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Nicolas Cage: Does he wear his hair, or does it wear him?

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nicholas-cage-hair_lI miss the days when actors had bad hair days. When their coifs weren’t so coiffed, when their heads were allowed to look scruffy, greasy, crazy, unkempt. Not Robert Pattinson mousse-mussed, but genuinely dishabille. I miss the days when they could even be — maybe we should whisper this — bald. I admit that I have something of a personal stake in this. I’m a follically challenged male, and perhaps I speak for others who are losing their hair when I say that it wouldn’t be such a terrible thing if we were represented a little more often on screen, and not just by the usual character actors playing dweebish bank tellers and Internet wizards. I do like to think, however, that even if God had graced me with the Jim Morrison-on-Kiehl’s mane of Adrian Grenier, that I’d still want to stand up for a little more healthy hair diversity among contemporary Hollywood leading men. These days, if an actor is losing his hair, he isn’t allowed to show it. He’s got to be plugged, weaved, bobbed, re-strung. In effect, he’s not himself — he’s wearing a permanent costume.

In the new Werner Herzog remake of Bad Lieutenant (it comes out next week — here’s what I wrote about it from the Toronto film festival), Nicolas Cage plays a New Orleans homicide detective who is always high on coke, heroin, OxyContin, or some combination thereof, and Cage, playing this furtive and tormented enforcer/addict, gives the return-to-form performance that a lot of us have been waiting for him to give. The luscious joke of the movie is that Cage, as Lieutenant Terence McDonagh, is wild and operatic and monomaniacally over-the-top, just as he has been so often in his trashy paycheck genre movies. Only now, his beady-eyed gonzo theatrics are part of a deftly controlled character study. McConagh, trapped in the evil pleasure of his addictions, also uses those addictions to be a more sneakily effective cop. He’s like a crackhead undercover agent in hell.

Cage is mesmerizing in Bad Lieutenant, but there’s one aspect of him that hasn’t changed: He still sprouts what I think of as his popcorn-blockbuster hair — that perfectly sculpted widow’s peak of shiny black strands that just about erupts from the front of his head, only to be swept back into a kind of Peter O’Toole-meets-Igor curtain of hair. He wears a better, more organic version of the ‘do in Bad Lieutenant (maybe that’s Herzog’s attention to detail), but there are still moments when it looks like this…thing.

To jog my memory, I went back again to watch Cage’s great, Academy Award-winning performance in Leaving Las Vegas (that’s an image of him from it, above on the left) — which, perhaps not coincidentally, is the last serious movie he appeared in before he began to sport that cream-rinse Frédéric Chopin coif. As Ben Sanderson, the failed-screenwriter-turned-suicidal-alcoholic hero of Leaving Las Vegas, Cage doesn’t look that much different than he does today, but his face is a mite fleshier (which, frankly, makes him seem a little more human), and his hair, receding a bit more than we remember, is scraggly and wispy-brown, with a bit of flyaway fuzz. It’s absent-minded-professor hair — the hair of someone with too much on his mind — and it perfectly serves the character, who is full of longing and regret, at times disarmingly tender, yet fundamentally lost. Even within Cage’s aching, often very quiet performance, there are over-the-top moments of rage and cracked drunken delirium, but they feel like Ben’s, not the actor’s. In Leaving Las Vegas, Cage looks every inch the character he’s playing, because from the hairline down he has left vanity behind.

To me, it’s no coincidence that Cage, after the triumph of Leaving Las Vegas, began to star in dumb-whore action films at the same moment that he first sported his sleekly flowing, industrial-strength “cool” hair. He was, in effect, becoming a Hollywood puppet, complete with all the trimmings, including on top of his head. Yet I hardly think I’m alone in feeling that this shiny super-coif has, over the years, subtly detracted from his work as an actor. When the movies turned seriously bad (Bangkok Dangerous, Knowing), it just about defined him; the hair was almost all there was to look at. We can all debate what his last truly inspired performance was (Matchstick Men? World Trade Center?), but to me it’s in Adaptation. A movie in which he went back to having nerd-fuzz anti-hair.

In Bad Lieutenant, Cage, once again, is back to being an authentic actor. Even the hair looks fairly good on him. It suits the thrill-seeking nightclub-underbelly depravity of the character — for once he’s wearing the hair, instead of it wearing him. What I want to know is: How much time do you spend during a typical Nicolas Cage performance thinking about his hair? And when it comes to that subject, would he — and other actors — do well to let nature take its course? In other words, should there be more actors out there who look like more of us?

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