Moonstruck

For roughly a decade, from the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s, Nicolas Cage was my favorite contemporary movie star, mostly because he seemed intent upon turning the very idea of “movie star” on its head. Nearly every performance back then was a fearless high-wire act, regardless of the context, to the point where he was sometimes accused of sabotage (particularly vis-à-vis his bizarrely adenoidal turn in Peggy Sue Got Married). Often, he seemed to be acting in a completely different—and usually far more interesting—movie than any of his costars. Cage’s instincts were so reckless at that time that watching him simply enter a room and sit down could produce the same nervous tension viewers experience as the Final Girl navigates a deserted house in some horror flick. A sense of genuine danger accompanied him from role to role, as if at any moment, we might witness some sort of unscripted, inexplicable act of self-combustion.

That incarnation of Nicolas Cage no longer exists, needless to say. Oh, we still get the occasional glimpse: He roused himself to play a dual fake version of Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation, and 2009’s batshit Bad Lieutenant remake featured far and away the most old-school Cage performance since he won the Oscar and turned into a bland action figure almost overnight. But those are offbeat art movies, directed by the likes of Spike Jonze and Werner Herzog—risk-taking comes with the territory. What I miss are the conventional, mainstream pictures in which Cage comes across like a visitor from another era, if not another planet. Moonstruck, most of all, defies rational explanation—if there’s a stranger, more alienating introduction to a romantic male lead in American movies, I’m not aware of it, and I desperately need to be. Take a look:

Now, John Patrick Shanley, who won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Moonstruck, deserves a huge amount of the credit for this scene, which is shot and performed almost word-for-word as he wrote it. (I looked up the shooting script online, mostly because I was curious about whether Cage improvised the repetition of “and I bake bread, bread, bread.” He didn’t.) Shanley was (and still is) primarily a playwright, but he’s that rare playwright whose deliberate theatricality works as well on the screen as on the stage; his dialogue is stylized, but in a floridly terse way, with characters speaking so directly that the plain becomes oddly poetic. In fact, this particular scene is so well written, and so deftly invests a heap of expository backstory with supercharged emotion that it nearly renders superfluous the 25 minutes of Moonstruck that precede it. You could really start the movie right here, without bothering to “establish” Cher’s character or the milieu. It’d certainly be arresting.

Nonetheless, I’m glad for the delay, because Cage transforms a character who reads as generically intense and tortured on the page into a walking open wound, and it’s more fun to experience that as a sudden intrusion. This performance verges on parody, but it wouldn’t be nearly as effective if Cage didn’t at the same time come across as utterly sincere—he’s cranked the alienation, heartbreak, and self-pity up to 11, but there’s no winking involved. Punctuating each individual word of the lament “I lost my hand! I lost my bride!” with a violent stabbing gesture at the wooden hand, raised high in the air, is exactly the sort of inspired, operatic overkill that seemed to just come naturally to Cage in those days. (He also hits the words “Huh? Sweetie?” as if they were tiny stilettos, just seconds before repeatedly demanding the big knife.) Even in what passes for repose, his facial expressions somehow seem larger than life, as if he’s managed to enlarge his features to make himself look more piteous.

Shame that the filmmaking doesn’t support him more. Watching this scene again after many years—almost certainly for the first time since I started paying close attention to cinematic form as well as content—all I could think was “Stop with the goddamn reaction shots.” To be fair, there’s one that works beautifully: A view of the other baker looking on, concerned, as Cage, in mid-rant, crosses the frame from left to right in front of him. But that’s the exception. Otherwise, director Norman Jewison, who’s never been especially renowned for his visual brio, simply shoots everyone else in the room in medium close-up and cuts to them seemingly at random, as a repeated reminder that Cage has an intimidated audience. You rarely see editing that flat and dully functional on sitcoms these days, much less in Hollywood features. Here, it only serves to undercut the power of Cage’s performance, making it feel as if the film is telling us, via the reactions of the supporting characters, how we should respond to his passion.

As you may recall, Cher, not Cage, won an Oscar for this movie. Her work isn’t remotely as impressive or memorable, in my opinion, but she earns my respect for playing this scene as calmly and impassively as she does (except when Jewison gooses her with his damn reaction shots—we didn’t need to see her do a “startled” take after Cage punches the can off the table). Even when an actor has the vehicle role, and knows (s)he’ll have plenty of other opportunities to emote elsewhere in the picture, I have to imagine it’s a challenge to more or less concede an entire scene to a co-star and just stand there doing not much of anything. But that’s exactly what Cher does: not much of anything. And that’s just what this scene needed from her. I don’t know if you could call that great acting, but it’s certainly good acting, and it makes me feel a little better about Holly Hunter getting totally robbed for Broadcast News.

Cage, sadly, wasn’t even nominated. In fact, his first Oscar nomination was for Leaving Las Vegas—prior to that, during the entirety of what I consider to be his Golden Age, he was completely ignored. Not that that’s remotely unusual, of course. (See also Johnny Depp.) And given the mostly dire turn his career path took after he finally did get some recognition, maybe it was for the best. Part of what makes insane acting so appealing is that it doesn’t seek external validation. It exists for its own sake—for the sheer pleasure of being singular and unexpected. Cage both did and didn’t give a shit, once upon a time, and that was what made him special.