Editorial by Tom Dooley
Heres a list of movie personalities. See if you can guess which actor has shared the screen with all of them.
If you actually read this list from start to finish, two things probably happened. First, you were probably impressed by the range of personalities represented by these names. If youre like me, and like most Americans, youre fascinated by movie stars. Next to being an actor or actress yourself, youd like to be a casting director. And you may despise tabloids, but you still read the headlines while in line at the grocery store.
The second thing that probably happened is you figured out the mystery star. I made it easy for you by putting them in chronological order. For me, the answer becomes obvious at Laura Dern, Willem Dafoe, Isabella Rosallini, Harry Dean Stanton, and Sherilyn Fenn. You remember: they were all in that crazy, 1990 David Lynch movie, Wild at Heart. And so was Nicolas Cage, as Sailor Ripley, wearing a snakeskin jacket he said was his symbol of freedom and individuality.
Sure, Cage is just an actor, and so I cant really give him full credit for the movies hes acted in and the characters hes portrayed. But I do have to give him credit for being an indispensable part of a number of truly great movies. Alas, for every Wild at Heart, Raising Arizona, Red Rock West, or Leaving Las Vegas, theres been a Guarding Tess, Honeymoon in Vegas, Amos and Andrew, and ConAir. With a John Woo Face Off coming out this summer, and an upcoming Superman project directed by Tim Burton, it looks like we may have seen the last of the Cage who plays quirky little heroes in quirky little movies for the likes of David Lynch and the Coen brothers. Hello Jerry Bruckheimer. Hello John Woo. Hello big bucks and all-star casts and regurgitated plot lines and, well, big, big bucks. But what am I complaining about? If someones going be the next blockbuster superstar, it might as well be Cage. One, he can act. Two, hes paid his dues by doing just thatacting in great movies. Three, his screen persona demands reasonably complex characters and semi-intelligent lines. Screenwriters arent likely to have him saying, "Ill be back." So, if its going to be Sly, Arnold Nicolas, then so be it.
Incidentally, Ive always wondered just how Hollywood blockbuster screenplays are written. I imagine its something like this:
Speaking of Wild at Heart, I rented it last night. Its been four or five years since I saw it last, and I'd been bragging it up, saying it was one of my five most favorite movies. After watching it again, Im afraid I have to step back from that assessment. I still think its a good movie, but Ive seen five in the past year that were better (Fargo, English Patient, Shine, LoneStar, and Sling Blade). It seems Im just not on the right wavelength anymore to appreciate David Lynchs vision, such as it was. To be honest, Id forgotten how violent, gory, twisted, and sexually explicit this movie is. How heavy-handed and campy the whole Wizard of Oz thing is. How tedious the many flashbacks become. What I remembered were the many delightfully oddball characters, the outrageous dialogue between Lula and Sailor, the haunting night-accident scene, the leering perfection of Willem Dafoes character, and the great soundtrack.
The violence in Wild at Heart, I think, is intended to be shocking. The sad part is, it no longer is shocking so much as just plain ugly. Which may be a good thing, as far as this movie is concerned, but a sad commentary on the mainstream Hollywood movies of today. Wild at Hearts violence isnt shocking because todays major, mainstream movies have just as much violence. The difference is that in movies like ConAir and The Lost World, the violence is glamorized. Its made into something powerfula powerful act of perversion, or tragedy, or revenge. But in David Lynchs world, people die dingy, unimpressive, sickening deaths. The rude way his camera thrusts gore at us ends up showing violence for the ugly little thing it is. A good example of this is at the end of the movie, when Dern is going to the train station to pick up Cage after his stint in prison. On the way, she sees a traffic accident and makes the kid look away so he doesnt see it. But we see it, and it seems completely out of place at the end of this movie to see a man with a horribly disfigured face, bleeding on the sidewalk. I mean, why is Lynch making us look at this awful stuff when were supposed to be gearing up for the happy lovers reunion? Why indeed. This one scene lets us know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, what violence is in the Lynchian world. It isnt pretty, and it isnt something I want to see more of, but it does seem less morally reprehensible than the "acceptable" violence we see in todays blockbusters.
One scene Id forgotten was where Laura Derns character flashes back to her childhood abortionone made necessary when she was raped by her mothers business associate. It was a brief scene, with Derns face distorted and magnified through some kind of medical apparatus. Most of the work in the scene is done by sound effects (a discomforting blender/suction combination), Derns magnified eyes widening in pain, and a plastic, straw-like tube that fills with blood. Regardless of your views on abortion, this scene does more to discourage it than a street-full of protesters ever could.
Ironically, Dern is now playing a woman considering an abortion in Citizen Ruth, a woman who when young was also sexually molested.
Seven years after Wild at Heart, Dern and Cage continue to climb their respective ladders in the motion picture industry. Theyve both enjoyed blockbuster commercial success (The Rock, Jurassic Park) and solid critical acclaim (Leaving Las Vegas, Rambling Rose). Shes still facing issues of molestation and abortion, and hes still giving stuffed animals to children he hasnt watched grow up. I just hope they both continue to take time out from the big studio projects to make some more truly great movies.