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When Nicolas Cage Became the Biggest Action Star of the ’90s

In this exclusive excerpt from ‘Age of Cage,’ Keith Phipps chronicles how Hollywood’s most singular actor stepped into the role of blockbuster hero with ‘The Rock,’ ‘Con Air,’ and ‘Face/Off’

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The following is an edited excerpt adapted from Age of Cage: Four Decades of Hollywood Through One Singular Career, by Keith Phipps, arriving March 29 from Henry Holt publishers.

By 1995, the old, reliable ways of making action films had started to feel too old and not reliable enough. It had been simpler in the ’80s, when putting guns in the hands of musclemen bent on revenge could work at every budget level, whether in blockbusters headed by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone or low-budget efforts starring Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson. By the decade’s end, the field had expanded a bit. Eddie Murphy’s success in 48 Hrs. and Beverly Hills Cop opened the gates for unlikely stars and comedic elements, setting the stage for Bruce Willis’s Everyman hero in Die Hard, films like Running Scared (which made buddy cops of Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal), and the Lethal Weapon series, in which comic moments mingled with scenes of despair and graphic violence. Paul Verhoeven and James Cameron brought in science-fiction elements and an unusual degree of thematic complexity. Yet a meat-and-potatoes style dominated the genre, which was filled with films that strained to match the skill, intensity, and fleetness Walter Hill brought to 48 Hrs. (even Hill’s own subsequent action movies).

The new decade found the genre in need of new ideas. While the directors Jan de Bont, John McTiernan, and Andrew Davis pushed the craftsman style forward with the films Speed, Die Hard, and The Fugitive, respectively, these films looked tradition-bound compared to trends emerging elsewhere. In France, Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita and Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva helped create what became known as cinéma du look, which brought moody disaffection and striking visuals inspired by music videos and advertising to the action genre. The combination echoed and intensified the work of commercial- and video-inspired directors already working in Hollywood, like Tony Scott. Even more radical innovations would come from Hong Kong, where directors Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam, and John Woo set the elements of American action films to offbeat rhythms and made disturbing poetry out of bloodshed and stories of betrayal and twisted loyalties. Both approaches held a funhouse mirror up to the Hollywood action film. As the decade progressed, the Hollywood action film would itself start to resemble these innovative distortions.

It also needed new stars. Stallone became a hit-or-miss box-office draw, and Schwarzenegger started to branch out into comedy, scaling back on his action work apart from collaborations with Cameron and Verhoeven. Where martial artists Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme once seemed poised to take their place, both found sustained success at the blockbuster level elusive. Maybe the public didn’t want musclemen anymore. Maybe they wanted more unlikely heroes. Maybe they wanted Cage.

Over the course of a career in which he’d encounter rejection, distrust, and dislike, Michael Bay had learned to turn the chip on his shoulder into the source of his power. He’d gotten into movies early, taking a job as an intern at Lucasfilm at 15, helping out on a movie that he thought would be a disaster until he saw it cut together: Raiders of the Lost Ark. After studying English and film at Wesleyan University, Bay returned to his hometown of Los Angeles to further his education. Like Raiders director Steven Spielberg, he’d been turned down by the prestigious film program at USC and had to settle for his second choice, the respected but less sexy ArtCenter College of Design, in Pasadena. But to Bay, anything could be made sexy, even Donny Osmond. After graduating, Bay broke into the music video business directing Osmond’s music video “Sacred Emotion,” a 1989 attempt to reinvent the clean-scrubbed ’70s fixture as a late-1980s pop star. The song sounded like a George Michael hand-me-down, but the video—a quick-cut barrage of largely monochromatic images of shirtless men and suggestively clad women building a barn in the desert—did what Bay was hired to do: push a familiar product by putting it in an irresistible new package.

Bay pressed on, scoring a job at Propaganda Films, a production house that became the first call for every artist wanting to make a cool video or attention-getting ad from the mid-1980s through much of the ’90s. (The company also had a busy film wing, with productions that included Wild at Heart and Red Rock West.) It wasn’t an easy fit. A core group of slightly older directors had founded the company, and though they asked Bay to join, that didn’t necessarily make them fans of his work. This was especially true of David Fincher, Propaganda’s most in-demand, and expensive, director, whom others at Propaganda recall having a fraught relationship with Bay. This didn’t stop the two from being compared to each other, if not always flatteringly. Veteran record executive Jeff Ayeroff recalled Bay being pitched to him as “the little Fincher” and described as a director who’s “not as artistic, but he’s got drive, he’s gonna chew through everything.”

