Voices: Turns out Nicolas Cage did all those bad movies for a good reason. Who are you to judge him?

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Nicolas Cage attends the premiere of ‘The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent’ on 12 March 2022 in Austin, Texas (Rich Fury/Getty Images for SXSW)
Nicolas Cage attends the premiere of ‘The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent’ on 12 March 2022 in Austin, Texas (Rich Fury/Getty Images for SXSW)

Nicolas Cage is experiencing a rebirth. After a decade that could mildly be described as difficult – during which he got into deep financial trouble, and was married and divorced twice – his life seems to be back on track. His performance as a reclusive former chef in Pig earned him well-deserved rave reviews last year. He’s set to play himself in the ambitiously titled The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, a meta black comedy action film that sounds like absolute catnip for anyone who has felt even a little bit fascinated by Cage’s career. And he’s expecting a child (his third) with Riko Shibata, whom he married in February last year – “I think it’s so sweet,” he told GQ writer Gabriella Paiella during a recent interview, while showing her an ultrasound on his phone. “It’s like a little edamame. A little bean.”

The GQ piece places the beginning of Cage’s financial and personal troubles in 2009. In October that year, his father, literature professor August Coppola, died of a heart attack aged 75. “What followed his father’s death and his financial ruin was a decade-long odyssey to do as many movies as possible for as much money as possible to pay his debts,” Paiella writes. At the time, Cage owed the IRS $14m and, per GQ, “millions more” to other creditors.

Cage needed money, so he did the thing he knew how to do to earn a living: he acted. And acted. And acted. He starred in a “conveyor belt” of 46 movies, sometimes filming up to four a year. In 2011, a record five Nicolas Cage movies came out: Season of the Witch, Drive Angry, Seeking Justice, Trespass, and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. Cage had seven film credits in 2018 and 2019 each. For comparison, Leonardo DiCaprio added eight credits to his filmography between the years 2013 and 2021.

The public didn’t know what to make of Cage’s choices. There was the general sense that a great actor – an Oscar winner – had, for some reason, decided to devote his time to films that didn’t quite seem to match his caliber as a performer. “Does Nic Cage Really Only Make Bad Movies?” one headline asked in December 2021. There were rumors that he had blown a $150m fortune making wild purchases, though he made a point to tell GQ that his financial difficulties were mostly due to bad real-estate moves. (In 2009, Cage sued his former business manager, alleging the manager had sent him “down a path toward financial ruin”. The manager filed a counterclaim arguing that he had tried to steer Cage in a wiser direction, to no avail. Both claims were dismissed in 2010.)

Through it all, Cage says, as he was collecting movie roles in an attempt to earn the money he owed, he never switched off his actor brain. “When I was doing four movies a year, back-to-back-to-back, I still had to find something in them to be able to give it my all,” he told GQ. “They didn’t work, all of them. Some of them were terrific, like Mandy, but some of them didn’t work. But I never phoned it in. So if there was a misconception, it was that. That I was just doing it and not caring. I was caring.”

There appears to have been immense personal stakes for Cage, too. ​​“I’ve got all these creditors and the IRS and I’m spending $20,000 a month trying to keep my mother out of a mental institution, and I can’t,” he told Paiella, looking back on this period of his life. “It was just all happening at once.”

We’re not great at thinking of actors as people who work. We think of them as icons, as personas. This has very much been the case for Cage, the face of a thousand memes and the subject of many a YouTube supercut. Hollywood doesn’t paint itself as a place of labor – when actors talk about “the work”, they generally mean the craft, not the actual process of showing up to set, doing what they were hired to do, and collecting a check in return. It makes sense, too, that much of the public finds it hard to understand how it’s possible to earn millions of dollars and still end up broke. We know it happens – we’ve heard of it happening – but we can’t exactly feel it in our bones.

And yet, it seems vital to reframe that way of thinking — because it doesn’t just affect the Nicolas Cages of this world. In 2018, when tabloid headlines announced that former Cosby Show actor Geoffrey Owens had been spotted bagging groceries at a Trader Joe’s, mainly felt that Owens was being unnecessarily shamed. After all, he was just doing what most people need to do: working to make a living, which in his case meant supplementing his career as an actor with a day job. “We don’t tend to think of actors as laborers,” Michael Schulman wrote in the New Yorker at the time, as the controversy burned. “... By undervaluing the labor of creative professions, we put artists in a double bind: their artistic work isn’t seen as work, but it’s also assumed to be so lucrative that any non-acting job they might pursue is suspect.”

Think of Sarah Michelle Gellar, who, in a new book about her time on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, discusses rumors of a fallout between herself and some of her co-stars on the show. Many had whispered scandalously about a feud between her and Alyson Hannigan in particular. Gellar was much more down-to-earth: “Look, we worked really hard hours. We were young, we had ups and downs. Everybody had arguments,” she told author Evan Ross Katz. “... It wasn’t rosy. Nobody gets along all the time. And Alyson and I had moments. There’s no question. But you’re young.” They worked long, hard hours with the same people, day in, day out, and sometimes, understandably, that made it hard to get along. No one would find that so strange if it happened at any other workplace — why should Hollywood be different?

Cage didn’t take a day job to increase his earnings; instead, he did more of what he was already known for. He couldn’t afford to cherry-pick movies, so he didn’t. In context, that’s perfectly understandable.

There has been a push in recent years to make Hollywood a safer, more equitable place to work, be it with fairer contracts, Covid safety measures, or the use of intimacy coordinators for sex scenes. Only by thinking of film and TV sets as workplaces – and by thinking of actors as people hired to perform a specific type of work – can we make progress here.

It doesn’t serve anyone to think of creative work only as an ethereal, elusive field – though of course it has to do with inspiration and talent and the thrill of imagination and all that fun stuff. But really, it’s work, and we can’t think of it as completely divorced from material reality. If we do, then there’s a whole lot of conversations we won’t be having – namely about who gets to do creative work and what stands in the way of those trying to break in.