Nicolas Cage comes from one of film’s most esteemed families. His uncle is Francis Ford Coppola (“The Godfather”) and his aunt is actress Talia Shire (“The Godfather,” “Rocky”). Not wanting to appear like his career was the productive of nepotism, when he started acting he took the name Cage from one of his favorite comic book characters, Marvel’s Luke Cage.
Cage’s film career started off quite auspiciously with a small role in the popular comedy “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” when he was just 18 years old. He followed that up with a lead role in the cult classic “Valley Girl.” Both films interestingly dealt with the life of teenagers in the Los Angeles suburbs of the San Fernando Valley.
For his third film Cage would finally agree to work with his uncle when he appeared in Coppola’s “Rumble Fish,” followed the following year by Coppola’s “The Cotton Club.” The year 1984 proved an important year for Cage as he started to break through with increasingly larger film roles. After a well received supporting role in the Sean Penn/Elizabeth McGovern romance “Racing with the Moon,” Cage ended the year with a starring role in the acclaimed film “Birdy.”
From then on Cage has worked steadily in all genres of films. He is one of the few actors to receive acclaim in comedy, drama, and action films. In 1996 at age 32, he became the fourth youngest person to ever win a Best Actor Oscar when he took home the prize for the film “Leaving Las Vegas.”
Take a tour of his 15 greatest film performances, ranked worst to best, in our photo gallery. Our list includes the movies mentioned in this article, plus “Honeymoon in Vegas,” “Raising Arizona,” “National Treasure” and more.
15. SNAKE EYES (1998)
Director: Brian De Palma. Writer: David Koepp. Starring Gary Sinise, Carla Guigino, John Heard.
Cage plays a corrupt police detective full of bravado who gets involved in a murder conspiracy. Cage is quite magnetic in the film but it is director Brian De Palma’s famed camera work that really steals the film. The opening scene set at a boxing match features one of De Palma’s trademark seemingly unedited sequences. Unlike in “Carrie” where De Palma has a long set piece without editing, the first twenty minutes of “Snake Eyes” while seemingly unedited actually has a few hidden cuts in the sequence.
14. CON AIR (1997)
Director: Simon West. Writer: Scott Rosenberg. Starring John Cusack, John Malkovitch, Steve Buscemi.
Cage was a huge action star in the late 90s, one of many incarnations his career has had. In “Con Air” he plays an army ranger jailed for involuntary manslaughter after a bar fight in which he was protecting his pregnant wife. When he is being released from prison he is put on a plane transporting other prisoners who take control of the plane leaving Cage to help fight them off.
13. CITY OF ANGELS (1998)
Director: Brad Silberling. Writer: Dana Stevens. Starring Meg Ryan, Dennis Franz, Andre Braugher.
“City of Angels” is an American remake of the highly acclaimed German film “Wings of Desire.” Cage plays an angel who watches over humans and then guides them to Heaven after their deaths. While waiting to guide a heart surgery patient to the other side he falls in love with the doctor (Meg Ryan) who is trying to save the man. He decides to try to become human so he can be with the doctor.
12. GUARDING TESS (1994)
Director: Hugh Wilson. Writers: Hugh Wilson, Peter Torokvei. Starring Shirley MacLaine, Austin Pendleton, Edward Albert.
After her Oscar winning performance in “Terms of Endearment” Shirley MacLaine seemed to specialize in playing difficult and crabby women in such films as “Steel Magnolias,” “Madame Sousatska” and this film. Here MacLaine plays the widow of a former U.S. President and Cage is a Secret Service agent assigned to protect her. The two have a cantankerous relationship but there true affection for each other is exposed after MacLaine is kidnapped and Cage helps rescue her.
11. MATCHSTICK MEN (2003)
Director: Ridley Scott. Writers: Ted Griffin, Nicholas Griffin. Starring Sam Rockwell, Allison Lohman, Bruce McGill.
Cage has an interesting role in this Ridley Scott drama. He plays a desperately unhappy man suffering from tourette’s syndrome (which causes him to say things including obscenities that he does’t want to) and obsessive compulsive disorder (which causes him to perform certain rituals and gives him certain phobias.) He works swindling people into paying too much for overpriced water filtration systems. He is then scammed himself by his business partner and a woman he believes to be his daughter.
10. THE ROCK (1996)
Director: Michael Bay. Writers: David Weisberg, Douglas S. Cook, Mark Rosner. Starring Sean Connery, Ed Harris, Michael Biehn.
One of Cage’s biggest box office successes came during his action hero phase with this dynamic action thriller from director and special effects maven Michael Bay. Cage plays an FBI Special Agent. The plot involves a takeover of Alcatraz State Prison by a rogue group of U.S. Marines. Cage teams with Sean Connery to fight off the takeover.
