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DIY film series: Nick Cage before he got 'Left Behind'

Nicolas Cage in
Nicolas Cage in "Left Behind" (2014), not generally considered his finest acting performance.
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Tim Cogshell, film critic for KPCC's Filmweek and Alt Film Guide, is joining Off-Ramp's team of commentators. His first entry is a DIY film series on the foundational films of Nicolas Cage. Cogshell blogs at CinemaInMind.

Mention Nick Cage to anybody under 35, and you’ll probably get a smirk. But he used to be a good actor, and I’ve got three films you’ve got to see if you want to understand why us older people cut him slack.

I was looking up Nick Cage as research for an interview. What struck me was how many bad Nick Cage movies there are, most of them from the last decade or so. I mean, did you see "Pay the Ghost," or "Dying of the Light?" Nick Cage is in a "Left Behind" movie. No need to look it up. He is.

There are exceptions. Cage appeared in the indie "Joe," in 2013, and the avant garde action hero flick "KickAss." But mostly it’s been, well, bad. But there once was a Nick Cage whose films were innovative, funny, thrilling and sometimes brilliant.  

For the foundational films of Nicolas Cage, you’ve got to go way back — beyond "Moonstruck" and "Peggy Sue Got Married," before even the iconic "Raising Arizona," the Coen Brothers classic that made Cage a legit star.

You’ve got to go back to a time when Nick was only one of several young Coppolas looking to make their name in the family business without using the family name. Which isn’t exactly true ... Talia Shire is a Coppola and worked as a Tally Coppola for years before she played Connie in her brother’s film "Godfather." But I digress.  And besides, for his first two films — a TV movie called "Best of Times" from 1981 and a small role in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" — Cage is billed as Nicolas Coppola.

Blink, and you'll miss Nicolas Cage (as Nicolas Coppola) in
Blink, and you'll miss Nicolas Cage (as Nicolas Coppola) in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High"

Then he changed his name. Smart move. The early '80s was a time when Hollywood nepotism was looked down upon. A famous name could provide as many burdens as opportunities.

So without the family moniker, Nicolas Cage went about building a career on daring performances in films that range from the quirky to the poignant to the outright weird. I've picked three extraordinary but often overlooked Nicolas Cage movies that, if you haven’t seen them, you should.

1. Valley Girl (1983)

Watch the trailer for "Valley Girl"

Aside from being the first film in which Nick is billed as Nicolas Cage, "Valley Girl," directed by Martha Coolidge, marks his debut as a leading man. Cage’s Randy is brooding and mumbly and a little creepy, with his spiked hair and goofy laugh. He's like James Dean if Dean had been reassembled after the accident — still cool, but a little scary.

2. Birdy (1984)

Birdy is an Alan Parker drama based on the William Wharton novel. Cage plays a Vietnam vet, opposite Matthew Modine’s title character. Though the film is called "Birdy," it’s really Nick’s movie, and he’s brilliant. His deeply set eyes and reckless physicality belie a vulnerability that’s nearly unbearable.

3. Vampire's Kiss (1988)

I’m NOT choosing Cage’s 1995 Academy Award-winning performance in director Mike Figgis’ "Leaving Las Vegas," which is still astounding by my measure. It’s too easy and too recent. Instead, I suggest Vampire's Kiss, directed by Robert Bierman and written by Joseph Minion. Minion also penned the cult classic "After Hours" for director Martin Scorsese, which might give you an idea of the tack this crazy little gem takes.

In "Vampire’s Kiss," Cage plays a publishing exec bitten by a woman whom he believes to be a vampire.  We watch as he becomes unhinged. It’s a wonderfully strange little movie in which Cage gives a performance without boundaries.

This is my Nick Cage – fearless, boundless, great. I know my picks are old, and certainly he’s made a number of very good films over the years. I love "The Lord of War" and "Adaptation." "Match Stick Men" is great, and "Face/Off" and "Con Air" are still a hoot. But if you really want to experience the Nick Cage films that revealed to us the charm, charisma and star power that overcame the burden of an industry name — and made a career that’s lasted 35 years — then you really have to start at the beginning. Throw yourself a film festival at home with my three choices, and meet the young Nicolas Cage, set on making a career — and a name — for himself.