There can be no doubt that many of Cage's odd career choices have been motivated by a combination of the actor's personal vanity and his gargantuan spending habits. (Until his recent near-bankruptcy, Cage owned at least 13 homes, including a Bavarian castle and two entire islands in the Bahamas. In 2007, he won a bidding war against Leonardo DiCaprio for a 67-million-year-old dinosaur skull.) But in the latest phase of his career—let's say post-2004, the year of the first National Treasure movie—Cage seems to have moved beyond the concept of "selling out" into a realm that weds schlock and art. When he writhes in agony beneath a mask of bees at the end of Neil LaBute's otherwise dreadful 2006 remake of the cult horror classic The Wicker Man ("No! Not the bees!"), Cage resembles no actor so much as Vincent Price in the early '60s Roger Corman adaptations of Poe stories—movies that were made as cheap potboilers but now play as minor pop masterpieces in large part thanks to Price's craftsmanlike dedication.
When Cage takes on these outsize B-movie roles, I don't believe for a moment that he is just nodding wearily to his agent (and his accountant). I think he's fulfilling a vision, albeit one that looks inscrutable from the outside, of choosing roles in the kind of movies he himself loves. Remember that Cage is a lifelong devotee of comic books—his collection was auctioned off for $1.6 million in 2002—and that he named his second son Kal-El, after the birth name of Superman. Cage may mix lowbrow and high, but with rare exceptions ( Matchstick Men, The Weather Man), he doesn't do straightforward middlebrow dramas. And his high and low choices have a lot in common: Both evince the taste of a man drawn to extremes of experience.
Cage may have provided an encoded, National Treasure-style map to what he was up to in his career when he said, in an oft-quoted interview: "I am not a demon. I am a lizard, a shark, a heat-seeking panther. I want to be Bob Denver on acid playing the accordion." In this scene from Bad Lieutenant, as Cage's rogue cop character takes a hit from his "lucky crack pipe" and then cackles with glee at iguanas and breakdancing corpses invisible to everyone but him, I'd argue that Cage is finally fulfilling that dream.
Correction, July 26, 2010: This article incorrectly identified Corman's Poe adaptations as having appeared in the late '60s.
TODAY IN SLATE
The Right Target
Why Obama’s airstrikes against ISIS may be more effective than people expect.
Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?
Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.
I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights
Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.
It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice
In Defense of HR
Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.