Bay could perform a sort of alchemy for uncool clients like Vanilla Ice or the band Winger. He could help push 1970s fixture Meat Loaf to an unlikely ’90s comeback via a string of elaborate videos. He could create a buzzy ad for the least buzzy product imaginable: milk, as he did with a 1993 contribution to the Got Milk? campaign in which a history buff struggles to utter the name “Aaron Burr” to win a prize on a radio show thanks to a mouthful of peanut butter and an empty carton of milk. But every success meant Bay just had more to prove. He leapt to features in 1995 with Bad Boys, starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. But getting hired by producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer—connoisseurs of flash who’d brought the MTV aesthetic to movies via films like Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop, and Top Gun—seemed less like a triumph than an invitation to struggle: against those who didn’t believe two Black stars could headline an action movie, against stars who didn’t always understand his vision, and against a budget he felt was too low. (Bay even paid for one explosive shot out of his own pocket.) “I had to compete with the $120 million Arnold Schwarzenegger movie True Lies, which was coming out at the same time,” Bay later recalled. “So I used everything I ever learned in videos and commercials on Bad Boys. I made fast cuts and shook the camera; anything to make it look different.”

It looked, for the first time, like a Michael Bay movie, an American variation on the cinéma du look that seemed determined to make an impact on other senses as well. Soon, a lot of movies would resemble Bay movies, or try to. Bay’s name would become shorthand for action films that privileged striking imagery and rapid cutting over classical editing styles and narrative coherence. The style would later come to be known as “Bayhem,” a dismissive term that often lumped Bay in with his imitators, or ignored the style’s connection to one of Bay’s biggest influences: Hollywood musicals, particularly the films of Busby Berkeley, a spiritual godfather in his use of unexpected angles and kaleidoscopic compositions. It didn’t always work, and Bay’s later films would dip more frequently toward Bayhem, but The Rock largely finds Bay bringing a considered method to what could sometimes seem like a random assault of shots strung together in an attempt to overwhelm viewers’ senses.

Where actors fit in wasn’t always clear. Where an actor with strong artistic opinions and a habit of making eccentric choices fit in, even less so.

The Rock’s script had been floating around for a while and was largely considered a good idea in need of repair and reshaping. That idea: a group of soldiers takes over Alcatraz and threatens to unleash a deadly gas on the city of San Francisco if their demands for money to aid families of soldiers who died on unacknowledged covert missions aren’t met. The finished script would bear the work of many, including several uncredited writers and leads Cage, Sean Connery, and Ed Harris. It would also feature a concussive soundtrack, brutal violence, more explosions than the average action film, and, because Bay thought the middle sagged a bit, an out-of-nowhere car chase through the streets of San Francisco. In the cinema of excess, the word gratuitous could have no meaning.

This didn’t mean that the right actor couldn’t provide some grace notes. To Cage, working in the action genre was like learning a new style of music. He’d been thinking about music a lot those days. Talking to Roger Ebert after Leaving Las Vegas’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, he’d divided the film into three acts, comparing the first to blues, the second to jazz, and the third to opera. One of his contributions had been to have his character, Ben, sing a bit from Wagner’s Parsifal—an opera that Cage knew from growing up in a home where, thanks to August Coppola, music played constantly—as he entered the final stages of his descent. For an actor unafraid of big emotions, looking to opera for inspiration just made sense.

He needed other rhythms to make his characters work, however. On the set of Vegas, he’d used bongos to help work out the cadence of his delivery. Sometimes the characters emerged from the rhythms he created. “I’ll start to use movements and vocal inflections, and it really becomes more or less musical for me,” he explained in an audio commentary recorded for The Rock. “I feel quite comfortable with it on a musical level, where I can find rhythms and really hit the notes, which are the words, in ways I think will have a certain panache. Or sometimes I’ll get into a mode where I don’t want to think about it, and I’ll allow myself two bars—I say two bars metaphorically—just like a couple of sentences where I’m not going to think about it at all, and whatever happens accidentally will be interesting for me or not. And then I’ll get back to what I’ve already choreographed or figured out beforehand.” Elsewhere, he likened his work to “jazz riffs.” He planned up to the point where he gave himself the freedom to throw out the plan.

