Demeanor: Goofy, charming, with a subtle hint of mania.
Hair Quality: Poofy, dyed, magnificent.
Performance Quality: Fast Times: One Cage out of Ten; Valley Girl: Seven Cages out of Ten
Trying to predict the arc of an actor's career is generally not a useful way to spend one's time. The careers of Hollywood's elite and bottom rungs are defined as much by the capricious tastes of the filmgoing audience as they are their own particular talents. Picking projects is an endless game of Russian Roulette. Who's to say which teen sex comedy, for instance, will hit versus which one will flop? Movies with huge star power fail all the time, while sometimes movies with no identifiable stars become all-time classics. Whether or not your career launches into the stratosphere or continues on stuck in first gear for the rest of your life depends entirely on whether or not that one film hits at the right time.
For many actors we've come to know as stars today, Fast Times at Ridgemont High was that seemingly random launching pad. Hell, is there any film of the 1980s more directly responsible for launching significant acting careers than Fast Times at Ridgemont High? Though nearly every major actor featured in the film had some kind of prior experience, it's safe to say that the likes of Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates, and Sean Penn owe a good deal of their massive success throughout the '80s (and in some cases, beyond) to the slightly insane runaway success of the 1982 teen comedy.
That success even extends to a number of bit players throughout the film. Eric Stoltz and Anthony Edwards both got early bits of screen time as Sean Penn's best stoner buddies. Forest Whitaker got his first really significant screen time as the revenge-seeking football player. And, of course, there was one Nicolas Cage, or as he was known then, Nicolas Coppola.
Outside of a bit of extra work and a singular TV movie starring role, Nicolas Coppola was, by and large, unknown to the world in 1982. New to acting and still wrestling with the notion of whether or not his Coppola heritage (in case you didn't know, yes, he is of some relation to the great Coppola film family--Francis Ford Coppola is his direct uncle) was a boon or a hindrance to his career. His role in the film is minor, almost completely missable if you aren't keeping your eyes specifically tuned to scan for the bulging eyes, long-ish hair and non-existent personality of the actor playing a completely benign best friend character alongside Reinhold. He's a high school kid. He flips burgers at a local fast food joint. That's about it. In fact, save for a single, solitary moment of noteworthiness--an opening scene in which Cage, from behind, slaps an "I Am a Homo" sign on the back of a fellow classmate--there is no visible reason to acknowledge this role as much of anything at all.
And yet, like so many other seemingly throwaway roles in Amy Heckerling's seminal film, it helped propel Cage into the spotlight, however briefly. What exactly it was about Fast Times that hit so right at the time is still something of a mystery. Ostensibly, it's not terribly different from most other teen sex comedies of the era. Its plot is more a series of tangentially connected events that often result in decent comedy. The gags themselves don't extend too far beyond moments of hilarious embarrassment and extended stoner jokes. Also, an abundance of righteous tits.
Whatever it is about Fast Times that sticks out, it's stuck out for a very long time. The film itself is considered a classic among its genre, and again, it's brought more major film and television careers to fruition than just about any other movie of its kind I can think of, no matter how small their parts may have been at the time. That it is in any way responsible for helping to bring about Nicolas Cage's 30 years in film is something we should be thankful for.
There is something a little bit perfect about the fact that Nicolas Coppola's next role also came in a teen comedy, albeit one a tad less sex-and-drug obsessed than Fast Times. For one, 1983's Valley Girl marked the first official entry in the Nicolas Cage catalog. As the actor has explained over the years, the Coppola association made him feel like his castings weren't the result of his own talent, but simply a matter of name value. When Martha Coolidge cast the young, inexperienced Cage in Valley Girl, she had no idea he came from such a royal Hollywood lineage, a fact that gave Cage a great deal more confidence in tackling this, his first starring role.
