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His Truth Is Out There

Eccentric, adorable, psychotic, heroic--Nicolas Cage has played it all. It's not that he has anything to prove; he's just searching for deeper meaning, however messy.

November 12, 2000|AMY WALLACE | Amy Wallace is a Calendar staff writer

OAHU, Hawaii — Nicolas Cage sits in a coconut grove preparing to watch men die.

It's hot on the set of director John Woo's "Windtalkers," a World War II drama about U.S. Marines assigned to protect Navajo encryption experts in the Pacific. Cage perches quietly on the back of a military transport truck, waiting for his cue. His face is so relaxed it is nearly blank. As the other actors in the truck kill time chatting, Cage turns his taut body slightly and looks at the ground. He is not aloof. There's nothing unfriendly or self-important in the way he keeps his peace. As a reddish dust settles on his brown Marine Corps uniform, rifle, ammunition belt and helmet, Cage is simply elsewhere, getting ready.

The highly choreographed battle scene is the kind that Woo is famous for, and it takes several minutes to get the convoy of military vehicles in gear, to double-check the explosives and to prime the dozens of extras for action. Finally, satisfied that the logistics are set, Woo says it's time to get the scene on film. He turns to one of his six cameramen, the one who will shoot the close-up of Cage.

"I want," Woo says gently, "to see his eyes."

Nic Cage's eyes. Everybody who knows him talks about them, though not always the same way. There is sadness there--on that everyone agrees. But the eyes also hold a yearning for happiness. They can be demented or befuddled or fiercely resolute. And when he has truly lost his temper on the big screen, as he has done more frequently (and affectingly) than perhaps any other American movie actor, those heavy-browed blue eyes betray a kind of mania that is both out there and strangely close to home. More than his edginess, his spot-on comedic timing or his strikingly lean physique, Nic Cage's eyes have made him a leading man, a soulful superstar.

"Nic conveys, I think, incredible sincerity and integrity," said Universal Pictures Chairwoman Stacey Snider, who is banking on Cage's appeal in the romantic fantasy "The Family Man" (in theaters Dec. 22) and in next year's historical romance "Captain Corelli's Mandolin." "The Family Man" is the "Christmas Carol"-like tale of a supercharged arbitrage king who gets a surprise glimpse of the domestic road not taken when he's plopped into a new life complete with wife (Tea Leoni), kids and minivan.

"I don't know who else could convince you that he really doesn't know whose house he is in, whose kids those are, whose wife that is," Snider said. "There's a way he delivers those lines with classic Nic Cage consternation. You believe it."

Brett Ratner, the 30-year-old director of the 1998 box office bonanza "Rush Hour," hounded a reluctant Cage into doing "The Family Man," the actor's first romantic comedy since 1994's "It Could Happen to You." Ratner says he's long believed Cage to be "the coolest," but he especially wanted him for this project because Cage hits an emotional current with women.

"Any movie he's in with a woman--'Raising Arizona,' 'Moonstruck'--there is a chemistry," Ratner said. "He's like an underdog, because he's not the most handsome or automatically gorgeous. And he's able to express the frustrating moments everyone has. If you watch those old movies with Jimmy Stewart--there was a bigness there. Cage has that same old-fashioned quality."

With nearly 20 years of on-screen experience, the 36-year-old Cage is one of the few actors under 40 who has earned a midlife crisis. Nobody does over-the-top like Cage, but while some critics have praised his bravery, others bemoan his lack of restraint. And there are those, like his friend Sean Penn, who have accused him of selling out his talent in pursuit of a big paycheck. Cage, after all, followed his Academy Award for best actor (for the bleak 1995 drama "Leaving Las Vegas") with three action movies in a row, and his most recently released film--the forgettable (though popular) "Gone in 60 Seconds"--is more of the same.

Cage offers no apologies for his price ($20 million) or his choices. He believes escapist action movies that are "just for stimulation" are as legitimate as films that prompt self-examination. He stands by his lesser-seen movies, Brian De Palma's "Snake Eyes" and Martin Scorsese's "Bringing Out the Dead," whose box office failure he attributes to marketing campaigns that wrongly sold them as action fare. He believes the widely panned "8MM"--last year's movie about a private investigator's quest to authenticate a snuff film--was a valid exploration of a good man's descent into hell.

"It took an average man and turned him into something grotesque," Cage said. "I haven't seen it in a while, but I actually was quite happy with the results."

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