Like Robin Feld, the opaque former chef he portrays in Neon’s acclaimed 2021 film Pig, Nicolas Cage is a man whose name possesses a unique gravity. As we watch Feld reclaim his abandoned identity throughout the film, it becomes unmistakably apparent that, as an individual and an artist, he has been eclipsed by his own reputation—a struggle that Hollywood’s most eccentric and misunderstood star shares in.
When Nicolas Cage was cast as a hulking woodsman on a crusade to recover his beloved truffle pig, expectations of an outrageous John Wick rip-off swirled. Expectations that were exacerbated in no small part by Cage’s convoluted reputation as a performer.
In popular culture, Nicolas Cage is seen as a bit of a novelty rather than a serious artist. And not without reason. From Vampire’s Kiss to Face/Off to The Wicker Man, Cage has been the star of more than a few very memorable cinematic misfires. And at the center of these magnificent trainwrecks are Cage’s distinctly erratic performances. His volatile deliveries and exaggerated, bordering-on-comical expressionality have rocketed Cage to internet infamy, where his face has become virtually inescapable.
With that pervasiveness throughout popular culture however, Cage’s image has also become calcified. Merchandised and memed to death, Cage has been distilled into a one-dimensional caricature—one that is modeled after a cherry-picked selection of films out of his expansive, and surprisingly comprehensive, catalogue.
This shallow viral persona conceals what is, in reality, an incredibly talented and nuanced artist—a misrepresentation that Pig embraces and subverts beautifully. Rather than the unoriginal and hyper-violent revenge tale implied by Cage’s mainstream image, the film is a stubbornly gentle emotional odyssey. One driven by the veteran actor’s unexpectedly delicate and devastating performance. Lauded by critics, on October 4th Neon officially announced that Cage would be receiving an Oscar push for his role.
While this ascent to critical acclaim might contradict Cage’s popular perception, it actually represents a significant return to form for the actor. Cage’s work may not be consistently exceptional, but there are undeniable flashes of mercurial brilliance in the wild oscillations of his career. At his peaks, Cage has produced several powerful and thought-provoking works in collaboration with some of the most acclaimed directors of his generation. While fans may have a hazy recollection of Cage securing an Academy Award for his anguished performance in 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas, this only scratches the surface of Cage’s incognizably distinguished career.
The nephew of legendary director Francis Ford Coppola, Cage opted to forego the Coppola surname in an attempt to carve out his own identity in Hollywood. This, of course, did not stop him from accepting some assistance from his uncle in getting his career off the ground. Appearing in three Coppola-directed pictures in the early stages of his career, much of Cage’s foundation as an actor is built upon what he learned from his esteemed uncle.
From there, Cage stepped into true stardom in the farcical 1987 film Raising Arizona directed by the then up-and-coming Coen Brothers. However, it was not until 1990 when Cage truly began to come into his own as an artist; when he starred alongside Laura Dern in Wild at Heart. A baffling journey into the surreal twilight of David Lynch’s American West, Cage’s signature, erratic style was the perfect fit for the role of the timelessly cool Sailor Ripley.
It was following his Oscar win in ‘95 that Cage began to become a familiar name in ill-fated blockbusters. Even following some of his most infamous films like Con-Air and Face/Off, however, Cage was still attracting the attention of legendary directors, in 1999 navigating the hallowed grounds of Scorsese’s New York City in Bring Out the Dead, and only a few years later working with Charlie Kaufman to play ‘Charlie Kaufman’ in the mobius strip of a film Adaptation, which netted him his second Best Leading Actor nomination.
Like the battered and bloodied chef he portrays in Pig, it is difficult to reconcile the public’s perception of Cage with his actual abilities and legacy as an artist, a difficulty Cage has grown increasingly frustrated with in recent years. In an interview with Variety, the actor discusses how he has begun to feel constrained by the “small town of Hollywood.” Blockbuster directors understand what it is about Cage’s absurd performances that draw mainstream audiences, and aren’t particularly interested in letting the actor deviate from that. Which, he states, is why he has left that small town of Hollywood behind and “gone into [his] own wilderness.”
And he certainly has. In recent years, Cage has repeatedly opted for the artistic freedom of several smaller indie films. Movie’s like Mandy, Color Out of Space, and Willy’s Wonderland (in which Cage does not speak a single line) have permitted the actor to return to his experimental roots. Refusing to be beholden to critics or a paycheck, Cage’s desertion of Hollywood is reminiscent of the sentiments held by his character in Pig.
“The critics aren’t real, the customers aren’t real, none of this is real. Because you’re not real,” Feld seethes during his scathing assessment of another chef. “You live your life for them, and they don’t even see you.” Like Feld, Cage is an artist unconcerned with cultivating an esteemed reputation, instead content with the chance to simply create and hone his craft, whether his work will be appreciated by a restaurant full of critics or only a single pig.