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Looking Back At ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ & Nicolas Cage’s Oscar-Winning Performance

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24 years ago this month, a new film from Mike Figgis titled Leaving Las Vegas was unleashed to widespread critical and commercial success. Nicolas Cage was, at that time, known for both his acclaimed output in the likes of The Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona, Robert Bierman’s Vampire Kiss and David Lynch’s Wild At Heart, among others, as well as his more commercial fare with Honeymoon In Vegas (a guilty pleasure), Guarding Tess and It Could Happen To You. The latter film was about a guy named Charles Lang, a police officer who promises Bridget Fonda’s waitress a share of his winnings should he win the lottery, in lieu of a tip. Of course, Lang does win, but a year after the release of It Could Happen To You, life would imitate art as Cage would go on to essentially win the lottery in real life, lifting the Oscar for his jaw-dropping depiction of suicidal alcoholic Ben Sanderson in Figgis’ outstanding motion picture.

Ben Sanderson is a well-regarded screenwriter in Hollywood – or maybe he was well-regarded professionally until he fell under the influence of alcohol. He’s lost his family – photos of a wife and daughter are seen in the early scenes, and he is about to lose his career and income too. He’s also lost the respect of his peers, an interaction between Ben and two Hollywood bigwigs early on ends with one of them, an apparent former friend, no longer wanting anything to do with him. Essentially, Ben has nothing, so he decides to head the 270 miles or so to Las Vegas to end his life – drinking himself to death with the small severance he’s been given by his former agency.

It is Vegas where he meets escort Sera, a career-best Elisabeth Shue, who immediately forms a bond with Ben who, despite paying her, would rather have her company rather than any sexual interaction. From here, an unusual love story develops, the two wounded souls taken on a journey together drenched under the neon lights of Sin City and everything that comes with it.

Adapted from the novel by John O’Brien, who committed suicide at the age of just 33 shortly after learning that his autobiographical book was to be made into a film, Figgis’ film is virtually flawless, the performances from Cage and Shue the heartbreaking stand-out.

The film was shot on Super-16mm film stock, mostly in and around Las Vegas for under $4 million – a very low figure for a film of its type, even back in 1994. For that reason, some scenes were said to be filmed on the famous Las Vegas strip without permits, Figgis reportedly shooting just one take to avoid the glare of the police.

Leaving Las Vegas is one of those films that has everything; a striking look – handheld grainy camerawork lending to a very documentary-type feel, superb direction from a brilliant script, and a dazzling musical score by Figgis himself, aided by lounge-singer-eque, jazz-soaked vocals by Sting.

The stand-out in the film though is clearly Cage, so believable as the lead, Ben Sanderson. But how did he find the character? The actor attended this year’s Transilvania International Film Festival in Cluj, Romania where he talked about his amazing career, and more specifically about Leaving Las Vegas.

“When I read the script to Leaving Las Vegas, it was Ed Limato, my agent, who told me that this was the answer to all your prayers,” Cage said to the packed Q&A audience at the festival on a bright Sunday morning back in June.

“He actually said that which says a lot about him. Nobody wanted to make that movie in Hollywood. It was turned down by every studio, even independent companies didn’t want to make the movie. It was way too dark for anybody to consider, and I remember consciously saying to myself, ‘Well, I’m never going to win an Academy Award anyway, so why don’t I just make this movie. Let me do what I want.’”

Of course, that award did come the following year, but how did Cage prepare to play the role of Sanderson, a character who, for most of the film, is seen on-screen well under the influence?

“When I was doing Leaving Leaving Las Vegas, I had video-taped myself drinking – I wanted to see what I was like. I would look at the tapes and see behaviour.”

Photo Credit: THN

Cage also said he looked at other movies as part of his research for the role; “I do look at other performances, I do borrow from other actors and actresses’ work to get ideas. I look from all sorts of places.”

He named Ray Milland in Lost Weekend, Kris Kristofferson in the 1978 remake of A Star Is Born, Jack Lemmon in Days Of Wine and Roses, and also Dudley Moore in Arthur as some of the best on-screen ‘alcoholic performances’.

