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He's Up. He's Down. He's Up. He's Down. He's Up for Good? : Nicholas Cage's Movie Career Has Been, Uh volatile. But He Hit the Jackpot in an Alcoholic Love Story Set in Las Vegas. Will Success Stick? Nothing is ever That Simple in Hollywood

February 04, 1996|CLAUDIA PUIG | Claudia Puig is a Times staff writer who writes about the film industry. Her last story for the magazine was on Spanish-language radio station KLAX

Initially, the prospect of playing a disgraced writer hellbent on drinking himself to death in the uncommonly downbeat film, "Leaving Las Vegas," terrified actor Nicolas Cage. "I was completely intimidated by the role of Ben," he says. "I had never done anything like that before, and I didn't know if I could. "

Then the process of bringing life to the complex and tragic figure exhilarated him. And eventually, everyone else.

The movie, made on a shoestring budget of $3.5 million, was so dark and grim that it had been turned down by every major studio in Hollywood before United Artists bought it for a song and released it on only a handful of theater screens. Once it opened, however, critics fell all over themselves heaping praise--and later, awards--on the 32-year-old actor. Every national critics' organization in the country has named him best actor of the year. Cage has emerged in this breakthrough portrayal with a Golden Globe nomination, his first. And amazingly enough, he is a front-runner in the Oscar nomination race--no small feat, given the film's unconventional style, tiny budget and bleak subject matter: Alcoholic meets prostitute, falls in love and kills himself by drinking [with drink???].

Most would agree that this is Cage's year. After about two dozen movies over 15 years, he is at the pinnacle of his career. So where does he go after this heart-wrenching performance? What role has this master of dark portrayals and absurd characterizations taken on next?

A chemical weapons expert in "The Rock," a big-budget action-adventure, also starring Sean Connery, by the producer team of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, of "Top Gun" fame.

Come again?

Playing an action-adventure hero is not exactly what one would expect from an actor like Cage, known for quirky roles that walk a tightrope between dementia and sanity in some of the more inventive movies of the past decade. And it was a bit startling to watch Cage on the set of the film. Gun in hand, his expressive face impassive, he was snaking--along with legions of extras--through an elaborate serpentine tunnel allegedly on Alcatraz Island.

But Cage defends his choice, saying it is a genre that he has yet to master.

" 'Leaving Las Vegas' was the answer to all my prayers," he explains. "When it came along, I knew it would allow me to dig a little deeper than some other roles I've played--to get back into that crummy old corner in my mind, dust off the cobwebs and see what I would come up with. Well, I've done that now. I did this small film and it gave me a chance to take a chance. Now, I'm doing the complete opposite because I like to keep flipping the coin."

And since he received virtually no fee for doing "Leaving Las Vegas" (though he may make some money after all is said and done, depending on how the film fares at the box office), it must feel nice to be on a $50-million-plus film and be taking home a paycheck. But it does sometimes seem as though Cage's choice of films are dictated by a pendulum.

Last year he played Little Junior Brown, a malevolent underworld figure, in "Kiss of Death." Then there was Peter Loew, the sadistic yuppie wannabe bloodsucker of "Vampire's Kiss"; Sailor Ripley, a petty criminal on the lam in "Wild at Heart," and the loopy, lovesick baker, Ronnie Cammareri, in "Moonstruck."

Then, a few years ago, after playing a series of oddball, dark characters, Cage embarked on three romantic comedies he has affectionately labeled his "Sunshine Trilogy."

"I had done a string of roles that were considered odd by many people, and the jury was very much out on me as to whether I was sane," Cage says. "[People wondered:] Was I creating those characters, or is that how I really am?"

It has become increasingly clear that one cannot make assumptions about the man based on his eclectic assortment of film roles.

"The presence that he creates on the screen is so different from his personality, " said Sarah Jessica Parker, who costarred with Cage in "Honeymoon in Vegas." "I think his true nature is really different from his roles. Before I worked with him, I was expecting someone who was rather eccentric and dark and brooding and perhaps dangerous. There are so many normal qualities to him, but he also does care a lot about his work which also defies that bad-boy image . . . . You wouldn't think someone who had that image would be that cultured and analytical and so well-read. He has a great aesthetic sensibility."

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