Nicolas Cage is the kind of polarizing actor who you really don’t know how to feel about.
One moment, he’s starring in a critically acclaimed movie that earns him several prestigious award nominations. In the next, he’s stinking it up with a hamfisted performance that practically no one, not even Nick Cage himself, will enjoy seeing.
It’s this mystery about Nicolas Cage that might account for the reason he remains so relevant today. He just feels like a different kind of performer. He's fearless, driven, and wants to take any and all roles thrown at him, defying any attempts by the media or award circuits to label him as a major box office draw or the star of a flop waiting to happen.
Since Cage celebrated his birthday last month, we thought it would be a nice idea to look at some of his most memorable career performances and to tell you where each movie is currently streaming.
Among Cage’s first starring roles was his performance as a serial shoplifter, H.I. McDunnough (or “Hi,” as he likes to be called).
The second film made by the now iconic Coen brothers, Raising Arizona tells the story of Hi’s attempts to leave his criminal lifestyle behind when he meets and falls in love with one of his arresting officers, Edwina (Helen Hunt). When the couple realizes that Edwina cannot have children, the two kidnap a baby from a nearby wealthy family, prompting a state-wide search for the missing toddler. Things are further complicated when two former prison cellmates of Hi’s (John Goodman and William Forsythe) show up asking for a place to stay.
Fans of the Coen brothers’ work will know this movie is the most radically different kind of film you’d expect from the Academy Award-winning duo, both story-wise and tonally.
The movie has the same madcap energy of a 1930s screwball film, with Cage perfect in the hyperactive, Cary Grant-esque leading man role. As Hi, Cage feels more like a frazzled cartoon character than a man (apparently, he took a ton of inspiration from Woody Woodpecker).
While on paper it may not seem like the most appealing performance (Nicolas Cage essentially playing a live-action cartoon character), Cage’s acting is incredibly well-balanced. He’s able to traipse from lighthearted comedy protagonist, to concerned father and husband, to a criminal trying to leave his old self and lifestyle behind for the sake of his family and bettering himself, managing to do so effortlessly and (frankly) brilliantly.
Not currently streaming, but available to rent online.
After his performance in Raising Arizona, Cage starred in another romantic comedy, this time portraying a drastically different kind of character than his previous role as that lovable oaf, Hi.
In Moonstruck, Loretta Castorini (Cher) is a thirty-six-year-old widow set to marry a man (Danny Aiello) she doesn’t truly love. When her fiancé travels to Sicily to take care of his ill mother, Loretta meets and falls for his unstable, hot-headed younger brother (Cage), who holds a serious grudge against his elder sibling and has a bone to pick with the entire world around him.
Cage’s performance as Johnny might be a little campy at times—in some instances, he seems almost to be lapsing into his best Marlon Brando impression—but the energy he brings to certain scenes makes this movie, as does his remarkable chemistry with Cher, who also shines bright in the film.
It’s a role that earned Cage his earliest critical acclaim, including a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor (Comedy or Musical).
Streaming on HBO Max.
Leaving Las Vegas
Cage’s first and only Oscar win came in 1996, with his performance as depressed, alcoholic screenwriter Ben Sanderson, who travels to Las Vegas after losing his job, his family, and all his friends and who now plans to drink himself to death.
Arriving in Vegas, Ben happens across a prostitute named Sera (Elisabeth Shue), with whom he begins a non-physical rapport.
As their feelings towards each other slowly blossom into romance, the two must contend with each other’s flaws and commitment to destroying themselves: Ben through his suicidal alcoholism, Sera through her dangerous occupation.
Though working with cliché stock characters (the alcoholic with a death wish and the prostitute with a heart of gold), Cage and Shue instill an unbelievable amount of depth to their characters in performances that feel anything but stereotypical.
Leaving Las Vegas remains among Cage’s most positively received films in his entire career, with critics praising everything from Cage’s and Shue’s unforgettable acting to the direction and screenplay (all of which would earn Academy Award nominations).
Streaming on Prime Video (premium subscription required).
Perhaps not Cage’s best work, but a movie that shows his ability to move across various genres and portrays completely different characters, Face/Off is also the movie people likely think of when they hear the name Nicolas Cage (either that or National Treasure).
Sean Archer (John Travolta) is an FBI agent tasked with thwarting a terrorist plot orchestrated by a psychopathic criminal mastermind, Castor Troy (Cage). To accomplish this, Archer undergoes a facial transplant surgery with Troy, switching faces with him.
Archer’s plan is soon interrupted, however, when Troy soon wakes up shortly after the operation, using Archer’s identity to wreak havoc on his life. Among acclaimed Hong Kong director John Woo’s best Hollywood films, Face/Off is sure to be one of the most original action movies you’ll ever see, chock full of twists and turns left and right.