“Each one of those really gave a different – really highlighted a different example of over-drinking,” Cage said.

“Kris Kristofferson really affected me as he had that beautiful smile. Though he was drinking himself to death, there was this positive, beautiful smile and I thought that was heartbreaking – I’ve got to make sure that Ben Sanderson is smiling a lot and really positive. There’s nothing sadder than a person who’s in a sad situation and knows it, than a person who’s in a sad situation and doesn’t know it.”

Dudley’s Moore’s Arthur didn’t know how to modulate his volume, and Milland in Lost Weekend ‘captured the meanness – the ugliness of over-drinking’. “He [the Milland character] was really hard on people and awful.” Jack Lemmon in Days of Wine and Roses had “the wanting to heal without knowing how to get there.”

“Then I saw Albert Finney in Under The Volcano. Within the first two minutes of watching Albert Finney walking through the streets of Mexico, I said ‘that guy is REALLY drunk’,” Cage added. “He’s not faking that. That is it! How do I get there?”

“Fortunately Mike Figgis had directed Albert in another movie, previously. I said, ‘can you ask Albert – was he really drinking? Because this is so authentic, I’ve not seen any acting here.’”

“It got back to Albert and Albert got back…’You tell Mick that all I did was take a shot of bourbon, taste it, and then I would spit it out and that would bring me back to the performance, and that’s what I was doing,’” Cage added.

Nicolas Cage at the 2019 TIFF festival in Romania

For one scene in the film, Cage revealed that he did indulge a little to help the scene.

“There were a couple of scenes where I really wanted to be out. I wanted to be out of my head and I wanted to be photographed so I could achieve that kind of authenticity that I felt that Albert had in the opening of Under The Volcano. I wanted that quality and that rawness.”

“It was the scene in the casino and Tony [family friend, and so-called ‘drinking coach’ on the movie] said, ‘I think we should have some sambuca for this one…’ So he started plying me with the sambuca and I showed up on the set and cameras were rolling.”

“There’s the blackjack table. You can see, I’m way out of it and I finally just snapped and I threw the table and I start screaming ‘I am his father, I am his father!’ That came from in the script – I think Ben had lost custody of his kid – it was very lightly touched upon, but I saw the pain of that.”

In 1996, Cage was nominated in the Best Actor category at the Academy Awards, up against the likes of Anthony Hopkins for Nixon, Richard Dreyfuss for Mr. Holland’s Opus, Sean Penn for Dead Man Walking, and Massimo Troisi for Il Postino: The Postman. He walked away with the statuette, handed to him by Jessica Lang at the glittering event in March of that year.

Picking up the award, Cage said in his acceptance speech:

“I know it’s not hip to say it, but I just love acting. I hope that there will be more encouragement for alternative movies where we can experiment and fast-forward into the future of acting.”

Reflecting over two decades on, once again at this year’s Transilvania International Film Festival, Cage said the following of that Oscar win.

“I think Gary Oldman once said ‘the sound of applause is never to be ignored,’ so I’m thankful for the Academy Award. I’m particularly thankful for it because it comes from other filmmakers, other actors who saw something in the performance – fellow film enthusiasts, so that means a lot.”

Leaving Las Vegas would go on to huge box-office success, taking a huge $49 million from that $4 million, or thereabouts, budget. Cage would go on to his big-budget action-movie period shortly afterward, appearing in Michael Bay’s high-octane San Francisco-set actioner The Rock the following year, and alongside John Travolta in John Woo’s Face/Off and Con Air the year after.

Leaving Las Vegas would win 31 awards in total all over the world and remains not only one of the best films of the year in which it was released, but one of the best of the nineties; a true stand-out. If it is one you’ve not seen, do seek it out. The 24 years since it debuted have been kind and it still remains one of the best features about addiction, and also one of the greatest love stories ever committed to film. Heartbreaking, funny and devastating in equal measures. A true modern masterpiece. We await the glittering 25th anniversary home editions (that we hope will be realised) in 2020.

Leaving Las Vegas is now available of both DVD, Blu-ray and some streaming services.


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