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The Fall and Rise of Nicolas Cage. A Statistical Analysis.
Nicolas Cage: a data story.
Intro: Nicolas Cage Is Back.
This Friday marks the release of Renfield, a dark comedy about the parasitic relationship between Dracula and his tortured aide, starring Nicolas Cage as Dracula. The upcoming vampire-themed action comedy, which cost $89M, has received positive reviews from critics, signifying a triumphant resurgence for Cage, whose career has struggled mightily over the past two decades.
In the 90s and 2000s, Nicolas Cage was a premier action star and indie darling, headlining some of the most beloved films of the era (National Treasure is a classic; I don't care what you say). But in recent years, Cage's fortunes have declined, with the actor losing his elite pedigree and falling into a series of low-budget B-movies.
And yet, through sheer perseverance and quirky authenticity, the idiosyncratic actor has found his way back to cultural relevancy. The man is an American success story, failure story, and comeback story all bundled into one.
So, what precipitated and punctuated Nicolas Cage's rise, fall, and rise? And how did the actor's unconventional style, and the internet meme-ification it spawned, aid in the preservation and resurrection of his career?
Nicolas Cage, The Prolific Actor and Big Spender.
Nicolas Cage is a movie-making machine. In fact, Cage boasts the highest number of starring roles amongst performers with +$1B in lifetime box office, with more than 80 leading roles on his resume.
These stats are even more mind-blowing when considering Cage's career is long from over. At 59, the wildly productive actor shows little sign of slowing down.
But what led this absurdly distinctive individual to such unprecedented acting output? Was it a love movie-making or something more? The answer is both — though money may be the driving factor.
Nicolas Cage's financial troubles emerged in the late 2000s, brought on by extravagant spending and substantial tax debts. Cage's excessive spending on impractical luxury items is the stuff of legend and could warrant a dedicated series of articles.
Instead, I will provide you with a few highlights:
A Haunted House: In 2007, Cage purchased the LaLaurie Mansion in New Orleans, a property notorious for its dark history and rumored to be haunted.
A Dinosaur Skull: In 2007, Cage outbid fellow actor Leonardo DiCaprio for a rare dinosaur skull at an auction. The skull, which cost $276,000, turned out to be stolen, and Cage eventually had to return the artifact to the Mongolian government.
Two Cobras: Cage once owned two king cobras but had to have the reptiles re-homed in a zoo after his neighbors complained.
Multiple Castles: Cage once owned two ancient European castles. The actor referred to his real estate expenditures as his "holy grail quest."
Cage's financial woes were further exacerbated by a $6.2 million tax penalty and a legal dispute with his former business manager over reckless spending.
Making matters worse, Cage's financial struggles came after a string of box-office disappointments that significantly damaged his status as a top-tier actor. Lacking offers from Hollywood studios, Cage was forced to star in over twenty-five direct-to-video (D2V) movies to repay his debts.
Direct-to-video movies represent a low-cost, low-demand, and low-quality segment of the movie market. I would list some of Cage's notable D2V credits, but you would never know them and should never see them.
Examining the actor's project output, we see a sizable spike in film releases in the 2010s and early 2020s, driven by Cage's turn to rapid-fire D2V work following his near-bankruptcy:
That said, Nicolas Cage's movie output may slow in the coming years as the embattled star allegedly finished paying off his debts sometime in late 2020. Or, maybe Cage will keep pumping out content because that's just what the man does.
Nicolas Cage, The Rise and The Fall.
Cage's career is a roller coaster ride of audacious success and painful failure. Examining the box office and budgeting for his movies, we see Cage explode into Hollywood's big-budget mainstream in the mid-90s:
Cage cemented his status as an action hero with a string of memorable performances in giant blockbusters such as The Rock (1996), Con Air (1997), and Face/Off (1997). These films demonstrated his ability to balance intensity and vulnerability in portraying an action hero.
Throughout the early 2000s, Cage found continued success in big-budget action films, including Gone in 60 Seconds (2000), National Treasure (2004), and National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007). He stole the Declaration of Independence, and it was awesome.
But then things took a turn. Beginning in the mid-2000s Cage's project quality began to decline. These misfires are punctuated by the now-infamous The Wicker Man (2006), a remake that garnered ridicule for its outlandish plot and Cage's bizarre performance, including the notorious "Not the bees!" scene. If you have yet to see the Wicker Man bees scene, do yourself a favor and give it a watch (after your finish this article). It's perhaps the greatest-worst-weirdest acting performance of all time.
Cage's fortunes worsened further following a string of big-time flops, including Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2011), Season of the Witch (2011), and Drive Angry (2011), further contributing to his list of underwhelming films.
Each failure further dampened Cage's commercial appeal, negatively impacting future projects' budget and box office and creating a movie funding death spiral. But financial performance is only one side of the story.
In recent years, Cage slowly clawed his way out of movie jail, taking supporting roles in higher-budget studio projects, such as Into the Spiderverse (2018) and The Croods (2013), and providing strong starring performances in critically acclaimed low-budget indies, like Pig (2021) and Mandy (2018).
As a result, the average critical acclaim of his projects (measured by Metacritic's critic score) has been slowly trending upward:
This upswing in critical acclaim, and the repayment of his debts, pose a brighter future for Cage. Or so I hope.
Nicolas Cage, The Unpredictable Hollywood Legend.
Sometimes Nicolas Cage's filmography reads as if produced by a random number generator, even before the actor began experiencing money troubles. The variability of Cage's work is a testament to his intrepid acting approach (for better or worse) and his eagerness to explore various roles and genres (also for better or worse).