In a sense, he graduated from Nicolas Coppola, the maybe decent actor who gets jobs because his family is famous, to Nicolas Cage the leading man, the actor we would eventually come to know as one of the most memorable, bizarre, and lovable actors the last 30 years of cinema have ever seen.
Though Cage's profile is upped significantly in Valley Girl, it's still kind of amazing to think that this, of all movies, would be the true launching point for the career that follows. Elements of what we will eventually come to know as Cage's trademark style are present, albeit in lower doses than we've become accustomed to over the years. If Cage's career is a long series of radiation bursts, then Valley Girl is like an elongated chest x-ray compared with the nuclear meltdowns that will come down the line.
Still, there are plenty of Cage-ian moments to love in this tale of a preppy, proper girl from the San Fernando Valley (Deborah Foreman) who hastily falls in love with an interloping Hollywood kid from the other side of the hill (Cage) who crashes a Valley party one fateful night. As the poofy-haired, punked out Randy, Cage and his best buddy Fred (Cameron Dye) are like a weird cross between post-punk miscreants and the sort of 20-somethings you might see wandering out of a Cars concert circa-1983. Their spiky hair, oi boy suspenders and shitty-only-when-compared-with-the-uptight-white-kids-in-the-Valley attitudes are roughly as threatening as any song Ric Ocasek has ever written.
And yet, compared with the primordial Young Republicans they're up against, they look like demons sent from the seventh level of Hell. Foreman's friends are mall chicks of the utmost degree, trading Valley-oriented dialogue that, in 2011, sounds like it's been written for a modern sketch making fun of what we think we remember '80s teen comedies to be like. Except in 1983, this was an honest play at authenticity. Writers Wayne Crawford and Andrew Lane made an earnest attempt to capture the "Like, as if!" and "Barf to the max" parlance of the Valley's unique subset of upper middle class, white bread America. Even then it must have sounded vaguely alien to the rest of America, but suffice it to say, people like this existed--though it's questionable whether their dedication to sushi spreads at parent-supervised parties, pop-music dancing sleepovers in panties and tank-tops, and dating practices based solely on high school political hierarchies aren't, in some way, exaggerated.
Still, Foreman's Julie almost immediately falls for the dangerous bad boy from the extravagantly dangerous streets of Hollywood. After all, despite getting his ass kicked by her boyfriend Tommy (Michael Bowen, who you may recognize as one of the actors who went on from the '80s to play every middle-aged asshole character in every movie ever), Randy just isn't going to give up on her. To show her just how into her he is, he sneaks back into the house's bathroom, and crashes in the shower for what must have been hours, watching teenager after teenager wander into the room to smoke, make out, or actually use the facilities. When Julie does finally come in, she's so dazzled by the fact that this dude took the time to hang out inside a suburban bathroom, stalking around until she showed up, that of course she agrees to come out with him. After dragging an unwilling friend along, they're in the car and heading to Hollywood for what might be the longest montage of neon signs for relatively boring businesses in human history.
Valley Girl's idea of dangerous scenery is almost quaint in this day and age. When the girls freak out at the sight of dancing black people, it's almost kind of adorable how totally blatant and utterly unnecessary their apparent racism is. Cage, being the nogoodnik that he is, can identify several of the "minorities" by name, a fact that seems to impress Julie all the more. You can imagine how totally freaky it is when Cage takes them into a Hollywood bar--one that he himself presumably ought not be able to get into, since he proclaims to be going to Hollywood High School at the time.
For as much as Valley Girl's script tries to establish Cage as some kind of vagabond rebel without a cause, it also makes painstaking efforts to make him seem as accessibly dreamy as possible. His rebelliousness seemingly dissipates the second he gets around Julie's friends and family. It's almost disarming how friendly and unassuming he looks talking to Julie's parents, who in a bit of Reagan-era commentary on the burgeoning yuppie generation, are crispy ex-hippies who own a vegetarian restaurant. Their peace-and-love mentality all but ensures their complacence when it comes to their daughter dating someone other than the most jockish and Aryan man she can find--AKA what her friends would much prefer she go for.
