Film: Leaving Las Vegas
Demeanor: Academy Award Winning Drunk.
Hair Quality: Frazzled, thinning. A precursor to Adaptation-level hair weirdness.
Performance Quality: 9 Cages Out of 10.
Many of those I’ve discussed this year-long project with tend to immediately call out a few films in Our Greatest Living Actor’s catalog of film. Usually, it’s the wackier stuff, of the Con Air, or Vampire’s Kiss, or yes, The Wicker Man fame. Strangely, only a handful of people I’ve talked to even mentioned, or even seemed to recall much about Leaving Las Vegas. Perhaps this is due in no small part to the film not being nearly as ubiquitous in pop culture lore as stuff like The Rock and Deadfall, but still, this bothers me. How can anyone with an affinity for Nicolas Cage not be interested in the role that won the man his only Oscar to date?
Perhaps some are scared off by the notion that Leaving Las Vegas is some kind of prestige picture, a movie weighted down by the kind of emotional seriousness that so often appeals to the aged, seemingly perpetually dour Academy voters. Certainly Leaving Las Vegas has some of the tenets of the kind of ultraserious dramas that typically take home Oscar gold, including: the tortured protagonist, the tragic female lead, a greater focus on characters over plot, and a fair amount of indie cred for its small budget and off-kilter style.
But on the other hand, Leaving Las Vegas is also kind of an insane movie.
Which isn’t to say that Cage is especially over-the-top in this film, at least not compared with his many other bouts of insanity on film. As Ben, an alcoholic former film executive whose problem has brought him to a state of near inability to function, Cage is a hot mess pretty much from the opening scene. But it’s as restrained a hot mess as you’ll ever see Cage portray. His pain, his outbursts, they have a purpose. They establish this character as a pitiable figure, and Cage manages to keep this feeling alive throughout the film. You don’t laugh at Cage’s antics in Leaving Las Vegas. Unless you get your jollies from watching a man self-destruct before your eyes. Then it’s a laugh riot.
Ben begins his suicidal bender in Los Angeles, hitting up a couple of former colleagues (one played by late-Wings-era Steven Weber) for cash at a fancy restaurant. Ben’s disheveled appearance notwithstanding, he wanders through the restaurant, over to their table and tries to make small talk before ultimately getting pulled aside. One of the friends pays him off to get rid of him. Not just then, but forever. Ben, mostly unfazed, takes the money, and proceeds to wander to the nearest bar.
There he meets a woman (Valleria Gollino), and begins to make pathetic passes at her. I mean that in the most literal sense of the word. He at points alternates between brutish attempts at suaveness and sobbing, desperate pleas to sleep with her. She does not oblige him, leaving Ben to drown his sorrows alone.
It’s clear from Cage’s face that it’s loneliness that’s killing Ben. Well, the booze is doing its yeoman’s work as well, but the loneliness has driven him to it. He says his family is gone, but we don’t know whether that means they’re alive or dead. All we know is that they’re not coming back, and in the absence of any other meaningful relationships to help him, he turned to the bottle. And the can. And those little minibar shot bottles. And whatever else he can imbibe to numb himself to the pain of living.
Ben goes to Las Vegas, where he holes up in a cheap hotel with as much booze as he can get his hands on. There he meets a prostitute named Sera, played by Elisabeth Shue. For all the Oscar acclaim that Cage got for his role in this film, Shue is an equally transformed actor. This was her post-’80s coming out party, the “tough” role that was going to turn her into a serious mainstream actress. That never quite panned out, obviously, but it wasn’t from lack of effort on her part. It’s not a physical transformation so much as a personal one. Personality wise, Shue is nigh on unrecognizable in Leaving Las Vegas. She’s curt, moody, damaged…almost a bit like Ben.
It’s no surprise that they strike up a friendship after Ben propositions her, albeit unsuccessfully. Ben’s alcoholic state has left him impotent, so instead of trying to sleep with her, he talks to her. They talk, and talk, and talk, until suddenly, it’s the next day. In real life, the odds that these two would ever meet again are rather poor. But in Mike Figgis’ film, which adheres more to a twisted fairy tale kind of logic, they continue to spend time together, with Shue even eventually inviting him to stay at her apartment. I don’t know if you’d call what they have a romance, since Shue continues to work, and Ben continues to drink. He even tells her at one point, “You can never, never ask me to stop drinking. Do you understand?” And she does.
Their flirtations, disasters, and reconciliations are the crux of Leaving Las Vegas. Plot is secondary to watching these two broken people actively try NOT to fix one another, but rather enjoy each other for whatever time they have. Figgis toys with more elaborate plot points, including Sera’s shady ex-pimp (Julian Sands) and one of the more out-of-nowhere rape scenes I’ve ever encountered in a movie. But by and large, these points are dismissed as quickly as they’re introduced. Sands, in particular, has maybe three scenes, and is dead before the halfway mark.
I don’t mind that one bit, though the way Figgis lazily, dreamily shoots the interactions between the two, with healthy globs of obnoxious lounge jazz (songs on which Figgis apparently plays trumpet…) slathered on as a soundtrack, is a bit hard to swallow. It’s obvious that Figgis has some music connections—both Lou Rawls and Julian Lennon make bizarre cameo appearances—but the soundtrack is oppressive in a way that overshadows anything else going on in the scene. Sometimes it’s best when directors leave the music duties up to music supervisors.
Fortunately, the performances still shine through, dark as they may be. Shue successfully remade herself as a talented, serious actress here, and it’s a shame that her career never took the trajectory of, say, a post-Monster Charlize Theron.
As for Cage, his Oscar was won over the likes of Anthony Hopkins’ Nixon, Richard Dreyfuss’ Mr. Holland, and Sean Penn’s Dead Man Walking. It was deserved. The Greatest Living Actor title moniker I toss around here may be done in a half-joking way, but his performance in Leaving Las Vegas is proof that there is at least some truth underneath the humor.
- Other goofily random cameos in this movie include Danny Huston, Richard Lewis, R. Lee Ermey, Laurie Metcalf, Shawnee Smith, Mariska Hargitay (as a rival hooker), and French Stewart, who plays maybe the creepiest creep I’ve ever seen creep in a 15 second appearance.
- Apparently Mike Figgis also played keyboards on the soundtrack, in addition to the trumpet. Multi-talented people are the worst.
- I don’t really have any other random bits for this, so instead I’m going to post, verbatim, Cage’s incredibly uncomfortable monologue when describing his sexual dysfunction.
Are you desirable? Are you irresistible? Maybe if you drank bourbon with me, it would help. Maybe if you kissed me and I could taste the sting in your mouth it would help. If you drank bourbon with me naked. If you smelled of bourbon as you fucked me, it would help. It would increase my esteem for you. If you poured bourbon onto your naked body and said to me “drink this”. If you spread your legs and you had bourbon dripping from your breasts and your pussy and said “drink here” then I could fall in love with you. Because then I would have a purpose. To clean you up and that, that would prove that I’m worth something. I’d lick you clean so that you could go away and fuck someone else.
Next Time: The Rock