Nicolas Cage is better known these days as the hard-working star of action-packed blockbusters, but he is always at his best playing characters with a wounded romanticism; remember his Elvis-loving Sailor in David Lynch’s Palme d’Or-winning Wild At Heart (1990), and especially his angst-filled Charlie in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002), where he also played the more outgoing, fun twin Donald.
His greatest characterisation yet is still alcoholic Ben Sanderson in Mike Figgis’s moving 1995 drama Leaving Las Vegas, for which he deservedly won the Oscar for Best Actor and many other awards besides. Ben gives up on his life as an increasingly drink-sodden screenwriter working in L.A, packs up his stuff and moves to Las Vegas, where he plans to drink himself to death with his redundancy money. He estimates it should take him about four weeks, averaging 250-300 dollars per day. In Vegas he meets Sera (Elisabeth Shue), a prostitute, and it is their involvement with one another, and the trials of their subsequent co-dependency, that are the beating heart of the film.
Cage is so thrilling to watch and so convincingly damaged that we are moved to question what could have caused this breakdown, but Figgis steers clear of signposting the motivating factors. Ben says early on in the film: ‘I don’t remember if I started drinking ‘cause my wife left me, or if my wife left me ‘cause I started drinking’. It is suggested that he has lost, by divorce, a wife and son, and that this is the root cause of his suicidal alcoholism.
Cage revealed as much in an interview promoting the film, telling Roger Ebert: ‘I think something really emotionally devastating happened to [Ben]. The way I explained it to myself was, he has a kid and for some reason or another, he can’t see this child, and that has driven him to where he is’. When he has settled on his plan, Ben packs up his belongings, burns all his scripts and any reminders of his past – including a photograph of a woman and child, presumably his ex-wife and son – and leaves for Vegas.
‘I’ll tell you right now I’m in love with you. But, be that as it may, I am not here to force my twisted soul into your life. We both know I am a drunk. And I know you are a hooker. I hope you understand that I’m a person who is totally at ease with this. Which is not to say that I’m indifferent, or I don’t care. I do. It simply means I trust and accept your judgement’.
Like so many great character-pieces, the film is above all about a connection between two people. Sera, lonely and tired of being so, is struck by the connection she feels to Ben, who is actually interested in her as a person, not as a vessel of her profession. She clearly relishes looking after him, buying him new clothes and presents, such as the hip flask (below), to which Ben responds, choked up, by telling her: ‘Looks like I’m with the right girl’.
It is the twisted nature of their co-dependency that enables both actors to get their hooks in the audience from the start. Ben warns Sera she can never ask him to stop drinking, just as he can never ask her to stop being a hooker. The complications that arise from this precarious dynamic are what make this film very special indeed. Sera agrees that she won’t ever ask him to stop drinking with the words ‘I do’, like a wedding vow, but reneges on this, late in the story, telling Ben she wants him to see a doctor. Ben would have her, and us, believe he is ‘totally at ease’ with the fact that Sera is a prostitute. When he buys her some earrings and helps her to put them on, however, he whispers in her ear without thinking: ‘You’ll be able to feel it sharp and hot under your ear as one of the brothers is putting your head face-down into one of the penthouse pillows’. The film is full of such extraordinary exchanges between the pair. ‘Maybe I should follow you around and ask one of your tricks what it’s like to sleep with you’, says Ben. ‘They wouldn’t know’, replies Sera.
The film was shot quickly over 28 days on Super 16mm, on a budget of $4 million, with Figgis scoring the film impressively himself, while also appearing as one of the three thuggish henchmen who come to dispatch Yuri, Sera’s hunted Latvian pimp. Yuri, as played by Julian Sands, provides the film’s only misfire. His awkward performance fails to convince and unsettles the early scenes of the film in which he appears.
‘We both realised that we didn’t have that much time’, Sera says, to an unseen therapist. ‘And I accepted him for who he was, and I didn’t expect him to change, and I think he felt that for me too’. What lends Sera’s situation some hope is the fact that she tries to save him; Ben, while similarly infatuated, is beyond any hope or chance of salvation. As he reveals himself, he cannot even remember the reason why he is drinking.
Shue’s wrenching performance was justly as lauded as her co-star’s; together on-screen it is impossible to tear your eyes from them. A remarkably affecting performance from all concerned that is shocking, in Hollywood terms, for its complete lack of sentiment, and all the more effective because of it.