Teen comedies of the era are known for this sort of thing. Fast Times, in the rare instances it tossed in true peril or problems for its characters, were mostly pretty low-key, and generally came to a quick and unassuming conclusion. In Valley Girl, though Julie's friends and ex-boyfriend conspire against her Romeo & Juliet-esque relationship with the vile Randy, her parents seemingly couldn't give less of a remote shit. No war of houses ever erupts, save for the war between popped collars and dyed hair, which amounts to little more than a few skirmishes here and there, and the occasional Junior Prom food fight.
What makes Valley Girl a distinctively Nicolas Cage movie is how Cage weaves between the two sides of the equation. When he's around Julie, he plays up the rebelliousness just a bit to give himself an air of confidence and swagger that transcends the other males that typically occupy her general orbit. But when he's talking to his buddy Fred, or Julie's dad, that swagger morphs into a more charming, low-key likability. He smiles lazily, but without that stoner-droopiness that so many characters of the era like him often fall back on.
And yes, there's even a bit of the trademark Nicolas Cage crazy on display. At no point does he ever go full-Cage, but after things with Julie go south and Randy is suddenly single, his initial lashing out results in a blustery, "Fuck off, for sure! Like totally!" that, quite frankly, sounds like it could just as easily have come out of the mouth of two dozen other enraged Cage characters. As he begins engaging in increasingly stalker-ish antics--including, but not limited to, randomly pretending to be a ticket taker at a local movie theater that Julie is at, and crashing in a sleeping bag on Julie's front lawn--sparks of the Cage crazy we will all come to know and love flicker in the dark. It's the embryonic phase of a style of acting that will eventually be unmistakable.
For this reason, Valley Girl is essential Cage material. It might not be the actor at the peak of his game, but it's the first noteworthy foray into the realm of Cage-ian mega-acting on record. To truly understand something, one must absolutely learn how that thing has come to be. In the case of Nicolas Cage, you can't understand the man's method, style, and unmistakable essence without first seeing how it all began. While Fast Times at Ridgemont High is all-too-fleeting an example to offer any tangible insight, Valley Girl is the unskippable opening chapter in the Book of Cage. To miss it is to lack a central knowledge that will benefit you in all things Cage from here until the end of his career.
- How great is it that Nicolas Cage is present in the two greatest anthropological records we have of what shopping malls in the 1980s looked like?
- How double great is it that the world's first real introduction to Nicolas Cage involves him shirtless, running up out of the ocean, while a chorus of babes coos about "what a hunk!" he is? And how, sisters!
- Valley Girl easily belongs among the greatest examples (alongside the likes of Desperately Seeking Susan and Say Anything) of movies that taught young women that stalking was totally romantic, and not at all creepy. It's honestly a wonder that an entire generation of women wasn't lost due to mistaking the overtures of a murderous stalker for mere romanticism.
- Just in case it wasn't completely clear that Valley Girl is loosely based on Romeo & Juliet, there is literally a scene in the movie where Randy and Julie are kissing underneath a movie theater marquee with the title ROMEO & JULIET prominently displayed. Here it is! Talk about removing any and all guesswork for the audience.
- The scene where Nicolas Cage returns to his favorite bar after being dumped by Julie is quite possibly the greatest/longest/greatest scene of a man indulging in booze and casual sex in a public bathroom ever recorded on film.
- Favorite throwaway character detail about Randy: The random American flag pin he wears on his bitchin' black vest.
- Fun fact: Julie's slutty best friend went on to become Dottie in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure.
- Courtesy of another man who tried (and apparently failed) to complete the task I've now begun, here's a quick recap of some of Cage's greatest moments in Valley Girl. Ad perpetuam memoriam, 365 Days of Cage Guy.
Next Week: Rumble Fish
Full schedule here.