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Vampire’s Kiss was released in 1989 and may be, by all accounts, where Nicolas Cage’s now-iconic acting style really took off. (He really ought to start an acting school for people to train in his particular brand of crazed, histrionic scenery chewing, but is the world really ready for this?)
The film is Cage’s personal favorite of all the films in his now 40+ year career. This is perhaps in part because he used it as a platform to try out the style of acting that would later become his trademark — inspiring YouTubers to create entire highlight reels of his zaniest moments. Cage was only 25 years old at the time of the film’s release, so it makes sense that he would still have been in a sort of incubation period.
As one of its producers, Barry Shils, recalls, “Nic used to say to me, ‘Vampire’s Kiss was like my laboratory for these big studio pictures! That was my laboratory!’ He really loved the film. Loved making it. And he was able to explore some crazy shit.”
There is so much to like about Vampire’s Kiss as a viewer, that one wonders if it was critically panned upon release because people at the time just couldn’t tune into the frequency it was on. Was Cage’s larger-than-life acting style (which he’s since made into a personal art form) just ahead of its time in the late 1980s? So much has been made of the Brando style of acting which revolutionized film acting in its day, steering everything towards a more naturalistic style that continues to this day. There’s, of course, a lot to be said for Brando’s talent and the acting style he helped rein in which we now take for granted.
But no one ever questions: shouldn’t there be room for more than one style of acting in the medium of film?
Cage would say so.
“I guess in my own mind I thought that there could be a new expression in acting. And I was weaned, oddly enough on vampire, German Expressionistic film like Nosferatu and Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, and I wanted to use that kind of silent film style of acting which, shockingly enough, [the director] allowed me to do. [He] allowed me to go there, never held me back, which was kind of amazing, I don’t think any other director would have let his actor go there.”
The director in question, Robert Bierman, was interested in experimenting with the same ideas in his work when he joined forces with Cage. He believed that acting is an art form in which perhaps there should be a whole palette of styles to choose from. “If you look at other art forms like painting, you have photorealism and surrealism, and you have abstract. Why can’t you do the same with film acting?” Bierman has said, citing naturalism as being “terribly limiting.”
Understanding these aims is maybe one key to fully appreciating Vampire’s Kiss, though out of this context, Cage’s performance still remains wildly entertaining.
There’s a famous scene involving the alphabet that happens fairly early on in the film, with one pose Cage has described as [Mick] “Jagger-esque.”
“It actually is extremely choreographed, I mean every one of those moves was thought out in my hotel room with my cat,” said Cage.
Cage seemed to have a strong handle on where he wanted to go as a performer, and the rest of the world just needed to catch up with him. He rejects any notions about being too “over the top.”
“See ‘over the top’ doesn’t work with me, because I don’t believe in such a thing,” said Cage. “I believe it’s just stylistic choices.” About some of his more heightened moments in Vampire’s Kiss, he said, “This was obviously a choice to use grand gesture and go bigger.”
Something about literary agent Peter Loew, Cage’s character in this film, seems to have at least a familial connection to Patrick Bateman, the sociopath portrayed by Christian Bale in Mary Harron’s adaptation of American Psycho (based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis). But if Bale’s self-obsessed protagonist has that Michael Corleone level of unfeeling ruthlessness, then Cage, in a sense, is Fredo. Cut from the same cloth, yet totally ineffectual. (Indeed, after writing this, I discovered that Bale used Cage’s performance in Vampire’s Kiss as inspiration when crafting his Bateman character.)
Part of this ineffectualness comes in the form of Loew’s very complicated relationships with women, a subject one could write a thesis on. He seems to be totally consumed by them. He ricochets between tormenting a female underling at work to such a degree that he becomes obsessive, almost animalistic, towards her, while simultaneously, he has such codependence with his (female) therapist that he calls her in her off hours, at one point begging her to move their appointments to earlier in the week with the tone a small child might use on his mother. Meanwhile, a third woman he has a one-night stand with, Rachel (played by Jennifer Beals), is continually haunting him — though her continued appearances could either be real or imagined.
Perhaps his acting out towards Alva, the flower-printed-dress-wearing secretary he seems laser-focused on — to the extent that he sometimes screams her name across the office — is because it’s the only relationship with a female he feels he has any control over, and even that is tenuous. He tortures her because even though he has seniority, he can’t seem to get her to do what he wants without jumping up on desks and chasing her down hallways, at one point even psychotically, comedically, frighteningly taking a taxicab all the way to her home in the Bronx when she tries to call in sick for work just to get away from him. He talks to her the way you might talk to a rabid dog you’re obviously taller than but still simultaneously fear might actually have the upper hand — constantly yelling and waving your arms to try to keep it in line.
His desperate insecurities border on infantilization and in another moment, when a fleeting attempt at suicide fails, he merely cries, “Boo! Boo!” in response. They’re the strange cries of an infant in a lower Manhattan playboy’s body. Perhaps an apt metaphor for this brand of human in general? As infantilized on the inside as they appear to be cultivating power and control on the surface.
Cage is nothing if not committed to his work in this film. He actually ate a live cockroach on camera, something that was said to have been his idea, but which he later regretted. Yet he went through with it all the same, reportedly doing two takes with two roaches, an idea that was inspired in part by Ozzy Osbourne, and went on to upset animal rights advocates.
Even those who might not otherwise be fans of Cage’s acting style still give him credit for fueling this film energetically. As Chicago film writer Jonathan Rosenbaum has said about the performance, “Even for viewers like myself, who have never been especially impressed with Cage, his over-the-top effusions of rampant, demented asociality are really something to see.”
While people are no doubt entertained by the extremism in Cage’s performance, and there is a large and satisfying layer of that in this film, like many great movies there are these deeper layers going on at the same time, not only in Cage’s acting style, but in the film’s aforementioned themes.
The director also sprinkles in beautiful inexplicably odd little touches: a pair of mimes doing some kind of experimental theater outside Cage’s door (the casting call for that must have been interesting); an obviously younger and slightly darker skinned lover in a towel waiting for Loew’s therapist (played by the great Elizabeth Ashley) to get off the phone with Loew. These weird little details, which someone else might write out or deem unnecessary, add to the texture of this movie, making it even more of a delight, beyond Cage’s powerhouse performance.
Coupled with that is the fact that they filmed this in the streets of a much more dangerous New York City circa 1987. Using long lenses, they wound up catching the natural reactions of passersby, who didn’t realize they were making a film and just assumed Cage was another crazy person roaming the streets screaming, talking to walls. The city and its residents become just another character, another dimension, to this unhinged, seedy, low budget masterpiece.