In a way, Nicolas Cage has become crown prince of the darker realms of absurdity--at least in the movies. Think of his wildly contrasting roles in recent years: face pulled into a gawky pompadoured Bobby Rydell cartoon in "Peggy Sue Got Married"; lanky body hunched into the vision of a demented Manhattan blood-sucker in "Vampire's Kiss"; torso covered in gangster finery and bad vibes as psycho Mad Dog Dwyer in "Cotton Club."
With these performances and others, Cage has become the odd man out among younger American leading men. He's the neo-expressionist screwballer, the spooky-ride king. His sheer, flaky comic resilience can be exhilarating. In Cannes Film Festival winner "Wild at Heart," he hits a career watershed--playing Bogey-man to a whole "Casablanca" of oddball actors: his coltishly radiant co-star Laura Dern, her real-life mom Diane Ladd, Harry Dean Stanton, Crispin Glover, Willem Dafoe, John Lurie and all the others, a rogue's gallery of bent denizens of the road, assembled under the eerily innocent eye of that master of lyrical, childlike horror, David Lynch.
"David is like a criminal director," Cage says with admiration. "He's not concerned with Establishment laws and rules. He just does what he does--and it's honest . . . . He's constantly sculpting and fishing. A scene can turn into a comedy or into heavy horror in a fraction of a second. He's very much a sculptor, a spontaneous sculptor.
"When you talk about various levels in acting . . . the same is true with David in 'Wild at Heart.' It's a very universal film, operating on different levels. It operates on a comedic level. It operates on a real level. And also on that absurdist level. Like, there's this gritty road movie, this gritty love story on the road, emanating through a 'Wizard of Oz' tonality--which gives it more texture and color."
Atop the movie's amazingly eccentric ensemble, Cage's Sailor Ripley becomes the latest in his recent string of ingenious, double-jointed performances. As a free spirit, trapped in another man's image--in this case, Elvis Presley's--Cage plays most of the movie drooping himself over things: windshields, steering wheels, tables, even co-star Dern as they lie knotted together in pristine Lynch compositions on the motel sheets. All the while, he displays the lizard-lidded '50s cool of a rock 'n' roll rebel, murmuring lines in a smoky pastiche of Elvis' melodically guttural, macho purr. (" 'Wild at Heart' is the kind of movie I wish Elvis would have done," he says.)
This isn't just an impersonation, like Kurt Russell's John Wayne in "Big Trouble in Little China," or Christian Slater's Jack Nicholson in "Heathers." It's a multilayered turn with separate coatings of parody, pop tribute and poetic in-joke--and he delivers it with the lazy spontaneity of a Tupelo savage midwifed by a black leather jukebox out of a Chevy. It's a triumph, one of many in "Wild at Heart." And it may signal Cage's emergence as the ace--or, at the very least, joker--of his acting generation.
Here's Cage on the genesis of his career: "As a child in Long Beach, I spent a lot of time pretending I was other people. I was into the whole concept of trying to disguise myself . . . because, in the '70s, when I was growing up, that was very big on TV. 'Toma' (Tony Musante) was this disguise-artist detective, and I thought that was very cool . . . I used to disguise myself going to school, to keep from getting beaten up on the bus.
"I was in a juvenile delinquent's school at the time, because I was expelled from regular elementary school for being a prankster. Once, the kids all brought lunch to class and I said I'd bring egg-salad sandwiches. I went to Farmer's Market and bought five cans of fried grasshoppers and crushed 'em up, put 'em in the egg salad and watched everybody eat the grasshoppers. They'd go: 'Oh! There's an antenna in there!'
"Well, I got caught and expelled--and I went to a very rough school . . . . And I used to get beat up on the back of the bus, because there were these three big guys who commandeered the back seat. I was in fourth grade, about 9 or 10. They were 12 or 13. So, one day, I went home and I'd had enough. I disguised myself as this character--you know, chewing gum, wearing sunglasses, cowboy boots--and I got on the bus and said, 'Yeah, I'm Roy Richards, Nicky Coppola's cousin, and if you screw with him again, I'm gonna kick your ass!' They bought it. That was really my first experience in acting."