Moonstruck: Nicolas Cage Was Always Nicolas Cage

There is a moment in Moonstruck, Norman Jewison’s near-perfect romantic comedy, where Loretta Castorini ( Cher) tells her new fiancé’s tormented and hot-tempered brother Ronny, “You’re a wolf.” It’s her way of noting his near-primal nature, the self-destructive force at the heart of a man who sees suffering as his lot in life. You can imagine this being said about a lot of romantic leading men of the ‘80s, the floppy-haired hunks who probably fit screenwriter John Patrick Shanley’s original vision. For Nicolas Cage, calling him a wolf undersells him. 

After a couple of decades of being a meme and representing the lunatic id of the over-committed thespian who may not be in on the joke, Cage is going through something of a career Renaissance. He received some of the best reviews of his career for indie hits Mandy and Pig, and even the internet seems ready to reassess him as more than an extended gag. In a recent interview with GQ Magazine, Cage discussed the sheer volume of straight-to-DVD action schlock he made for several years to pay off a tax bill. He insists that he never phoned it in, even when the material was seriously lacking. You wouldn’t believe this assertion from most actors; imagine Steven Seagal claiming that. Yet there is an undeniable sincerity to Cage’s claim. The quality of the projects may drastically vary over the several decades of his career, but it is remarkable how consistently dedicated and full-throated an actor Cage has always been. He didn’t take time to mature into the gothic-style frenzy of a leading man we know so well. From the earliest days of his work as Nicolas Coppola, he was always Nicolas Cage.

Only 23 when Moonstruck premiered in theaters, the youthful Cage had already proven his chops in comedic roles like Peggy Sue Got Married and Raising Arizona. The madcap energy was potent from the get-go, although the parts were often tethered to something more grounded that would be absent in later films. It’s a surprise how well the performance works in context. Loretta, still struggling with widowhood, agrees to marry the safe but staid Johnny (Danny Aiello), yet quickly becomes overwhelmed by Ronny’s passion. Cage plays this Italian-American Byronesque lover with a kind of bittersweet madness. A lover of opera, his Ronny seems to live as though he’s forever front and center in a production of Puccini’s La bohème. He’s out of time and space, a lover of an era when love meant everything. It should be ridiculous that the perpetually sensible and weary Loretta would fall head over heels for Ronny in less than two days, but it works. Even with a performance this out there, Cage never lets the overall narrative drift out of reach. 

Seldom has a romantic hero’s cinematic introduction been as forceful and alienating as Ronny’s. Twenty-five minutes into Moonstruck, Loretta goes to see Ronny at his bakery in the hopes of convincing him to attend the wedding. He then explains the estrangement between him and Johnny, and how he lost his hand during a moment of distraction. He bellows in agony, “I lost my hand! I lost my bride!” and gesticulates for the cheap seats. He wields his wooden hand the way a Shakespearean actor playing Hamlet wields Yorick’s skull. It’s a moment that could have been designed for maximum sympathy, yet Cage aims more for the earnest agony of self-pity. Like any true Byronic hero, it’s sort-of exhausting to be around, but has its undeniable allure. 

There are two qualifying factors that bind together the best Cage performances: technique and earnestness. This combination is easily forgotten by Cage wannabes who think ungrounded mania and gimmicks instantly equal good work (hello, Jared Leto.) Cage himself once described his approach as “nouveau shamanic” and “Western Kabuki”, a combination that seems rooted in ancient ideas that pre-date acting yet remain grounded in a tradition of performance. During an AMA session on Reddit, Ethan Hawke declared that Cage was “the only actor since Marlon Brando that’s actually done anything new with the art of acting,” and that’s never felt truer than it does now in the franchise era of cinema. 

Ronny is a romantic hero that snarls in the face of his floppy-haired copycats. Passion is something to offer with all of your might, otherwise you might as well not even bother. And it works. We cheer when Loretta chooses Ronny, a man who allows her the space to be more than the tragic widow spinster everyone else has written her off as. A more conventional pretty boy might have worked in the role, but it wouldn’t have felt anywhere near as satisfying. After all, Cher deserves someone who truly believes in her.

Cage’s latest role is as a heightened version of himself (Nick Cage) in the meta-comedy The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. The marketing seems to spin this project as a full circle moment for the actor, a sign that he has well and truly earned his stripes as an iconic figure after years in the DTV wilderness. It’s a neat narrative but an ignorant one. For those in the know, Nic Cage has always been on his own level, waiting for everyone else to catch up.

“Moonstruck” is streaming on HBO Max.

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