Leaving Las Vegas is a sad movie, of course, being about a man who goes to Sin City for the express purpose of drinking himself to death. I suppose you could make a comedy with that premise, but you'd have your work cut out for you. The melancholy of Leaving Las Vegas is as poignant now as it was when it was released, 13 years ago this week, but the movie-lover in me notices an extra layer of sadness: What has happened to Nicolas Cage?
There has always been a fine line between a stellar Cage performance and an insane Cage performance. He tends to be high-strung and spastic, frequently acting like a man whose head is on fire (and in Ghost Rider, it actually was). In Leaving Las Vegas, it works for him. Ben Sanderson, an alcoholic Hollywood agent, is drunk or hungover every waking minute of his life, and Cage's propensity for loose-limbed goofiness and general oddball behavior is perfect for a drunk. This performance won him an Oscar (against heavyweights like Anthony Hopkins for Nixon and Sean Penn for Dead Man Walking); his only other nomination so far was for 2002's Adaptation, where again his sweaty, manic desperation worked to his advantage.
But then you have films like The Rock (1996) and The Wicker Man (2006) where Cage's looniness makes him campy and enjoyable but not what you'd call Oscar-caliber. Yet apart from Ben Sanderson having deeper subtext, is there really that much difference between that performance and, say, the crazy, woman-punching, bear-costume-wearing nutjob that Cage played in The Wicker Man? Is it the movies that surround the performances that make all the difference?
Cage is nothing if not prolific. In the 13 years since Leaving Las Vegas he has starred in 23 films, with four more lined up for 2009. But the really meaty, serious roles have been few and far between, and generally in duds like Windtalkers and Captain Corelli's Mandolin. Of the 10 films he's made since Adaptation, none has generated any real interest beyond the basic enjoyment of watching him ham it up on the big screen.
Come to think of it, what happened to his Leaving Las Vegas costar, Elisabeth Shue? She was Oscar-nominated, too, for her portrayal of Sera, a hooker who falls in love with Ben during his end-of-days bingeing. Nearly all of her work since then has been in middle-of-the-road pictures, and nothing even close to the caliber of performance she gave here.
And hey -- what about the director, Mike Figgis? He earned an Oscar nomination for directing and one for his screenplay adaptation of John O'Brien's novel, but hardly anyone has uttered his name since then. He's made about a half-dozen features and a couple documentaries in the ensuing years, including the intriguing Timecode (2000), which divided the screen into quadrants and showed us the story in real time from four different perspectives. He's multitalented, too -- he composed the dark, evocative jazz score for Leaving Las Vegas and played the trumpet and keyboards on the soundtrack -- and yet mainstream success has eluded him.
The more I think about it, the sadder this movie is, not just for its subject matter but for everyone involved in it. The novel it was based on was semi-autobiographical, and the author, perhaps inevitably, committed suicide two weeks after selling the film rights. (His father described the novel as his son's suicide note; his sister, Erin, wrote a touching tribute earlier this year for a Cleveland newspaper.) The film's box office gross of $32 million was good for a low-budget drama but not what you'd expect from a film that earned four Oscar nominations. By the time the Oscars were presented in March 1996, the film was essentially played out.
But it holds up as a unique love story. Watching it, I don't feel depressed -- I feel rejuvenated by the honest, raw performances by Cage and Shue, and by the peculiar poignance of their characters' relationship. Ben and Sera are both in "professions" (alcoholism and prostitution) that usually lead to dead ends, yet they remain essentially good people. They are kind to each other even as they make unwise choices that harm themselves. Sort of like a certain actor's career decisions in recent years.
FROM THE TIME CAPSULE: When Leaving Las Vegas was released 13 years ago this week, on Oct. 27, 1995...
• Its fellow new releases included Powder, Vampire in Brooklyn, and Woody Allen's Mighty Aphrodite. The previous weekend's top film, Get Shorty, would dominate the box office again. Seven was still going strong, too, spending its sixth weekend in the top 10.
• O.J. Simpson had been found not guilty of the two murders he committed just 24 days earlier and was now "actively" involved in "finding" the "real killers."
• Louis Farrakhan's Million Man March had been held a week earlier in Washington, D.C.
• Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was a week away from being assassinated.
• Saturday Night Live had just purged its cast and relaunched with newcomers that included Will Ferrell, Cheri Oteri, and Molly Shannon. Meanwhile, MADtv debuted on Oct. 14 as an SNL alternative. (How'd that work out, Fox?) On HBO, the brilliant Mr. Show was a week away from its debut.
• The Smashing Pumpkins' monster hit album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness had been released three days earlier. Blind Melon lead singer Shannon Hoon had died of a drug overdone a week earlier. The No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart was Mariah Carey's "Fantasy," which dominated all over October and November.
• The top two spots on the New York Times best seller list should sound familiar to moviegoers: Michael Crichton's The Lost World and Nicholas Evans' The Horse Whisperer.
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Eric's Time Capsule appears every Monday at Film.com. You can visit Eric at his website, where the bartender always cuts you off before you pass out.