Cage's variability in project selection is central to his public persona, as he is a highly-visible actor capable of delivering inglorious flops (re: the bees) and academy-award-winning performances (i.e. Leaving Las Vegas and Adaptation).
We can visualize this phenomenon by graphing all elite Hollywood actors and actresses based on their lifetime box office gross and movie rating variability. Our resulting output should roughly provide us with the following two-by-two (and some colorful quadrant names):
We'll define "elite" performers as those who have grossed over $1B in lifetime inflation-adjusted box office. Suppose Cage meets our definition of a highly successful Hollywood star of inconsistent project quality; in that case, we should find him in the "Erratic Hollywood Legends" quadrant alongside other polarizing-yet-memorable figures.
Indeed, Cage sits comfortably in the top right quadrant alongside cult heroes like Adam Sandler, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and John Travolta. These actors have experienced massive critical and commercial success — Uncut Gems, Terminator 2, and Pulp Fiction, respectively — and apparent failures — Jack and Jill, Batman & Robin, and Battlefield Earth, respectively.
These artists can survive career setbacks due to their distinctive personalities, previously-accumulated career capital, and loyal fanbases. Like Cage, these enigmas and their larger-than-life personalities endlessly intrigue fans and critics alike, providing these artists a buffer to experiment across genres, roles, and acting styles.
Nicolas Cage, The Meme.
Is it surprising that an actor known for over-the-top performances, near-mythical personal foibles, and a handful of cringe-inducing performances has become a focal point of meme culture? In many ways, Nicolas Cage's career has been expertly engineered to resonate with absurdist digital humor.
In 2011, a meme featuring Nicolas Cage's performance in the 1988 Vampire's Kiss began circulating on various social media sites. Cage's character sports an exaggerated facial expression while internet humorists added text reading "You Don't Say?" to the image. Soon, the meme became internet shorthand for expressing disbelief or responding sarcastically to an obvious statement.
The meme exploded across the internet, becoming a staple of meme culture and securing Cage's unique legacy as an ironic online figure.
Cage has continued to be meme-d across the internet for various over-the-top performances and his absurdist cult hero status:
Examining Google Trends data, we see Nicolas Cage (and his meme-ification) rise to prominence in 2012 following the popularization of the "you don't say" meme. Subsequently, Cage meme content maintained a relatively elevated level of search interest after this initial spike.
And then, in 2022, Cage's meme-ification culminated in a film starring Nicolas Cage as a meme of Nicolas Cage (pretty meta).
In The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022), Cage plays a fictionalized version of himself roped into a high-profile spy operation. The actor claims that the portrayal bore little resemblance to his real personality, yet it's near-impossible to distinguish what's fiction or exaggeration when it comes to Nick Cage.
Although The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent disappointed commercially, the film propelled Cage back into the mainstream, capitalizing on his digital celebrity, forever loyal fanbase, and Hollywood's love of nostalgia. A 2022 Reddit AMA (ask me anything) with Cage promoting the film captured the most upvotes of any r/AMA post (and its comments) and that year, edging out Bill Gates, Jon Stewart, and LeVar Burton by a wide margin:
And the film itself produced another spike in Cage meme-ification due to an over-the-top scene between him and Pedro Pascal, where Pascal appears to be channeling his inner- Nicolas Cage:
Furthermore, it appears The Unbearable Weight provided Cage with enduring career capital, as search interest for his movies has remained elevated following the film's debut and in the run-up to Renfield's release:
Perhaps the searches stem from more meme activity, but in an entertainment industry desperate to capture milliseconds of consumer attention, there's no such thing as bad press. Hollywood may perceive renewed commercial value in Nicolas Cage 2.0.
So did memes and internet culture salvage Cage's career? Not entirely. On the one hand, the eccentric actor's memorable performances and quirky personality made him worthy of digital attention. And at the same time, Cage's second life as a meme likely contributed to his continuing cultural relevance. He may be among the few people to materially benefit from meme culture.
Final Thoughts: Nicolas Cage, The Authentic Movie Star.
If you go to the Renfield trailer on Youtube and scroll down to the comments, you will find the highest-rated post isn't a Nicolas Cage joke or meme-inspired dig. Instead, the top comment praises the actor's career-long dedication to his craft:
I found the commenter's earnest appreciation and the internet's overwhelming approval of this sentiment surprising. Of all the things to show up first on a Nick Cage video with +45M views, why this? It may have to do with Cage's endearing sincerity.
In a career full of visible failures and regrettable choices, Nicolas Cage's greatest weapon may be his authenticity.
Celebrities often cultivate and present a desirable outward persona, utilizing PR appearances, social media, and public events to shape audience perceptions. Meanwhile, their genuine self remains largely hidden. We become enamored with a cultivated version of Julia Roberts or Denzel Washington while knowing little about these individuals.
On the one hand, this is understandable. Everyone is entitled to privacy and deserves a personal life. But, on the other hand, this distance cultivates an authenticity gap between actors and audiences.
And then there's Nicolas Cage. Somehow, Cage has bridged the gap between art and reality, captivating viewers and keeping them emotionally invested in his work. As a result, the enigmatic actor has emerged as a rare performer who effortlessly aligns his personal identity with his on-screen persona, forging a powerful bond with audiences.
Say what you want about Nicolas Cage, but he is nothing if hard-working and genuine. The man is authentically himself (for better or worse), and audiences acknowledge and revere his wild authenticity.
So let's hope Nicolas Cage is back and that his future includes minimal bees, castles, box office flops, cobras, dinosaur skulls, haunted mansions, IRS penalties, and direct-to-video films. Long live Nicolas Cage.
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