9. NATIONAL TREASURE (2004)
Director: Jon Turteltaub. Writers: Jim Kouf, Cormac Wibberley, Marianne Wibberley. Starring Jon Voight, Harvey Keitel, Christopher Plummer.
Cage had another huge action/adventure hit with this thriller about a historian and amateur cryptologist. He spends his days hunting down lost treasure and jewels dating back to ancient Egypt. The success of the film spawned a sequel entitled “National Treasure: Book of Secrets.”
8. HONEYMOON IN VEGAS (1992)
Director and writer: Andrew Bergman. Starring James Caan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Pat Morrita.
Cage has one of his best comic roles and earned a Golden Globe Nomination for Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical for this film about a man who loses his fiance in a poker game to a widowed professional gambler played by James Caan. In order to pay back the money he owes Caan, Cage agrees to have his future wife spend one weekend with Caan without any sexual involvement. When the gambler takes the fiance to Hawaii Cage embarks on a frustrating trip to get her back involving everything including sky diving with Elvis impersonators.
7. FACE/OFF (1997)
Director: John Woo. Writer: Mike Werb, Michael Colleary. Starring John Travolta, Joan Allen, Gina Gershon.
This innovative thriller from action maestro John Woo involves an FBI agent who undergoes a futuristic procedure that replaces his face with that of a terrorist (Cage) he is trying to catch. The plot becomes more intricate when the terrorist assumes the face of the FBI agent launching the film into a complicated plot where no one quite knows who is who in the film.
6. RAISING ARIZONA (1987)
Director: Joel Coen. Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen. Starring Holly Hunter, John Goodman, Frances McDormand.
This film marked the first main stream film release for the Coen brothers and also introduced movie audiences to a bright young talent named Holly Hunter. Cage plays a petty thief who is frequently arrested for robbing convenience stores. Hunter plays a police officer he meets while under arrest who he asks to marry him. Due to infertility the couple can’t have children so they decide to kidnap one of a recent set of quintuplets that were born. Hunter’s thick southern accent and total domination of Cage as she screams at him to “go up there and get me a toddler!!!” is a great comic film moment.
5. PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED (1986)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola. Writers: Jerry Leichtling, Arlene Sarner. Starring Kathleen Turner, Barry Miller, Joan Allen.
This film explores the topic of if given the chance to relive your life in a different way, would you take it? Kathleen Turner stars as Peggy Sue a woman who has just left her philandering husband. At her 25th high school reunion she faints and mysteriously wakes up back in high school. Turner received what is surprisingly her only Oscar nomination to date as Best Actress. Cage got a lot of flack for the accent and speech patterns he chose to use in the film but despite that controversy this remains an interesting film that saw Cage directed by his uncle Francis Ford Coppola.
4. BIRDY (1984)
Director: Alan Parker. Writer: Sandy Kroopf, Jack Behr. Starring Matthew Modine, John Harkins, Bruno Kirby.
“Birdy” is a beautiful sometimes overlooked film from director Alan Parker whose credits include such fine films as “Fame,” “Shoot the Moon,” and “Midnight Express.” The story based on a beloved book tells the story of two friends from Pennsylvania who go to war together in Vietnam. Birdy played by Matthew Modine is named that because of his fascination with birds. Cage plays his loyal friend who tries to save his friend when he returns from Vietnam so traumatized he believes he has actually become a bird.
3. MOONSTRUCK (1987)
Director: Norman Jewison. Writer: John Patrick Shanley. Starring Cher, Olympia Dukakis, Vincent Gardenia.
This beloved film won Cher, Olympia Dukakis, and John Patrick Shanley Oscars for Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Original Screenplay. Cage plays a mentally tormented baker who falls in love with his brother’s fiance (Cher.) The two begin an affair that leads to a night of passion and Cage professing his love for Cher. Her response of slapping him across the face and demanding he “snap out of it” is a classic movie moment and perhaps one of the best slaps ever put on film.
2. ADAPTATION (2002)
Director: Spike Jonze. Writer: Charlie Kaufman. Starring Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tilda Swinton.
Cage received his second Best Actor Oscar nomination for this film where Cage actually plays the screenwriter of the film Charlie Kaufman. Kaufman/Cage is suffering sever depression, anxiety and writer’s block when his cocky brother moves in with him and works on his own screenplay. Cage who was often accused of getting too hammy in some of his performances here is wonderfully sedate as the shy screenwriter desperately trying to write a book about flowers.
1. LEAVING LAS VEGAS (1995)
Director and writer: Mike Figgis. Starring Elizabeth Shue, Julian Sands, Richard Lewis.
Cage won the Best Actor Oscar and practically every other award there is for this story of an alcoholic who decides to drink himself to death on a trip to Las Vegas. While there he strikes up a doomed love affair with a hooker played by Elizabeth Shue. The film rejuvenated the careers of both Cage and Shue who were working actors but neither had ever before risen to the level of accalim this film brought them.