Another month, another promised Nicolas Cage movie that isn’t quite as bonkers as that descriptor seems to promise. The Oscar-winner saw his Five Nights at Freddy’s-esque movie Willy’s Wonderland open over the weekend to middling reviews—something that should never happen to a film about one of our great screen presences beating the bejesus out of several murderous animatronic animals. Sure, Cage has been hit and miss, miss, miss, miss in his recent fare (partially because the man’s cranking out half a dozen films a year), but that doesn’t mean his abilities have gone away. Just look at Color Out of Space, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Prisoners of the Ghostland—the latter of which has received plenty of notice for a screamed delivery of the evocative word “testicle.” These films have some primo Cage line readings, which aren’t all that make up the actor’s arsenal, but certainly help differentiate between Sleepy Cage and Awakened Cage. It’s no surprise that the middling-to-bad Willy’s Wonderland doesn’t use Cage to his fullest. In fact, it doesn’t let him speak at all.
The film’s star, “the one known for completely committed line readings of even the most ridiculous material, has not a single line of dialogue in this action/horror flick,” writes RogerEbert.com editor/critic Brian Tallerico in his Willy’s Wonderland review. That’s a decision between Cage, director Kevin Lewis, writer G.O. Parsons and God—and it’s seemingly sacrilegious. Counterintuitive, done more out of novelty than good sense. Nicolas Cage is so good at saying words, so endlessly entertaining at the act of speech, that he hosted a Netflix show seemingly crafted around him swearing. Why kick his legs out from under him before a movie even starts filming? Instead of dwelling on this boneheaded move, let’s look back at one of Cage’s most talkative performances in order to remember and appreciate the kind of kitchen-sink acting—where he plays both the human body and its vocal creations like jazz instruments—that made Cage both a movie star and beloved champion of ironists everywhere. That performance comes in 1988’s Vampire’s Kiss.
Ironically, Cage never says the line “You don’t say,” which often accompanies the meme sceenshot taken from Vampire’s Kiss. He sure says a whole lot more, though. One of our picks for the best vampire movies ever made, director Robert Bierman’s feature debut is like watching someone compete in every event in the Olympics of acting. If Hercules was an actor, the labors he would need to accomplish as penance for killing his family would all be contained in Vampire’s Kiss. The dark comedy’s Peter Loew (Cage) is a yuppie, well-versed in vampire lore, who’s seducing a new woman every night and coming apart at the seams. After an encounter with a fanged woman (Jennifer Beals) at his bat-chelor pad, Cage starts going full Renfield-meets-American Psycho as Loew becomes convinced he’s becoming Nosferatu of the Upper East Side.
Apart from the incredible feats of eye-bugging and bug-eating on display—really, Cage eats a bug right in front of us—this manifests in some increasingly deranged line readings. There are certainly the lanky arm gestures that piston out of the electric actor (“Am I getting through to you, Alva?”) and an athletic leap he takes upon a desk, but nothing beats his iconic, essential recitation of the entire alphabet:
That’s not Count Hack-ula. That’s impressive, odd, gripping work punctuated by choreographed gesticulations. It’s a carnival ride of communication.
Modulated through Cage’s mewling accent—somewhere between an affected transatlantic whine and a mysterious Transylvanian mutter—lines take on new life. “Nicolas and I have been working on this a lot,” producer Barbara Zitwer remembered Bierman saying of the accent. “We chose this, because if he did the role totally straight, the character is so hateful that it would be unwatchable.’” The accent highlights Cage’s own early fascination with transformative pronunciation tics, like his breathy Never on Tuesday cameo or intensely nasal Peggy Sue Got Married intonation. It disappears when bellowing, then dominates his speech and colors everything while speaking normally. Well, “normally.”
Pillow talk is nails on a chalkboard; office abuse becomes obviously clownish. Cage delivers complex pieces of esoteric dialogue concerning contracts and literary agency goings-on while looking down his nose with dinner-plate eyes that threaten to pop from his head and dangle on his cheeks. I believe he would still finish the scene if that happened. The levels of physical control on display here are just as impressive as the end product’s ridiculousness. And Loew is supposed to be a ridiculous figure: A wannabe fancy lad whose misogyny and fear of women morph him into a cartoonish monstrosity. Dennis Quaid, originally cast as the star, could never.
Cage is utterly unique here in the actorly cocktail he brews. Yes, there’s oodles of German expressionism in the increasing angle of his hunch through the film and his use of spindly limbs, but the true innovation—which you can call “good” or “bad,” but not “boring”—is in adapting that style’s experimental exaggerations into the vocal realm. He literally screams “Boo-hoo!” when crying, spiking shrill falsetto peaks and trailing off into nothingness. He is boyishly petulant and aggressively vulgar. After a particularly morose pout in a bathroom mirror, in which he can’t see himself because of that whole thinks he’s a vampire thing (“Oh, God, where am I?”), a stall-hidden coworker chimes in: “You’re in the goddamn crapper, Loew, and I’m trying to take a dump. So will you shut up and leave the goddamn acting lessons for home or go back to the ladies’ room?”
Cage’s aural acrobatics truly do feel like that: Acting lessons. Lessons in what you can accomplish simply by shouting “I’m a vampire!” and running down the street, or by yelling “Fucking greasehole!” before exiting a diner. Lessons in what limits an actor can push, lessons in where lines can go if you push hard enough. That’s why Cage performing the alphabet is such a batshit, memorable showcase: It’s the basics of English language, broken down and given to us like we’ve never heard it before. It tells us something about the scene, about the character and about the actor, sure, but it’s also maybe the most basic example of text and subtext. Cage is accelerating these letters down a black diamond slope, each spoken with wild abandon—practically spit into the ether—and we understand why. You used to say “I could listen to them read the phone book” when someone was charismatic. Cage does them one better.
It’s here you see Cage transition from Method to his own “Nouveau Shamanic” brand of acting, colored by a boredom with realism and a healthy injection of the surreally expressionist. And none of it would’ve happened without the chatterbox character Cage needed to perform. Vampire’s Kiss offers so much fertile dialogue with which to work, including topics as tonally varied as rape and a drunken discussion of the Fantastic Four, that he’s able to concoct something truly strange, unique and effective. I believe that this creepy dude got hornt up fighting a bat.
Giving an actor like Cage these kinds of resources in the script is like giving a mad scientist a chemistry set. Withholding them is just as debilitating. This isn’t to say that wordless performances are lesser than ones with dialogue, nor that Cage himself couldn’t pull off a silent role in a remarkable way. But to do so, he’d need to see it as a challenge, just like he saw Vampire’s Kiss as a place to play with stylish chaos and presentational form. Willy’s Wonderland and most roles Cage has taken in his late period just don’t offer that kind of formal playground. Until a new role fulfills that quality, we can all rewatch the film that many consider Cage at his Cagiest, talkiest and, perhaps, best.
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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