Film: Raising Arizona
Demeanor: A mixture of suave, Southernly charm, and enough manic facial tics to make you wonder if he's having a stroke every other scene.
Hair Quality: Tall, and often sideways.
Performance Quality: Ten Cages out of Ten.
A hundred years from now, when film students and scholars of the post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland discuss the sublimely weird cinema of the past, three names will invariably come up again and again in their discussions: Joel and Ethan Coen, and Nicolas Cage.
Think of the respective catalogs of both these entities. The Coen Brothers, often seen as one singular creature of cinematic weirdness, have somehow built a legitimately successful career out of making movies that most indie filmmakers would have nightmares about trying to get produced. Certainly they started out as struggling filmmakers initially, but in the years since films like The Big Lebowski, Fargo, and yes, Raising Arizona have gone on to become cult classics, the brothers have repeatedly avoided any possible aspersions of going soft on their inherently odd tendencies. Their entire catalog is as easily definable as being "Coensian" as it is utterly undefinable otherwise. These guys don't just shirk genre classification; they defeat genre classification.
And then there is Our Greatest Living Actor. More force than archetypal actor, the breadth of Cage's film catalog (which we've only scratched the surface of thus far) is practically a tribute to the unexpected. There are precious few moments where you can look a Nicolas Cage film in the eye, and say, "That was a totally mundane, mainstream performance." Those films are the aberration to a catalog predicated on being "out there," even when the script calls for no such thing. Nicolas Cage does not merely celebrate weird; he embodies it.
In 1986, when these magnificent filmmakers and Our Greatest Living Actor got together to make Raising Arizona, something magical must have been in the air. Just the Coens' second project, and Cage's eighth, the mixture of the Coens' off-kilter sensibilities and Cage's malleable facial features seemed like providence. Watching Cage, alongside great actors to come like Holly Hunter, John Goodman, and William Forsythe, embrace the nuttiness of the Coens' vision wholeheartedly makes you stand up and take notice of just how far ahead of their time all of these people really were. Were I watching Raising Arizona for the first time back upon its release in 1987, I'd have been salivating at the possibility of many more Coens/Cage team-ups to come.
That those team-ups never arrived is a puzzling, tragic thing that perhaps was the only way it could have been.
Before we get into any of that, a brief refresher. In Raising Arizona, Nicolas Cage is H.I. McDunnough, a multiple-time loser who finds himself drifting in and out of the Arizona penal system. His criminal vice of choice is of the classic "convenience store robbery" ilk. H.I. just can't help himself, it seems; that is, until he meets the woman of his dreams in the unlikeliest of places. While posing for his mugshot following one of his many incarcerations, H.I. meets Edwina (Holly Hunter), or Ed, as she's simply referred to throughout the film. H.I. is love-struck from the get-go, perhaps even falling out of favor with the law a few extra times just to have the opportunity to talk to sweet Ed. Upon his final paroling, H.I. arrives at the station for the first time as a free man, begging Ed to become his wife.
Their love is strangely beautiful, optimistic, and off-puttingly intense. Once the home and job situations are put to bed, they set about starting a family. Unfortunately, the revelation comes to light that Ed is "barren" (her words, not mine) and thus unable to bear children. A family without children is akin to an armed robbery without a stocking mask, so they begin the painful process of trying to adopt, only to find H.I.'s criminal history all but blacklists them from such a plan.
Then, like a gift from the morally-skewed Heavens, the McDunnough family learns of the newly born Arizona quintuplets. Born to the wealthy furniture store chain owner Nathan Arizona and his rather plain wife, the five babies give H.I. and Ed a peculiar idea. With five babies to care for, the Arizonas must surely be overwhelmed. Surely they wouldn't fret over the loss of one little baby, would they?
To any normal person, such a question likely wouldn't even be considered. But to the desperate mind of Ed, so anxious to give her love to child that she cannot bear herself, and to the criminally-oriented brain of H.I., who has bent the law for his own sake more times than can be counted, it all makes a kind of twisted logical sense.
After a brief kidnapping, the McDunnoughs bring the baby home. But it's not long before kinks in their plan start to emerge. Two of H.I.'s former prison mates--a pair of greaser brothers played by Goodman and Forsythe--escape prison and come to the McDunnough home looking for a place to crash, while H.I.'s boss (played by the great late '80s, early '90s movie slimeball Sam McMurray) fires H.I. after a physical altercation, and threatens to tell the police about their crime if they don't give the baby to him and his wife (played by the great Frances McDormand in an all-too-brief role). And then there's the little matter of Leonard Smalls (the also great Randall "Tex" Cobb), a demonic renegade biker who looks like he just wandered out of Beyond Thunderdome. Smalls is on the hunt for the missing baby for the sake of earning a hefty reward, and even seems to have a strange, psychic connection to H.I.
