"HER HAIR, MAYBE. IT WAS BRIGHT RED. LIKE IT WAS ON FIRE."
Hello and welcome to the unofficial Brian De Palma website.
Here is the latest news:
a la Mod:
What qualifies as a great performance? Decades of conditioning by movie critics, not to mention Oscar voters who insist on recognizing Meryl Streep each time she adopts a new accent, have led many moviegoers to think they must applaud when an actor is said to “disappear” into a part. Such performers are thought to be paragons of selflessness and subtlety, willing to set aside their own personalities for the sake of high art.
In truth, moviegoers have always taken pleasure in performers who remain blatantly and unapologetically themselves on the big screen — those who seem less interested in incarnating a character than simply summoning their own reserves of charisma, intelligence, and even eccentricity. During his long reign as America’s most widely admired actor, Marlon Brando became so flagrant in his tics, mannerisms, and improvised riffs that it was impossible for an audience to suspend disbelief and accept him as an actual character. In his brilliant late-career turn in the Mafia comedy The Freshman (1990), Brando managed to render the plot, and sometimes even the jokes themselves, irrelevant thanks to his torrent of self-referential mumbling and random bits of business — say, the long, drawn-out way he deposits sugar into Matthew Broderick’s cup of espresso. This is less performing than performance art.
For audiences to enjoy this sort of thing, however, an actor has to be willing to hover above the material: to kid it or act around it or simply ignore it. Such is the secret to the success of Samuel L. Jackson, whose signature rhetorical device, over-the-top screaming, arguably contributed immeasurably to the success of Quentin Tarantino’s early films. (Try to imagine anyone but Jackson saying, in Pulp Fiction, “Do they speak English in What?”) And it formed the basis for at least one entire movie, the regrettable (but not unentertaining!) 2006 fright film Snakes on a Plane.
Yet the undisputed master of molding movies to his persona is surely Nicolas Cage, who, long before becoming something of a punchline for his gleefully unrestrained performances in a series of increasingly odd, random, and ill-funded productions, seemed to delight in disrupting otherwise ordinary movies with his jittery, hyped up, always-on-edge performance style.
I remember the first time I became conscious that Cage was no longer putting his gifts at the service of mere characterization — if he ever was. In 1998, just three years after he gave an Oscar-winning performance in Mike Figgis’s Leaving Las Vegas, Cage headlined Brian De Palma’s Atlantic City-set morality tale Snake Eyes. Playing proudly corruptible detective Rick Santoro, Cage looks to have remembered and recycled every actor who ever played a small-time wheeler-dealer in a movie, placed them all in a blender, and come out with a rich, thick puree of smooth talk, hustle, and con. His performance is loud, wild-eyed, and delightfully vulgar: as garish as the Hawaiian shirt he wears and as hyperactive as director De Palma’s roving Steadicam. At the time, Cage’s uninhibited acting choices did not seem so strange. Those of us who had grown up with the actor — he had already made the Coen brothers’ Raising Arizona (1987), David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990), Michael Bay’s The Rock (1996) — were more or less getting what we wanted: pure, unvarnished Cage.
But as H.L. Mencken said of what democracy delivers to the people, we who cheered on Cage’s scenery-chewing got what we deserved, and we got it good and hard. As his projects became more obviously questionable and less auteur-driven — for example, his appearance in the gooey holiday comedy The Family Man (2000) or the preposterous World War II romance Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2001) — Cage’s accumulated weirdness stood out more and more. I concede that there’s something deeply unfair in this analysis: Cage was the same unruly, unpredictable, unrealistic actor when he was appearing in respectable art house releases as when he was showing up in schlock on the order of Ghost Rider (2007) and the National Treasure series. Cage didn’t change as much as our tolerance for him did — a tolerance lowered, undoubtedly, due to the almost unfathomable increase in his output starting in the early 2010s, which coincided with, or resulted from, a period of financial difficulty.
What follows in the article is a ranking of Cage's "20 best performances," kicking off with Snake Eyes at number 20:
Working with director Brian De Palma, fresh off the blockbuster success of Mission: Impossible, Cage brings an admirable sliminess to this rain-soaked, twist-filled crime thriller, which finds him playing a corrupt cop thrust into the middle of an assassination plot at a boxing match in Atlantic City. Unlike many of his A-list peers, Cage has no problem playing unlikable heels. David Koepp's propulsive script sends Cage yammering through the back doors and narrow halls of a casino, the perfect labyrinth structure for De Palma to let his camera crawl over the walls and ceilings. Does everything in this movie make sense? No, not exactly. But when the filmmaking is as flashy as Cage's tropical-print shirt, you won't mind feeling like you're playing a rigged game. —Dan Jackson
In the book itself, Phipps spends a couple of paragraphs on Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes:
In August, Snake Eyes debuted to an audience of summer moviegoers hungry for another Cage action film. Instead, they got a twisty, recursively structured thriller directed by Brian De Palma featuring some jaw-dropping moments of cinematic showmanship—including a seemingly unbroken thirteen-minute opening shot that whisks viewers through the belly and onto the floor of an Atlantic City arena playing host to a heavyweight championship bout—and a climax that doesn’t work.