Music wasn’t a new influence. Where others heard Pokey the claymation horse in his Peggy Sue Got Married performance, Cage thought it akin to Lou Reed’s work in the Velvet Underground, an out-of-tune delivery that took songs places they might otherwise not have gone. For The Rock, he looked to Miles Davis and the Beatles for inspiration. His contributions to his character, FBI Special Agent Dr. Stanley Goodspeed, included making Goodspeed into a self-described Beatlemaniac willing to spend $600 on an original vinyl LP because it sounds better. Cage’s contributions to the character didn’t stop there. He helped reshape Goodspeed into a profanity-averse nerd more comfortable discussing the science of chemical weapons than wielding a gun. He’s a wide-eyed, earnest good citizen surrounded by jaded pros. Already an odd fit for an action movie, Cage makes being an odd fit a part of the character. Musically speaking, he’s the “off ” beat that gives the film a curious, alluring rhythm that even rocket launchers can’t drown out.

With some exceptions, critics generally approved of the film, sometimes because of Bay’s style, sometimes in spite of it. In the Austin Chronicle, Marc Savlov called it “a ridiculously overblown summer testosterone blowout.” Others balked at the style but found a redeeming factor in Cage. “There isn’t a shot, scene or sequence in The Rock that doesn’t move furiously, typically with colored lights flashing into our faces or onto those of the actors,” Gene Siskel wrote in the Chicago Tribune. “The phrase ‘all frosting and no cake’ comes to mind,” he continued, but Siskel found a bit of cake in Cage and Connery’s chemistry. Closer to the film’s fictional home, San Francisco Examiner critic Barbara Shulgasser felt that Cage’s contributions helped temper Bay’s excesses, calling him “one of the few actors working in movies today able to play a square, conservative science nerd with enough ingenuity and audacity to make him utterly winning. Goodspeed is a gentleman, a scholar, a romantic, a patriot, and a decent person. Plus, he’s funny. Although Cage has bulked up to play roughnecks convincingly, I think his gift is as a comedian. He has the touch. He’s reedy and vulnerable, graceful and whippet-like. And he has great timing.” Jazz-inspired timing, it could even be said.

The Rock became one of the biggest hits of a summer season that included Independence Day, Twister, and the Brian De Palma–directed Mission: Impossible. It also turned Nicolas Cage into an action star, a slot that had seemed impossible for him to return to after the disastrous Fire Birds. There’s an unkind, and inaccurate, way to read this development, one of an actor cashing in on his artistic success via a blockbuster paycheck. But Cage had already lined up The Rock before winning the Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas, a film whose existence Bay learned about only after The Rock had entered production. Cage soon secured his next film, too, another Bruckheimer-produced action movie, called Con Air, Bruckheimer’s first project without Simpson, who’d died of a drug overdose as The Rock filmed. In an interview with Siskel, Cage spoke of two ulterior motives for taking these roles: a desire to bring more “risk-taking” acting to the genre and the hope that success at this level would help green-light more artistically adventurous independent films, an echo of the desire expressed in his Best Actor acceptance speech.

The Rock itself doubles as an unkind reading of Cage’s new direction. Where Goodspeed begins the film as a gun-shy lab rat prone to creative, profanity-skirting exclamations like “How in the name of Zeus’s butthole did you get out of your cell?” he ends it as an F-word-spouting killing machine of the sort seen in countless action films. Did the action genre invariably sand away the rough edges that made an actor compelling? In the end, did that sort of music have any room for jazz riffs?

Yet, as one action film begot another, Cage’s work in the genre found him taking chance after chance, even when the movies didn’t. Con Air paired him with another veteran Propaganda director, Simon West, who used the film as an opportunity to transition from videos and commercials to features. Like Bay, West brought the flash and frenetic energy of his past work to the action film. He didn’t, however, bring Bay’s command or consistency. Con Air is Bayhem without the vision—something that was already becoming the prevailing Hollywood action film aesthetic.

Then again, Con Air didn’t necessarily require that much vision. Scripted by Scott Rosenberg, then best known for the witty, dialogue-heavy 1996 drama Beautiful Girls, the film starts with an unabashedly dopey premise and then sees how far it can run with it. Cage plays Cameron Poe, a discharged Army Ranger who, in the film’s opening scenes, accidentally kills a creep harassing his pregnant wife and ends up sentenced to a lengthy prison stretch miles away from his Alabama home. Released early, he hitches a ride back home on a prison transport plane filled with the nation’s nastiest criminals (played by John Malkovich, Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames, and Danny Trejo, among other familiar indie movie faces). When his fellow prisoners hijack the plane, Poe is all that stands between them and mayhem.

