In his 1995 book Sinatra! The Song Is You: A Singer’s Art, author and music critic Will Friedwald takes a refreshing angle to writing a book about Frank Sinatra. It’s not a standard biography; it concentrates – as the title implies – on Sinatra’s artistry. Nor is it a scandalous biography, but rather a dissection of Sinatra as a singer. In the excellent new book How Coppola Became Cage, writer Zach Schonfeld applies the same parameters to the unique and justly lauded actor, Nicolas Cage. Schonfeld wisely concentrates on the artistry, the filmography, the “method to his madness” – a phrase that some may feel is almost too on-the-nose for the decidedly oddball thespian.
Starting How Coppola Became Cage by eschewing many of the usual details about the subject’s upbringing – those facts will be dispersed later on, at appropriate moments – Schonfeld begins with Cage’s role in Don Mischer’s The Best of Times, a forgettable 1981 slice-of-life TV movie pilot that was never picked up as a series, and ends with his Oscar-winning turn in Mike Figgis’ 1995 drama, Leaving Las Vegas. During the shooting of The Best of Times, Cage was still known as Nicolas Coppola, the nephew of legendary director Francis Ford Coppola. Cage eventually changed his last name to avoid falling under accusations of nepotism.
“Many of Cage’s contemporaries were willing to embrace or at least passively accept the benefits of a prominent family name,” writes Schonfeld. ”Drew Barrymore, Laura Dern, Bridget Fonda, Charlie Sheen, and Ben Stiller, to name a few. A devout individualist, Cage calculated that he would rather fail on his own terms than succeed on the merits of his uncle’s fame.”
Depending on that Coppola name would always prove to be challenging. Cage’s father, August Coppola, was a writer and professor who disapproved of his son’s chosen career path, and his famous uncle didn’t exactly instill Cage with confidence or encouragement, at least not initially. In one of How Coppola Became Cage’s more insightful (and longest) chapters, “Uncle Francis”, Schonfeld writes in great detail of the eventual collaborations between Coppola and Cage, which proved to be rather fruitful: Coppola is the only director Cage has worked with more than twice, on the films Rumble Fish (1983), The Cotton Club (1984) and Peggy Sue Got Married (1986). This collaboration proved in many ways to be as much a boon for Coppola as it was for Cage, as Rumble Fish was Coppola’s welcome entry into the art film genre, and Peggy Sue Got Married was seen as Coppola’s “comeback” film.
Cage is regarded as a method actor who takes his methods to unusual lengths, and those are discussed in the book but never in a titillating, gossipy manner; rather, to serve the narrative of Cage as a committed artist (Schonfeld insists in the book’s introduction that he wanted to “demythologize” Cage). The two most famous examples of this are the story of Cage pulling out two of his own teeth for Alan Parker’s 1984 war drama, Birdy (to absorb the pain of his role as an injured Vietnam veteran), as well as eating a live cockroach on camera during the making of Robert Bierman’s bizarre 1989 indie film Vampire’s Kiss.
For the record, the first story is true but deceptive: “Cage did have two teeth removed,” writes Schonfeld, “But they were baby teeth that needed to be removed, eventually for dental reasons; Cage simply timed the procedure so he could use the pain as fodder for the performance.” The cockroach story, however, is verified true. “I never would have asked an actor to do that,” exclaimed Vampire’s Kiss screenwriter Joseph Minion of this overwhelming attempt at getting to the heart of an unstable character. “It’s amazing. You set the stage, and he brings it to another level.” Minion, one of more than 125 interviewed for the book, exemplifies a popular reaction among Cage collaborators – initially incensed or confused by Cage’s methods, only to later applaud them in retrospect.
Cage’s methods are described in How Coppola Became Cage, but also – perhaps more interestingly – the different levels of cooperation between collaborators. His work with David Lynch in 1990’s Wild at Heart proved particularly successful as he and Lynch seemed cut from the same oddball cloth, while his work with Joel and Ethan Coen in 1987’s Raising Arizona was marred, to a degree, by the Coens’ low tolerance for improvisation or any other antics not represented in the script. There are tales of warm collaboration – Cage and Cher got along famously during the filming of 1987’s Moonstruck – as well as bitter acrimony – Kathleen Turner, whose contentious relationship with Cage during Peggy Sue Got Married led her to make up a story about Cage stealing a chihuahua during filming, which in turn led to a lawsuit from Cage and an apology from Turner.
Swaths of How Coppola Became Cage are also quite interesting from a film geek’s perspective, sometimes with or without the presence of Cage: The dubious financial connections – not to mention murder – in the wake of The Cotton Club reads like juicy true crime, and more than a few bits of Hollywood trivia come to light (e.g., I had no idea that Kevin Costner lobbied vigorously to play the role of H.I. “Hi” McDunnough in Raising Arizona, or that Lynch was initially offered to direct Fast Times at Ridgemont High). Cage, perhaps unsurprisingly, was not interviewed for the book – he respectfully declined, through his manager, to participate – although plenty of archival interview material from other sources makes its way here.
By concluding How Coppola Became Cage with Leaving Las Vegas, Schonfeld nails the essence of Nicolas Cage within 13 distinct, creatively essential years. The dozens of “paycheck” projects, the pulpy, shoot-em-up movies, the ham-fisted throwaways, and even underappreciated gems like John Dahl’s Red Rock West (1993) and Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead (1999), (not to mention late-career critical favorites like Mandy and Pig) certainly get their due here, but the main story involves the time from his first film to his Oscar win. “Cage is never perfect,” Schonfeld writes. “Rarely has he strived for perfection. But his failures are often more interesting than other actors’ successes.”