To say that Nicolas Cage’s career has had some ups and downs would be an understatement. It’d be more accurately described as a high velocity, back-breaking roller coaster of movie quality. How one actor can manage to be so good in a handful of award-worthy films and so unbelievably awful in so many discount DVD bin rejects is truly baffling. Luckily, the number crunchers at FiveThirtyEight have used the power of data analysis to make some sense of Mr. Cage’s filmography and divide his diverse body of work into five, easy-to-understand categories.
For their latest installment of the Hollywood Taxonomy series, FiveThirtyEight took 73 Nicolas Cage-led movies and charted them according to their Rotten Tomatoes score and total domestic box office in 2018 dollars. The results—when compared to actors with more consistent outputs like Meryl Streep or Denzel Washington—were all over the map. Still, movie data expert Walt Hickey was able to compartmentalize Cage’s films into five distinct categories: Nouveau-Shamanic, A National Treasure, Kick-Ass, Not The Bees!, and The Recession.
The lion’s share of Cage’s output exist in that middle category, Kick-Ass, which consists of movies that weren’t great but weren’t that terrible either. Lord Of War, The Weather Man, and Kick-Ass itself are all movies you might catch while flipping through the channels and you wouldn’t be too upset about it. But, every so often, one of these critically middling films manages to break through all the way to being A National Treasure. Films in this category like The Rock and Con Air aren’t winning any Academy Awards, but they’re raking in the cash. It’s these films that make Nicolas Cage one of the 25 highest grossing lead actors in Hollywood, despite some of the major flops on his résumé.
Speaking of flops: The bottom categories Not The Bees! and The Recession are for those films that range from laughably bad (The Wicker Man, Drive Angry, Bangkok Dangerous) to so forgettable you’re not even sure they actually happened (Rage, Pay The Ghost, The Runner). As the category name “The Recession” suggests, Cage’s reasons for making so many bad movies may be financial. But Hickey is quick to remind readers that, more than anything, Nicolas Cage has proven that he just likes to work. He likes being an actor. He likes making big choices.
And sometimes, those big choices pay off. The man has an Oscar, after all. That’s no accident. More than anyone else in his trade, Cage is willing to throw himself completely, body and spirit, into a performance. Moonstruck, Raising Arizona, Leaving Las Vegas, and Adaptation all fall into this Nouveau-Shamanic category (named for a term Cage himself uses to describe his acting process). It’s these films that really put Cage’s career into perspective. He doesn’t make bunts. He swings for the fences every damn time and occasionally, perhaps more often than we think, he hits a home run.
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