The movie refuses to take itself seriously, which is both its most charming quality and its most wearying. It does, however, give Cage, sporting long hair and a sleeveless T-shirt for most of the film, an opportunity to bring a surprising amount of gravitas to lines like “Put the bunny back in the box!” yelled as he protects a stuffed animal he plans to give to the daughter he knows only from letters, and to a scene in which he savors his first breath of air as a free man (a wordless moment that would later become a favorite GIF). He’s in tune with the film’s absurdity yet never winks. But, unlike with The Rock, Cage doesn’t feel essential to the film, or a key element of its creative fabric. For the first time in a while, he doesn’t seem to be playing a character only he could have played. He’s more actor than the part requires, which can be said of most of the cast, including John Cusack, here making his first foray into action films.

Having an overqualified cast didn’t hurt the film, or its commercial prospects, however. Con Air debuted on June 6, 1997, to mixed reviews, with even champions like The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley half-apologizing for liking such a “preposterous, predictable, but excessively entertaining” film. This didn’t scare off moviegoers, however, who turned it into an early-summer hit. It was still hanging around a few weeks later when yet another Cage action film showed up, one that offered acting challenges beyond protecting a stuffed bunny.

John Woo grew up, to use his term, in hell. Fearing persecution under Mao Zedong because of their Christian faith, the Woo family fled Guangzhou for Hong Kong when John was 5, ending up living in a slum until a 1953 fire left them homeless. They landed in a neighborhood surrounded by crime and erupting in turf wars between local gangs. Woo’s father’s illness made the struggle to make ends meet even harder. The young Woo needed surgery on his spine, a procedure that made walking difficult for most of his boyhood. Only charity kept the family from falling through the cracks. And only two institutions kept Woo from falling into despair: his church and movie theaters, in his words, “The two places I found my heaven.”

As a filmmaker, Woo kept trying to find ways to reconcile those two places of respite. He’d worked his way up through the Hong Kong film industry in the 1970s but had struggled to find his voice until making his 1986 breakthrough, A Better Tomorrow. An ultraviolent morality play set in Hong Kong’s criminal underworld, it established Woo’s stylistic and thematic trademarks: elaborately choreographed gun battles that would soon be dubbed “gun fu,” characters whose aloof attitudes and cool outfits barely concealed their outsize emotions, carefully deployed freeze frames and unexpected moments of slow motion, broad symbolism, and a deep interest in depicting clashes between good and evil and the ways those two sides can mirror each other.

The film changed the direction not only of Woo’s career, but of Hong Kong moviemaking. Other directors took their cues from its success, putting their own spin on the action genre. Like Woo, they seemed less interested in breaking with traditional filmmaking techniques than in pumping them full of adrenaline. Woo’s follow-ups—a Better Tomorrow sequel, the brutal war film Bullet in the Head, the lighthearted Once a Thief, and his Western breakthroughs The Killer and Hard Boiled—looked less to music videos and commercials for inspiration than to the stylized violence of Sam Peckinpah, the moral conflicts of Martin Scorsese, and the existential isolation of Jean-Pierre Melville. Woo had found his voice making action films that doubled as blood-drenched explorations of his Christian faith.

But could it work in Hollywood? Journeying to America after the release of Hard Boiled in 1992, Woo found a system less accommodating to his distinctive voice, at least at first. He watched the studio recut Hard Target (a Jean-Claude Van Damme thriller Woo shot in New Orleans) in ways that deemphasized his style. Many of his trademark touches survived the process, however, and the film made money, as did his next Hollywood effort, 1996’s Broken Arrow, in which John Travolta played a pilot with designs on stealing some nuclear missiles. With that success, Woo won the chance to make a proper John Woo film using all the resources a big-budget Hollywood production would allow.

He found a project tailor-made for him, however accidentally. Partners Mike Werb and Michael Colleary didn’t know Woo’s work when they wrote the script to Face/Off, a futuristic thriller in which a hero and a villain do battle after each assumes the other’s identity, complete with an exchange of faces. (The title is designed to deliver on its promise, both literally and figuratively.) After seeing the trailer to Woo’s The Killer, Werb and Colleary returned to the theater the next night to watch it again. When they saw the finished film—with its shifting loyalties and Manichaean clashes—they realized they’d written a Woo movie without knowing it.

