Leaving Las Vegas
Released in 1995 ▪ Review posted December 1, 2014
“It does seem the more we drink the better the words go.”
So far, the staff of Cage Match has viewed (enjoyed? endured?) 64 Nicolas Cage performances, but his acting in Leaving Las Vegas exceeds in quality and scope anything else we’ve witnessed to date. Forty minutes into the film I turned to our publisher and said that if there’s one movie that settles the ongoing argument about Nicolas Cage’s acting ability, it’s Leaving Las Vegas.
Leaving Las Vegas is a character study about two people: Nicolas Cage as Ben Sanderson, an LA screenplay writer who is aggressively addicted to alcohol, and Elisabeth Shue as Sera, a Las Vegas prostitute. When Sanderson’s addiction causes him to lose his job and his family, he resolves to drink himself to death in Las Vegas. Along the way he meets Sera and they fall in love, but as Ben makes clear at the beginning of their relationship, he will always love alcohol more. Eventually, and in spite of Sera, he accomplishes the macabre task he set out to complete.
What’s so spectacular about Leaving Las Vegas is Nicolas Cage’s ability to play every stage of drunk. Buzzed, plastered, blitzed, schlitzed, functionally hammered, unintelligibly wasted, blacking out, etc. There’s no phase between mildly and severely drunk that Cage doesn’t attempt, or fails to portray accurately.
Like this article in The Guardian says, “there is no technical challenge more tricky than the business of drinking on stage.” The article hails Elizabeth Taylor’s performance in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a classic example of great acting, drunk or otherwise. What Cage achieves in Leaving Las Vegas is at least as good. Having demonstrated that he can act in this league, we can say that Nicolas Cage is undoubtedly a very good actor. Not only does he portray an alcoholic hitting rock bottom and never getting up, but he also makes his character empathetic and kind of likable, a common and often hazardous trait in alcoholics.
This is a meaty character with an explosive motivation that seems too much for him in concept but in practice fits him perfectly. It’s no surprise that Cage beat Sean Penn and Anthony Hopkins for the Academy Award that year, his only win to date.
His performance works so well on so many levels that, as someone who studies Nicolas Cage, you might assume he shelves all of his trademark tendencies and Cage-isms. Surprisingly, he doesn’t. The mania is still there when he does things like flip a casino table in a stupor. But it also makes sense when he has to look back in less drunken horror at the Jekyll he’d been the night before. Sanderson’s debasement is protected by this fine-tuned development of his character.
Without considering Cage’s and Shue’s tremendous performances, the actual movie Leaving Las Vegas doesn’t hold up so well. There’s a massive amount of heavy-handed angel metaphors, most notably Shue’s character being named “Sera,” which the film goes out of its way to spell twice so the viewer doesn’t assume her name is Sarah and miss the “seraphim” allusion. At one point, Sanderson literally calls her his “angel,” shortly after remarking upon the angel artwork bathed in light on her wall. It was one step away from the music video for “Losing My Religion.”
There’s also the unrelenting, unforgiving dramatic slog. Nobody changes at the end of Leaving Las Vegas, and no one’s life improves. Other films of this nature like Precious and Requiem for a Dream irk me too. It’s a personal distaste, but this level of brutal realism doesn’t entertain me or work as a call to action. Other movies like Schindler’s List and Punch-Drunk Love at least have characters that change, and moments of comic relief. Leaving Las Vegas is an extended angel metaphor fermenting in depravity.
Anyone interested in debating the quality of Nicolas Cage’s acting must sit down and suffer through the fathomless horrors of Leaving Las Vegas. A performance like the one Cage gives is a once-in-a-career achievement for most actors, and something that (unlike some of his previously reviewed performances) deserves wide study. It’s also a classic example of Cage taking what might have been a forgotten low-budget film and turning it into something worth watching. He drives mediocrity to greatness and takes the actors and the director with him. It is the best use of Cage’s strengths in every way.
- How was the movie?
- How was Nic Cage’s acting?
- Did his performance make the movie worse?
- He made it much better