At this point in his 40+ year career, Nicolas Cage has appeared in over 100 movies and television shows. That makes Keith Phipps’ achievement with his new book all the more impressive.

Dubbed Age of Cage: Four Decades of Hollywood Through One Singular Careerit examines every single one of those many Nicolas Cage movies, considers the mercurial actor’s place in film history, and uses him as a lens through which to view the myriad changes in American cinema since the early 1980s. It’s a terrifically entertaining book, and a really insightful one; you won’t look at a bug-eyed Nic Cage freakout the same way ever again.

Age of Cage also gave me a great excuse to catch up with Keith, who was my old boss back at the lamented website The Dissolve (RIP). Rather than simply rehash the same questions he’s gotten in other interviews, I asked if he’d instead be willing to pick a couple of underrated Nicolas Cage movies he could recommend and we could discuss as microcosms of Cage’s larger work. He obliged with three fine choices; what follows is our conversation about Age of Cage and each of his picks.

The concept of your book reminds of the Career View pieces we used to do at The Dissolve, where someone would look at every single movie an actor had appeared in and then write about all of them together. Critics tend to write about directors this way, but it’s much less common with movie stars. What do you think can be gleaned from this sort of approach to writing about actors?

Not to get too much into the minutia of your career and my career, but the book actually began as a Career View article. It has some roots there, because I had just started watching some movies for one when The Dissolve folded. Obviously I didn’t keep going, but I was talking around book ideas and it was really seeing Mandy in the theater that kind of gelled things for me. Obviously I’d seen a lot of Nicolas Cage films, but I found it useful to go through them. I mostly watched them chronologically. There are a couple exceptions here and there.

But I think part of why it’s easier to do that with directors is directors tend to be less prolific. It takes more time to direct a film than act in one. Not that one job’s easier than the other, but Nicolas Cage can make a bunch of films in a year, whereas most directors cannot. I was dealing with I believe close to a hundred films. So it’s a lot to take in.

It’s a bigger project, but I found it really enlightening. If nothing else, just to see someone age for 40 years. Of course, he is a very well-preserved person, but it is a fascinating experiment in and of itself. But what I was hoping and what I think came out of it was kind of a double picture of his career and then changes in the whole industry of Hollywood since 1982.

Stoney Lake
Stoney Lake

Whenever I’ve done projects like this, albeit on a much smaller scale than yours, I’m fascinated by the personal elements of an actor’s life that crop up in movie after movie that you begin to see once you’re really looking for them. Did you find any of those in Cage’s roles?

Part of what makes Cage interesting is I feel like there are a couple of films at his personal low point, like after the financial stuff came out and he became kind of a punchline and he starts making films because he has debts to pay. The first couple of years there are, you know, you get films like Left Behind and Rage, which I think is the worst film he's made. And he does seem a little checked out. But what I find makes him interesting is he fully commits to what he's doing in almost every other instance you can point to. He really does try to see where he fits in with any given project.

Sometimes that’s kind of counterintuitive and maybe doesn’t always work. I was thinking about the movie Gone in 60 Seconds. It’s the worst of his action films. And he does like a more-Steve-McQueen-than-Steve-McQueen understated, cool performance. And it just doesn’t quite work. It’s not really what you look for, but it’s an interesting choice. I feel like he’s always trying to bring his own thing to whatever he’s doing in a really thoughtful way that often gets kind of overlooked when talking out Nicolas Cage.

Buena Vista
Buena Vista

There are definitely some biographical echoes in some films. Part of what makes The Rock interesting is Stanley Goodspeed doesn’t want to be an action hero, kind of like where Cage was in his career too. He’s a very unlikely action movie star, and he’s playing someone who's kind of resisting being an action hero in that. So there’s a little bit of that.

Pig, I don’t know what the creative process was behind that, but it certainly maps onto his life and career in some interesting ways. I mean, he’s playing a character who was a star in his field and who kind of went to live in the wilderness for a while for various reasons. And now is kind of slowly inching back. He’s made some really fine films over the last decade during which he’s done a lot of direct-to-VOD stuff. But Pig’s kind of become that: His ticket out of the wilderness in some ways. It was just such an undeniably great performance in a really interesting film that a lot of people had to question their preconceptions about what Nicolas Cage was as an actor, and what he did.

Okay, so let’s talk about your picks for underrated Cage movies. I found it interesting that you picked three crime movies. Do you think there’s something about Cage that makes him particularly well-suited to crime stories?

I think he’s a very good noir hero in some ways, because you can see him as someone who might end up on the seedy side of things. But I think he’s also really good at playing normal guys who kind of get in over their head. In terms of crime in general, I think if you look at the career, he’s kind of a proven fit in some ways. Going back at least to Raising Arizona, this is someone who kind of ends up on the wrong side of the law a lot. There’s definitely a track record there.

Underrated Nicolas Cage Movies

Age of Cage: Four Decades of Hollywood Through One Singular Career is on sale now.

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