At its heart, the movie contains two of Cage’s and Travolta’s most entertaining performances playing their two respective characters and then essentially playing each other. Cage may go to hilariously over-the-top lengths in his depiction of Troy, but his acting as Travolta’s Archer is so subtle and nuanced it really does feel like you’re watching a man trapped in another person’s body.
It takes true acting chops to play two roles—the protagonist and antagonist, no less—as well as Cage does here, and it’s an ode to his fluidity as an actor able to switch from camp to dire seriousness in a heartbeat.
Streaming on Prime Video (premium subscription required).
Bringing Out the Dead
The late 1990s was a stellar time for Cage.
Within the span of four years, he went from an Oscar-winning role in Leaving Las Vegas, to three huge action blockbusters (The Rock, Con Air, and Face/Off), to collaborating with one of the best filmmakers working in Hollywood with the 1999 film, Bringing Out the Dead.
Directed by the legendary Martin Scorsese, Bringing Out the Dead stars Cage as Frank Pierce, New York City EMT worker that hasn’t been able to save anyone in months.
Working the night shift with several alternating partners (John Goodman, Ving Rhames, and Tim Sizemore), Frank is falling apart mentally, suffering from burnout, depression, and exhaustion, desperately wanting to quit his job, and haunted by the people he was unable to save.
As Frank, Cage can hand in a performance unlike anything we’ve seen the actor deliver. He's visibly shaken, scared, exhausted-looking, anxious, and dreading every moment he hears his ambulance’s radio bleep calling him on a job. Bringing Out the Dead may not be the most noteworthy achievement in Scorsese’s or Cage’s lengthy filmographies. Still, it’s easily among the most underrated movies in either of their respective careers.
We'll never understand how this movie wasn’t nominated for more awards. At the very least, though, you’re able to enjoy this incredibly dark, gripping story that features some of Cage’s finest dramatic acting to date.
Streaming on Prime Video and Hulu (premium subscription required for both).
Aside from Leaving Las Vegas, Cage’s role in Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s meta-comedy, Adaptation, earned him the most noteworthy award nominations in his career.
A strange comedy film even by Kaufman’s standards, Adaptation features Cage starring as a dramatized version of Kaufman himself (as well as Kaufman’s fictional twin brother, Donald), a neurotic, anxiety-ridden screenwriter in the adaptation of Susan Orlean’s nonfiction book, The Orchid Thief.
The only problem is that Orlean’s book contains seemingly no plot, central conflict, or really perceivable story to speak of—you know, all things you need in a film. Arguably Cage’s best-acted, most dialed-back role so far, he brings an unparalleled amount of fearlessness in his acting as both the self-loathing Charlie and his always-optimistic, life-loving brother, Donald.
A hilariously original film that has pretty much everything in it (explorations of writer’s block, anxiety, sibling jealousy, and the Hollywood industry), Adaptation is a movie that remains a highlight in both Cage’s, Jonze’s, and Kaufman’s canon.
For his role, Cage earned Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor (his second and most recent nomination), a testament to just how fantastic and remarkable he is to see in this movie.
Not currently streaming, but available to rent online.
Lord of War
The 2000s were an interesting time for Cage’s career. He took on a mixed bag of different characters in movies that ranged from decently-received drama films to a truly mind-boggling amount of large-budget action movies.
A movie in the former category and a welcome break from largely disappointing movies like National Treasure, Ghost Rider, and The Wicker Man, Lord of War stars Cage as Yuri Orlov (Cage), an infamous international arms dealer who sells weapons to some of the most powerful and dangerous individuals on Earth.
As Yuri contends with the morality of his work (including an estranged relationship with his family), he is relentlessly pursued by idealistic Interpol agent Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke), who is determined to put Orlov away for good.
Another of Cage’s more underrated roles, Lord of War showcases some of Cage’s most mellow, layered character work yet as Yuri, a man who realizes he’s no better than the criminals, dictators, and warlords he associates himself with, yet seemingly doesn’t care all too much.
When Cage speaks, he does so in a weary whisper dripping with James Bond levels of charm and self-confidence. He’s a man that’s been in the game for a long, long time and seems tired of it. Rather than being considered or afraid when Valentine seems close to sending him away to prison for life, he only seems mildly inconvenienced.
It’s a fascinating character to see Cage play, containing one of his better performances of the 2000s.
Streaming on Peacock.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
The late 2000s era was a rather rough time for Cage. Though known for his excessive overacting throughout his career (just look at his meme-inspiring role in 1988’s Vampire’s Kiss), he appeared in numerous, sloppily-acted films within any given year.
Most of these would earn mixed to negative reception, with Cage becoming increasingly regarded as an actor who signed on to practically every film offered to him (something that became a frequent target on shows like SNL). In 2009, Cage’s tenacity to appear in any and all movies paid off when he starred in acclaimed director Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.
