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Leaving Las Vegas

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The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has bestowed Oscars on some pretty quirky talents. It can’t help but do so — for the most part, actors, writers, and directors aren’t regular people. But it’s been a while since the Academy honored someone as compelling and eccentric as Nicolas Cage, who won the 1995 Best Actor statue for his performance as a screenwriter on a suicidal drinking binge in Leaving Las Vegas.

The course of Cage’s career has been as fascinating as his best movie work. Unlike such masters as Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, Cage did not arrive on screen as a mature talent; since his film debut in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High his reputation has mutated from Favored Nephew (he was born Nicolas Coppola) to Weird Tyro (the publicity machine got great mileage out of his eating a live cockroach on screen) to Great Actor (see above). For showbiz observers, such professional transformations are always fun to watch. But the real bonus for movie lovers is that even in his worst pictures (such as 1991’s dreadful Zalman King-with-a-philosophy-Ph.D. erotic melodrama Zandalee) Cage, whose angular features are both hangdog and sinister, is always up to something startling. Aside from Leaving Las Vegas, an early lead role in Vampire’s Kiss and a more recent character part in Kiss of Death best illuminate Cage’s method and madness.

He’s at his most manic in the bizarre Vampire’s Kiss, a hit-and-miss comedy-thriller that doesn’t quite manage to sell its hysterical, self-consciously misogynist premise. Cage plays a New York literary agent who, after being bitten during sex by a mysterious woman who is at the very least a vamp, becomes convinced that she’s undead and he’s been infected. He takes to wearing sunglasses to work, terrorizing his secretary more than usual, and eating bugs (the aforementioned cockroach bit). Playing a sleazeball who has stumbled upon an excellent excuse for his bent, Cage holds the movie together as best he can. More important, he nails down his unique approach to acting, managing to be simultaneously stylized and naturalistic.

It’s this quality that allows him to bring new surprises to the stock parts he only rarely plays. The lovable Brooklyn lug of 1987’s Moonstruck is a familiar type, to be sure, but Cage enlivens the role with constant curveballs. He’s especially sly at playing dumb, as in 1987’s cartoonish Raising Arizona. And Cage’s capabilities as an offbeat romantic lead were well exploited by director Andrew Bergman in 1992’s Honeymoon in Vegas and 1994’s It Could Happen to You.

But it was in director Barbet Schroeder’s underrated update of the noir classic Kiss of Death that Cage gave his most startling pre-Vegas performance. Spouting barely digested motivational-speaker bromides, bench-pressing strippers, apologetically hugging a crony seconds after threatening him with grievous bodily harm, Cage creates in Little Junior Brown a character who’s preposterous but not implausible. The movie’s streetwise screenwriter, Richard Price, knows characters like this do exist — but only an actor like Cage can bring them off.

Speaking of implausible characters, Cage’s Ben in Leaving Las Vegas is a guy who, for a number of mostly implied reasons, settles in the casino kingdom determined to drown in drink. Unlike most critics, I find the movie’s studied depiction of emotional and material squalor tedious. In adapting the novel by John O’Brien (who ended his life with a bullet rather than a bottle in 1994), writer-director Mike Figgis retains its structure, alternating scenes of Ben’s pre-Vegas woes with the troubles of Sera (Elisabeth Shue), the hooker who forges an unusual romance with Ben. But Figgis’ film reveals O’Brien’s story as the self-congratulatory suicide fantasy it is. When was the last time you went on a bender and got picked up by a gorgeous prostitute?

But the movie is worth watching for the actors. Shue makes a definitive break from her nice-girl image, bringing a luminosity and poignancy to an ill-defined character. Cage’s performance is startlingly seamless, genuinely charming one minute and mortifying the next. If Leaving Las Vegas pays lip service to only the horrifying physical effects of excessive boozing, Cage’s work depicts its emotional toll. Cynics smirk because so many actors seem to win Oscars for playing ”drunks,” but Cage’s multileveled depiction of human wreckage goes far deeper than that superficial description implies; his award was earned 10 times over.
Leaving Las Vegas: C+
Vampire’s Kiss: C
Kiss of Death: B+

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