Their script took a while to find its way to Woo, and to his eventual stars. As various filmmakers considered the film, pairings like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Douglas and Harrison Ford, and Alec Baldwin and Bruce Willis, came and went. At one point, Johnny Depp emerged as a possibility to star opposite Cage. Eventually, after Woo asked the setting to be changed to the present day, the project found its stars: Cage would play the bad guy, the vivacious, amoral, flamboyant international terrorist Castor Troy, whom Cage took to calling “the Liberace of crime.” Travolta would play the hero, Sean Archer, an FBI agent still grieving the death of his son at Castor’s hands and hell-bent on bringing him to justice.

Sort of. The conceit of the film requires that its leads swap not only faces, but also identities, as Sean, wearing Castor’s face, goes undercover at a prison to dig up information about an impending attack in Los Angeles as the escaped Castor, having assumed Sean’s identity, has to pass as the straight-and-narrow family man as he moves in with Sean’s wife, Eve (Joan Allen), and rebellious teenage daughter, Jamie (Dominique Swain). Rather than demanding that its leads take on one character, Face/Off asked them to create two, with multiple variations: sometimes they play one character trying to pass himself off as the other, sometimes their character’s original personality tries to surface from within his assumed identity, and sometimes their character loses himself in the personae he’s assumed. Done right, it would be an acting clinic that doubled as a commentary on the craft of acting itself.

For Cage, it presented the chance to begin the film with the sort of big, flamboyant performance that had helped make him famous—another product of the Vampire’s Kiss lab experiment he’d initiated years before—before shifting to become a brooding good guy doing his best to pass as the unrepentant baddie of the early scenes. After establishing Sean as a mournful man on a mission, Travolta had the opposite challenge, playing the lecherous, expressive Castor doing his best to hide behind the face of the upright (and uptight) hero—and taking wicked pleasure in the experience.

Their approaches offer a study in contrasts. Travolta echoes the Castor whom Cage sets up in the first act—a flashy, joyously malicious figure who revels in doing bad and pinches the backside of a choir girl while wearing the robes of a priest—but also draws on the tics of Cage’s past work.

“I’d absorbed a lot of Nic watching him over the years,” Travolta told Entertainment Weekly. “But it was all things I wanted permission to use.” These included “that Nic Cage cadence … the way Nic slows down and enunciates and pronunciates [sic]. He’s almost poetic in his talking.” A skilled impressionist, Travolta would soon draw on that talent to great effect playing the Bill Clinton–inspired protagonist of Primary Colors (and decades later could still reprise his Face/Off performance on demand to the delight of talk show hosts). Here, he offers an eerily precise take on Cage, playing Castor as a man awakening to new possibilities of wickedness from inside a cloak of goodness. The fun Travolta’s having becomes disturbingly infectious, particularly when he administers swift, violent justice to Jamie’s sexually aggressive date. It wouldn’t be a Woo morality play without some sympathy for the devil.

Cage opts for less an impression than a reinterpretation of Sean—whom he plays as a man in agony after being separated, first, from his family and, then, from his identity. He’s disturbed rather than delighted by the opportunities presented by the switch. In one of the film’s most striking moments, Cage draws on the Expressionistic silent performances that made such a deep impression on him in childhood. Forced into a prison fight while posing as Castor, his Sean lets waves of emotion sweep across his face: first, horror at the violence he’s forced to commit while other prisoners cheer him on; then an impression of the bug-eyed sadism Sean knows from having studied Castor for years; then a kind of dark joy at bending another man to his will; then the soul-deep regret of a righteous man compelled to perform dark deeds; then a flash of madness before he takes mercy on his prey. It’s an entire Woo film compressed into a few wordless moments.

Cage found in Face/Off an action film that didn’t require him to curb his artistic ambition and, in Woo, a collaborator attuned to his musical leanings, a passionate jazz fan who worked on an operatic scale. The film debuted to strong reviews, with even those skeptical of Woo’s approach seeing it as the best possible expression of his art. Writing for TV Guide, Maitland McDonagh called it a “brutal, stunningly choreographed spectacle [that] weaves together lyrical beauty, blasphemy, sadistic cruelty and grotesque sentimentality with breathtakingly smooth assurance,” a combination of seemingly incompatible elements that somehow worked anyway. Moviegoers responded positively as well, turning Face/Off into a hit that would ultimately outgross even Con Air. It was big and weird, and audiences loved it. It was everything Cage could want from an action movie, and it helped confirm his place as one of his generation’s biggest stars, a dark horse who made an unexpected surge while others revealed they couldn’t go the distance.

