There's never been any shortage of praise for Nicolas Cage, about whom Pauline Kael once wrote: "He's up there in the air, and when you watch him in Raising Arizonaor Moonstruck, it's a little dizzying." Writers spare no adjective and waste no drop of hyperbole when celebrating Cage, whose films are rarely, especially of late, as good as him; it would almost seem as though he's hired to rescue the dross, to elevate the mundane. One could easily damn him for his choices--for every Valley Girlor Raising Arizonaor Leaving Las Vegas, there's a Trapped in Paradiseor Free Birdsor Zandaleeto taunt and titter--but no doubt Cage selects his roles based on how much a director is willing to let him get away with; he's the thief hired to guard the vault, and he knows all the alarm codes. Maybe that's why he keeps working with producer Jerry Bruckheimer, with whom he's made The Rock, Con Airand Gone in 60 Seconds--each dumber than the next, each louder than a bomb. Over the din and dim-witted, Cage emerged triumphant, the lunatic playing it sublimely straight in movies so crooked they held up the audience at gunpoint.
In October, a tony lineup of all-stars (Dennis Hopper, Samuel L. Jackson, Lara Flynn Boyle, Jay Leno) and small-stars (Jon Lovitz) snaked into the Beverly Hilton Hotel to pay homage to Cage; others, including uncle Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese and Johnny Depp and Cher, sent their mazel tovs via videotape. They were co-stars and old pals and sometimes both (Jim Carrey, his Peggy Sue Got Marriedcastmate), and all bandied about words like "risky" and "courageous." They played up his eccentricities, his classic-car collection, his comic-book fetish, his quirks and freak-outs, on- and off-screen. In short, they made him look like a freak-show performer--less an actor than a montage of tics and spasms. Ya know, the stuff that makes a guy "risky."
Carrey, who closed out the presentation by giving Cage his award (which is more like a doorstop), even seemed fed up and bemused by the adjective, sarcastically referring to the actor as "Risky Riskerton" during the night's final speech. He also lobbed grenades where others tossed softballs: "When Nick started to read his part as Pokey [in Peggy Sue Got Married], I thought, 'Wow, what a great way to break the tension,'" he recounts of the film. "Everyone started to relax till page 90, when they realized that was Nick's actual creative choice for the film."
If nothing else, this TNT-televised trib does serve a purpose: By leaving out the lowbrow clunkers (It Could Happen to You and Guarding Tess, both now running on TNT, or last year's hysterically dull Captain Corelli's Mandolin) and focusing primarily on the weird, winning work (Raising Arizona, Bringing Out the Dead, Wild at Heart), it reminds us of how good he can be in bad movies, of how great he can be in good movies--and of how few and far between those good films have been of late. Cage has some interesting projects forthcoming--namely, Spike Jonze's Adaptation and the big-screen version of the Hellblazer comic book--but getting a lifetime achievement award at 38 might be just the kick in the head he needs. After all, nobody likes being told their best is behind them.