Working again with a master filmmaker of the generation that emerged alongside Francis Ford Coppola, Cage offers a vivid performance—one filled with the sort of manic gestures and explosive line readings that would resurface in later work—as a gleefully corrupt cop who stumbles his way toward redemption after discovering that a childhood friend (Gary Sinise) has masterminded a conspiracy. Though Snake Eyes had much to recommend it, particularly for longtime admirers of De Palma and Cage, collections of compelling elements that fail to gel into coherent movies rarely become hits. Hampered by middling reviews—in the LA Weekly, Manohla Dargis described it as “running on fumes” after its memorable opening—and bad word of mouth, it struggled at the box office.
Snake Eyes (1998) ***
Sold as another Cage action film, this twisty Brian De Palma thriller confused moviegoers expecting more blood and bullets. That the film, even on its own terms, has problems didn’t help, but Cage has fun playing a cop who loves being on the take and who enjoys everything corruption brings him—until he has to face a moral reckoning.
Take a legendary director like Brian De Palma, renowned for his grandiose visual style. Then take a star (Nic Cage), known for just as grandiose an approach to the craft of acting. At the time Nic Cage was peaking as a box office star and a newly established star of action blockbusters. De Palma was somewhat on the way down, coming off the back of helming a popular adaptation of an old 60’s TV show, Mission Impossible. If that seemed to suggest that De Palma was in danger of becoming gun for hire, over auteur, Snake Eyes felt like (for better and worse) a once heavy hitting powerhouse was exercising the full extent of his visual whimsy.
Snake Eyes certainly isn’t near the top of De Palma’s CV, but it’s the last big pulpy shlocker of his CV. Critically derided upon release, the film has picked up a little more appreciation in years since. For one, it’s a technical marvel with the film opening on a lengthy unbroken take up to the inciting incident of the piece (where a government official is shot whilst attending a boxing match in Vegas). That opening also happens to follow around Nic Cage’s rogue Vegas cop and as only he can, Cage revels in hogging the unbroken take and leading the steadi-op on a merry journey throughout the large arena (guts and all). Once we get back to De Palma’s bread and butter of Hitchcock ode thrills and plot unravelling, things are less spectacular but still gripping. Cage maintains our attention and the aesthetics always dazzle, even if the payoff doesn’t quite land.
"Nicolas Cage is aptly matched to the material," Lattanzio continues, "as a flamboyant and (natch) corrupt Atlantic City detective who witnesses an assassination during an epic boxing match. Cage’s bugged-out outsized performance veers toward exhausting, but that’s precisely the point as De Palma assaults the senses with his characteristic cinematic feints, where everything is larger than life."
On Part 2 of the Brian De Palma/Susan Lehman Light The Fuse interview, hosts Drew Taylor and Charles Hood dipped into the ending of Snake Eyes after mentioning John Knoll's work on Mission: Impossible:
Drew: John Knoll told us a story that you said that he could have a credit -- I believe it was Visual Effects Supervisor -- only if he did an extra shot for you of Jon Voight in the plane at the beginning of the movie. Do you remember this at all?
De Palma: No.
De Palma: But I would believe John.
[Laughter] Drew: Okay.
Lehman: Is that something you would do?
De Palma: Are you kidding? [Laughter] Why not? [More laughter] You need the shot...
Drew: Did he work on Snake Eyes, on the...
De Palma: Yes.
Drew: Okay. I've always been fascinated about that ending, and I'm so glad that you put some footage of it in the documentary. But, yeah, do you think the lack of that ending hurt the movie, or... what's your sort of feeling on it?
De Palma: My concept and David's concept was, this is like the great flood. I mean, when you're dealing with such a corrupt universe, the only way to deal with it is a flood. You've gotta kill everybody. And that was always the concept. But, we discovered that audiences don't believe in God coming down and creating the flood. When there's such rampant evil around. So then we had to come up with a different ending, which I don't think is as effective. But that's basically because our conception of how it should have ended, we were never able to do. And the audience would never accept, basically.
Drew: Well, how dependent are you on those test audience responses? I mean, did you have anything like that on Mission? And was it sort of freeing writing this book, because you didn't have to... I mean you had to show it... you and Susan talked about it, but...
De Palma: Well, yes, you're always dealing with that research group. And believe me, my history, I had all the movies, you know, that had all the language, all the eroticism in them, and I'd be constantly fighting with these people that would, you know, poll the audiences. Because anything really excessive, an audience reacts very strongly to. And the studio, always when the studio, when they would get kind of negative cards after a screening.
Lehman: One reason that we started working on this book is because Brian had been involved in an HBO production of Paterno. And then he'd get, you know, a million notes, and he said, "Let's just write a book. It's much easier. I don't have to take these phone calls or read these crazy notes."
De Palma: Yeah, thousands of notes about Paterno.
Charles: And so was that more notes than you'd ever had before? Was it getting worse?
De Palma: Absolutely. You'd get piles of notes. You know, and I said, "Well, I've had it." Basically, you know, and I just walked away. Thank you, HBO.
Drew: Do you feel like the medium of fiction is sort of going to be your outlet for the next little while, or are you itching to get back...?
De Palma: Well, until I become senile, one's mind tends to be working all the time, and I'm, you know, trying to make maybe one more movie. If possible, maybe another. And of course writing books is, you know, a lot of fun, what Susan and I do together.
Newer | Latest | Older