In retrospect, it would look like a peak, both of Cage’s venture into the action genre and of Woo’s time in Hollywood. Where Woo was sometimes seen as the most “American” filmmaker in Hong Kong, with Face/Off he made the most Hong Kong action film imaginable within the Hollywood system, using all the resources a Hollywood budget would allow to craft a bullet-riddled exploration of virtue and sinfulness while taking elements of the classic action film to their extremes. (Not content to end with a showdown in a church, Woo added a boat fight to make sure audiences went home satisfied.)

In the years that followed, however, it would be the Bay/Bruckheimer approach that would prevail, maximalism without the studied discipline of Woo and other Hong Kong directors, whose upper ranks soon followed Woo to Hollywood but retreated before Woo made his own return. Making a film with Jean-Claude Van Damme became a kind of rite of passage for Hong Kong veterans like Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark, but neither would stick around in the long run; nor would contemporary Ronny Yu, who brought some of the weird lyricism of his Hong Kong work to the horror film Bride of Chucky before departing.

Action films found the Bay aesthetic easier to imitate, if not imitate well. Film scholar David Bordwell groups both Hong Kong and Bay/Bruckheimer-influenced films under the umbrella of “intensified continuity,” but in the latter, it’s sometimes hard to find any continuity at all. In the decade that followed, what video essayist Matthias Stork would dub “chaos cinema” emerged as the default mode. In the years after Bay’s rise, the multiplexes would fill with action films in which, in Stork’s words, “every shot seems like the hysterical climax that an earlier movie might have spent several minutes building toward.” Some used it well. While Bay struggled to marry this approach to more narrative-driven films like Pearl Harbor, he found a low-ambition, high-reward outlet in the Transformers series. Paul Greengrass’s Bourne films used nausea-inducing handheld work to great effect. One of the pioneers of the form, Tony Scott thrived and grew as audiences became even more receptive to his rapid-fire assault. Christopher Nolan wove pockets of seeming chaos into a more elegant, classical approach. These were the exceptions, however. Many others took the same shortcuts West took in Con Air, substituting movement for meaning and stimulation for thrills.

Face/Off also found its stars in a kind of imperial phase, both still wrapped in an aura of confidence and goodwill that comes with recent, unexpected, and undeniable triumph. In the years after Pulp Fiction, Travolta could seemingly do no wrong. The public embraced him. Older fans seemed to realize how much they missed having him as a star, but he also won over a new generation of admirers. The occasional disappointment aside, this affection helped make hits of most of the films that followed, a string of successes that stretched from Get Shorty to A Civil Action to the Simon West–directed The General’s Daughter. But it wasn’t just popularity and momentum on Travolta’s side. He did the work, turning in remarkable performances in even lesser films. Whatever the X factor was that made an actor into a bankable star, he had it.

Then he didn’t. In 2000, Travolta produced and starred in Battlefield Earth. Not only a much-mocked flop, it contained one career-hindering speed bump after another, slathering Travolta in makeup to play a sneering alien villain and, as an adaptation of an L. Ron Hubbard novel, reminding moviegoers of Travolta’s adherence to Scientology, a faith frequently likened to a cult and subject to allegations of human rights abuses. Travolta kept working, often in high-profile projects, but it was never quite the same.

But if it hadn’t been that one tremendous misstep that soured Travolta’s comeback, it might have been something else. Success, especially at a superstar scale, is tough to attain and tougher to maintain. One wrong move and it can slip away. Alternately, factors out of a star’s control can wrest it away, whether changing tastes or studio politics. Cage’s action films found him following one success after another as he found projects that synced up with what moviegoers wanted from blockbuster entertainment—and what they wanted of him. But that didn’t mean they’d stay synced up forever.

For now, Cage’s record could easily justify the swelling paychecks his services demanded, but he still had to figure out what to do next and how an actor who’d become a superstar by specializing in oddness could remain successful in a rarefied environment that seldom allowed the odd to thrive. Fifteen years after Valley Girl, Cage kept finding ways to make his misfit appeal work on an increasingly grand scale. Now all he had to do was keep making it work in movie after movie, year after year.

Excerpted from Age of Cage: Four Decades of Hollywood Through One Singular Career by Keith Phipps. To be published by Henry Holt and Company March 29th 2022.

Copyright © 2022 by Keith Phipps. All rights reserved.

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