in the same way he does. Let’s take the ill-conceived remake of The Wicker Man. The film itself would be a forgettable supernatural thriller, were it not for Cage’s gonzo performance.
In different circumstances, Cage might have been a character actor in the style of Steve Buscemi. But there is an operatic grandness to him that demands lead roles. He would make a terrific Richard III, if he didn’t believe Americans can’t do Shakespeare. Who else could get away with building a nine foot tall grey pyramid to be interned in once he dies? (Can Nic Cage die?)
There aren’t many actors who can make the statements he does and get away with them. Take his press junket for Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance for example.
‘I don’t see it as a sequel at all. I see this as Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. The other movie was Ghost Rider. This is Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, it’s a different movie.’
In the nine years since The Wicker Man flopped en-route to cult immortality, YouTube videos have changed the way in which we perceive Cage’s career. Granted, his spate of straight-to-DVD offerings (Rage, Trespass, Stolen, etc.) haven’t helped in this regard, but Cage is now seen less as an eccentric movie star. Now he is a Bela Lugosi figure, a furious performer whose oddball work warrants ironic appreciation instead of genuine affection. For many, it’s not his Oscar-winning performance in Leaving Las Vegas or his iconic turn in Raising Arizona that comes to mind. It’s the idea that his performances denote a certain level of camp that he stars in the kind of movie you can put on and laugh at. He’s an inside joke the whole world gets to share.
We have reduced the whole of his body of work to a series of ironic gags. What if we treated Michael Caine like that? Hasn’t he made just as much tripe as Nic Cage? To do this is to ignore why people gravitated to Nic Cage in the first place. There’s a commitment to his work that makes him an ideal target for a world that thrives on a lack of context.
This is the thing about viral culture: how many people are laughing alongside Cage and how many are simply content to laugh at him, the line between the two is blurrier than ever before. People who’ve never even seen The Wicker Man shout “No! Not the bees!” at one another, and whether or not they’ve seen his stellar turn in Adaptation is beside the point. He’s no longer an actor; he’s a meme.
We embrace his eccentricity, but always with a certain ironic distance. It’s okay to know of his work, watching it with one foot planted in sarcasm, but a genuine appreciation of it requires further argument. And at times, even the enjoyment of something truly unusual becomes its own form of social posture—in which post-irony is every bit as much a declaration of the self in pop culture as irony itself.
Nic Cage is a perfect performer for the Internet era and one who is being done a disservice by it. Rather than honouring the furious lack of inhibition that characterises most of his best and worst performances alike, we view him through hip detachment. Despite the fact filmgoers get to have more to say than ever before, we’re actually saying less, creating ever more elusive spheres for celebrities and ourselves in relating to them. People don’t make sense a lot of the time, but memes do.