A loose remake of the 1992 film of the same name starring Harvey Keitel, Cage plays the titular bad lieutenant, Terence McDonagh, a corrupt, drug-addicted New Orleans police officer investigating the murders of five Senegalese immigrants as his personal and professional life spiral out of control.
Aside from Face/Off, Bad Lieutenant contains one of the few movies that feature Cage in an antagonistic role. Unlike the latter, where he portrays a version of Travolta’s protagonist, he’s purely the bad guy through and through in this movie.
Using his signature energetic overacting to his advantage, Cage’s Terence starts as someone you hate and only grows more loathsome and unstable throughout. In the film, Terence is a complete and total bastard, mocking a jailed prisoner as he’s about to drown, removing an older woman’s breathing tube and threatening her nurse, and generally using his position to bully and harass people.
His role may not be as heavy-handed and downright ludicrous as when playing the villain in Face/Off, but in Bad Lieutenant, Cage hands in his coldest, most hateable character yet in a movie that makes you wonder why he doesn’t play the antagonist more often.
Streaming on Peacock and Prime Video.
If the 2000s were a period of career highs and lows for Cage, the 2010s were no better, with the actor featuring in numerous critically disastrous films like Drive Angry, Season of the Witch, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, and many more.
If there is one thing unique to Nicolas Cage’s career, though, it’s his ability to go from Golden Raspberry-nominated movies to highly original films that capitalize off his unique, off-the-wall energy, forging a new career highlight for the actor in the process.
Such a performance would come with 2018’s wholly original horror thriller film, Mandy, a movie as insane and unique as its star. Set in California’s Shadow Mountains during the early 1980s, Red (Cage) is a quiet but kind logger who lives with his girlfriend, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), with whom he is totally and faithfully in love.
After a radical hippie cult leader tries and fails to abduct Mandy, instead of burning her alive in front of him, Red sets out on a mission of revenge, tracking the group across the nightmarish version of 1980s America that feels like a cross between Stranger Things’ Upside Down and the world of Mad Max.
An absolutely wild ride of a movie, Mandy itself is an incredibly flashy film, hallucinogenic in both story and visuals. (It looks like a film made by a drug-tripping Quentin Tarantino, complete with chainsaw fights, LSD-addicted demonic bikers with a taste for human flesh, and evil cults).
While the subject matter may be more psychedelic in nature and presentation, Cage still manages to add a layer of profound realism to his character, embedding him with a terrific amount of sorrow and unrestrained rage.
After Mandy's death, there’s a scene where a bloodied Cage—in his underwear and chugging vodka—sits on the toilet and screams before breaking down in tears. Out of context, it’s a scene that may elicit a few chuckles, but seeing the film, it’s a performance that nearly tears you up seeing such raw emotion on screen.
Is Cage overacting here? Yeah, maybe a little. But it’s effective as all hell in showing the hurt and pain someone goes through when they lose someone they deeply, fully love, and care about, if perhaps a little overdramatized.
Not currently streaming, but available to rent online
Cage’s most recent film, Pig is another career high point in Cage’s lengthy filmography, a surprisingly touching film about a reclusive truffle hunter in the Oregon forests whose beloved pig is stolen from him.
From that simple premise and the trailer alone (featuring Cage sternly asking “Where’s my pig?” in the same manner Liam Neeson demands to know where his daughter is in Taken), Pig may sound like it verges on the edge of pure ridiculousness, and maybe yet another forgettable Nick Cage vehicle that relies too heavily on a stylized story and unbelievable acting.
However, Pig never devolves into a campy drama film, thanks largely to Cage’s grounded and believable performance as Rob, a man whose only joy and companionship is the titular pig he loves so dearly.
Unlike virtually every other film on this list, Pig doesn’t contain any of Cage’s usual, outburst-prone, in-your-face acting style. Instead, he’s able to use a surprisingly little amount of dialogue to carry his weight and display emotion, able to convey so much with so little.
Praised by critics for containing one of Cage’s finest performances not only in recent years but in his whole career, it’s a movie that is surprisingly touching and warm, showing that sometimes—even when you’re not expecting much from Cage—he still has the ability to leave you speechless in the end.
Streaming on Hulu
Nicolas Cage is perhaps one of the oddest and most divisive actors of our time, the kind of performer you either really love or cannot stand to watch.
Over the years, he’s starred in drama films, romcoms, action movies, horror movies, war movies, superhero movies, and psychedelic revenge films, all to either huge critical success or overwhelmingly negative reviews.
He’s the kind of actor whose next movie you literally have no idea what to expect and who, looking at his past filmography, don’t exactly know what to make of. (Just check out that episode of Community where Abed nearly goes insane trying to figure out if Cage is “good or bad,” and you’ll understand.)
Regardless of how you feel about him, there can be no denying that there has never been an actor quite like Nicolas Cage, and it’s doubtful we’ll ever see an actor quite like him again.
This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.