In October 1995, twenty years ago this month, a low-budget movie shot on 16mm around the Las Vegas Strip about a guy who wants to drink himself to death was released in theatres by United Artists. And unless you were an avid film buff, you likely had no clue it even existed.
“Leaving Las Vegas” was based on a book no one ever read by an author who committed suicide two weeks after his book was optioned to be made for the big screen. But Hollywood loves underdog stories, and “Leaving Las Vegas” was one of the biggest of the mid-1990s.
Thanks to word of mouth and Oscar buzz, by the time the film ended its theatrical run five months later, the movie would be considered by many to be one of the best of the decade — and took in considerably more ($US32 million) than what it cost to make ($US3.6 million).
And perhaps its greatest feat: It made Nicolas Cage an Oscar-winning actor.
Director Mike Figgis, who was best known at the time for the Richard Gere 1990 crime drama “Internal Affairs,” was taken by the hopelessly depressed book from author John O’Brien and felt he could build the main character Ben, who commits to ending it all by drinking after his wife divorces him and takes custody of their child, into a sympathetic figure whom audiences could relate to regardless of whether their lives were like Ben’s.
The film is also heightened by an incredible lounge-lizard score composed by Figgis himself, along with some classic jazz songs performed by Sting, which give you that crummy-dive-bar feel.
We follow Cage’s Ben as he moves from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, where the bars never close and drinking outside is sanctioned. But after he meets a kindred spirit in a prostitute named Sera (Elisabeth Shue), his life suddenly has promise, though he’s too driven to ruin it to take notice.
By the mid-’90s, Cage had built a diverse filmography that was part loveable loser (“Raising Arizona”), unique leading man (“Monstruck,” “Honeymoon in Vegas”), and just plane bizarro (“Vampire’s Kill,” “Wild at Heart”). In “Leaving Las Vegas,” he gives one of the best performances of his career by playing Ben with surprising subtlty. Looking so pale and disheveled with bloodshot eyes that you could almost smell the booze off him, Cage nevertheless avoids the outlandish movements and one-liners that have become his signature.
When there is a sudden jolt of rage, Cage isn’t hokey about it. There’s purpose in the outburst.
One scene that stands out: Ben and Sera go out on the Strip and decide to gamble. Completely plastered, Ben is at the blackjack table with Sera. Figgis mounts the camera up in the rafters, giving us the feeling of snooping (possibly a practical choice, since Figgis has said that he shot the film with very few permits). A waitress asks if they want another drink. Ben first says no, then — almost as if realising he cannot pass up a drink even when he doesn’t want one — tells her he does. Then he goes into a blind rage, breaking glasses, pushing people, and turning over the blackjack table. Security finally shows up and we can make out Ben yelling, “I am his father!”
In most Cage movies, you’ll get an average of two to three berserk moments like this. But in “Leaving Las Vegas,” there’s only this one, and it’s terrifying to watch.
“I never drink when I act, but I wanted to incorporate in some scenes actual drinking,” Cage told James Lipton about filming “Leaving Las Vegas” when he went on “Inside the Actors Studio” in 2003. “So that scene in the casino when I’m freaking out, I’m really drunk.”
Lipton asked Cage why Ben says “I am his father” in the scene.
“That was sort of a primal scream that came out of me that wasn’t in the script,” Cage told him.
The performance in “Leaving Las Vegas” earned Cage the Best Actor Oscar at the 68th Academy Awards in 1996 (Shue was nominated for Best Actress). Though he would excel in movies like “Adaptation,” “World Trade Center,” and “Joe” after the Oscar win, it’s Cage’s over-the-top performances in B-movies (“The Wicker Man,” “Ghost Rider”) that now come to mind for most. Things have been worse for Figgis and Shue, as the film turned out to be the peak in both of their careers. And time has not been as kind as it should to “Leaving Las Vegas” — the only place you can currently stream it is on iTunes.
But sometime illusive titles can be the most rewarding to experience. Perhaps on its 20th anniversary, “Leaving Las Vegas” can have another underdog resurgence.
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