Okay, so that wasn't a brief refresher, but to be fair, there's quite a bit going on in Raising Arizona. As we eventually came to expect of all Coen films, Raising Arizona is densely packed with characters, affectations, metaphors, references to various films and literature, and a strange sense of humor that would eventually become the staple of the Coens' most cherished works.
It is also a film that contains one of the single greatest Nicolas Cage performances of record. As H.I. McDunnough, Cage stretches his face, his voice, and overall demeanor in so many different ways he might as well be an old Warner Bros. cartoon character. And yet, there is a character at the heart of all those gesticulations and screams. It doesn't take long for the audience to get in rhythm with Cage's portrayal of H.I. From the opening narration, where H.I. describes his various brush-ups against the law, and subsequent courting of Ed, you immediately like him. He might be kind of a dirtbag, but he's a loving, kind-hearted dirtbag.
Of interest is the fact that little of H.I. came directly from Cage himself. After all, Cage is nothing if not famous for introducing peculiar affects and seemingly unnecessary traits to his characters. It's a tendency that has gotten him in some trouble previously--most notably on the set of Peggy Sue Got Married, where his Pokey-esque vocal inflection apparently inspired the majority of the cast to conspire to have him fired from the project. And yet, directors continued to hire him, including such budding artists as the Coens.
We know now, many years after the release of Raising Arizona and its cult favoritism had fully taken hold, that the Coens are notoriously strict when it comes to their vision. Practically everything you see in a Coens film is meticulously crafted well ahead of shooting. The script for Raising Arizona took them three and a half months just to write, and many more months of storyboarding in order to prepare the shoot.
As a result, the relationship between Cage and the Coens was perhaps doomed to be a solitary affair. Cage's inherent desire to create his own character on the fringes of a director's vision was something that was never going to play with them. They weren't interested in his suggestions (of which he reportedly had several) during shooting. This isn't a scenario where we discover that Cage and one of the Coens got into some kind of fist fight, or what have you. While there were reportedly disagreements between the director and star, it all stayed respectful, and Cage obviously stuck with the production.
That said, given this insight, that may explain why the Coens never again chose to work with Our Greatest Living Actor. Despite seeming like a perfect match, their totalitarian vision of filmmaking and Cage's more spur-of-the-moment, devil-may-care attitude clearly weren't designed for one another.
And thus, the only fruit this combination bore was that of Raising Arizona. But what a fruit it turned out to be. While only a modest success at the box office, the film has become, for all intents and purposes, one of the films that comes to mind when you mention the Coens and/or Nic Cage. Its crazed blend of hyperactive energy and legitimate heart at its core is something so many comedies try desperately to do, but end up failing in one area or the other.
No matter how far the rabbit hole H.I. and Ed fall, you never stop loving them as characters. Cage and Hunter are supremely good together, and embody the inherent oddness of the McDunnough's while somehow still making them relatable as human beings. It doesn't matter if H.I. is running through the streets with a stocking over his head trying to flee the cops while keeping a firm grip on a case of Huggies, or if he's fighting off a post-apocalyptic baby hunter while contorting his face like an early-stage stroke victim. H.I. is a character you can believe in, no matter how unrealistic his circumstances may become.
It's because of this that I consider the role of H.I. McDunnough to be one of Cage's very best performances. It's all of the peculiarity we've come to expect from Cage, as well as the ability to craft a true-feeling personality underneath all that weirdness. This isn't sideshow attraction Cage, nor is this sappy, sentimental Cage. It's the crazy and the brilliant all rolled up into one.
- I know I spoke precious little of the work of both John Goodman and William Forsythe in the body of this piece, but let me just take an opportunity here to say, without question, that they are masterful in this movie. That moment where Goodman lifts Forsythe up out of their mud-logged prison tunnel by the ankle is a moment forever etched in my brain.
- Randall "Tex" Cobb apparently didn't even know how to ride a motorcycle prior to Raising Arizona, which is funny and also a bit tragic, given that he was mostly typecast as a biker type in the majority of his film roles to come. Most notably as the villainous Ben Dover in Fletch Lives.
- On the subject of his wonderfully akimbo hair style in Raising Arizona, Cage attributed the haircut to simply being the natural quality of his hair. As he said to James Lipton on an episode of Inside the Actors Studio, "That was just me." Of course such a bizarre haircut should be so effortless, no?
- Upon rewatching Raising Arizona for this feature, I became intensely curious as to what had become of Trey Wilson, the actor who played the loud-mouthed, yet surprisingly sensitive Nathan Arizona, Sr. It turns out, he died just a short couple of years after Arizona's release at the young age of 40. A terrible shame, as he seemed like an actor primed for great character work.
- On the subject of H.I.'s bizarre facial tics, especially in the presence of Randall Cobb, Cage also told Lipton that he wanted to give H.I. "kind of a Jekyll and Hyde" quality that occurred whenever Cobb came on screen. Why? Better question: why not?