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The Star Market: Can Nicolas Cage Win Back Hollywood’s Respect, or Has He Sold Out Once Too Often?

Everyone knows Nicolas Cage is an oddball. Most people know that he owes the IRS a boatload of money. And some people even still know that, when he wants to, he can be a pretty great actor. And therein lies his particular career predicament: Because of his troubled finances, the small, interesting movies critics would love to see him in get pushed aside in favor of a heavy slate of big-budget schlock. His latest bout of batshit-craziness, Drive Angry 3D — in which he plays a guy who breaks out of hell to stop a cult from killing his granddaughter — is in theaters today. And there won't be any shortage of nutty Cage on the big screen in the near future. On the docket is kidnapping thriller Trespass, vigilante thriller The Hungry Rabbit Jumps, and a sequel to Ghost Rider. So can Nic eventually work his way out of punchline status and back to respectability? Or is he doomed to a lifetime of fireballs and bee helmets? To find out, we spoke to industry insiders and tried to answer the question: If Nicolas Cage were a stock, should you buy, sell, or hold?

Stock History: Over the course of nearly three decades in the biz, Cage's career has gone through five very distinct epochs.
Eighties: Young and wiry and killing it in classics Raising Arizona and Moonstruck.
Early Nineties: Oscillates wildly between admirably weirdo choices like David Lynch's Wild at Heart and goofy studio comedies (Honeymoon in Vegas, Guarding Tess), but caps it off with an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas.
Late Nineties: Officially receiving the respect from his peers in statue form frees him to segue into being a full-blown action star with the back-to-back-to-back punch of The Rock, Con Air, and Face/Off.
Early Aughts: Dials back the action to try more Oscar bait, both near-misses (Bringing Out the Dead, Adaptation) and whiffs (Captain Corelli's Mandolin).
Late Aughts: After getting his action swagger back in 2004's National Treasure, he stays firmly affixed to the studio teat, with little interest in quality control (Knowing, The Wicker Man, The Sorcerer's Apprentice). This helps fund his expensive tastes (castles, mansions, and a $276,000 dinosaur bone). IRS investigations and liens seem to insure that this will be the path for the foreseeable future: In January 2010 he said he would pay back $14 million to the IRS. (He's also suing his business manager for allegedly causing his financial troubles; the manager filed a countersuit.)

As one agent Vulture spoke to put it, “He’s had a crazy up-and-down career, almost like Travolta’s. At his peak, he was the very top of the A-list: You’d have said his peers were guys like Sean Penn and Tim Robbins, guys who could do great character movies and win Oscars. But because he could also be an action hero, and do romantic comedies, too, he was making $20 million.”

Peers: He's in the same boat as fellow aging stars Bruce Willis (55) and John Travolta (57), plus a dude like Eric Bana (42), who's got a long way to go to catch Cage in both flops and hits. Liam Neeson (58) is within range, too, but Neeson still has the patina of classiness (even in cheap B-movies) that Cage seems to have lost.

Market Value: Hey, remember that $20 million-per-movie paycheck? Not so much anymore! Says the agent: “That’s over now. I think he took $10 million for Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and when that bombed, he dropped to $6 million or $8 million, with a healthy back end. He no longer makes a studio picture ‘go.’” That means his producers have to find funding elsewhere. The agent again: “Sure, he’ll green-light something like Drive Angry, but that’s because they’ve financed it by selling the overseas distribution rights ahead of time, so there’s very little risk.” And while he used to be able to count on international grosses to keep him in business, there are signs that even people who don’t speak his language have limits: Season of the Witch grossed only $47 million abroad.

One of the most glaring signs of his decline is that he wasn’t even a shoo-in for the Ghost Rider sequel, even though Sony grossed over $200 million on the first one. The ever-helpful agent explains that “the studio had to hire him; there was a ticking clock on the rights from Marvel. And you can see how much confidence they have in him: [Columbia Pictures] then sold off half of the movie to Hyde Park International [the independent financing company owned by Ashok Armitraj].” Then again: The feeling now is that Mark Steven Johnson, director of the original Ghost Rider, made a horrible film and it still did well. So if everyone stays on top of their game for round two, it could do real business.

Meanwhile, the auteur directors still want him for their tiny projects, knowing what he can bring when he decides to try — but Cage can't afford to try right now.

What Hollywood Thinks: Simply put, his inability to factor in taste when making choices has become a problem. Let's hear from the agent one last time: “He’s a great actor when he wants to act. The problem is, that isn’t that often anymore. He’s working non-stop because he still has serious financial problems. I mean, this is not some $700,000 tax oversight you mop up with one big movie; the guy owed $14 million to the IRS last year. And the danger is that he’ll become a caricature of himself before he’s done [paying off his debts].” Wait, he's not already a caricature? The wonderful YouTube video "Nicolas Cage Losing His Shit" begs to differ. And at this point, as one candid publicist puts it, “He’s sorta like the Burt Reynolds of his time: Had everything; lost everything — including the hair ... I honestly don’t know what you’d do with him.”

The Analysis: It's your basic catch-22: He's destroying his career as a movie star to keep up his movie-star lifestyle and pay his movie-star-sized tax bill. And while directors still know he can act, he has effectively blockaded himself from any opportunity to do so. And it's not like he's landing the good blockbusters: Years of poor decision-making has led to more flops than hits, and now studios don't trust him unless they can really mitigate their risk level. That means he can't land the high-profile epics he would probably be great in, but instead has to pick from the second-rate money-grabs like Season of the Witch.

If he could bring himself to live reasonably and focus on retiring his debt, he could soon stop making salary the main decision maker in his career. Then bring on the redemptive Sundance scripts! He was almost cast in The Wrestler; if he'd done it and nailed it (as Darren Aronofsky is on record saying that he would have), then we'd be having a different conversation right now. He's backed away from the action-movie precipice before, ten years ago; granted, it wasn't as crumbly then as it is right now, but he could do it. He only needs one critical smash to remind everyone what he can do. But at this point, there's no indication he can ever turn back. Occasionally a dormant synapse may fire, drawing him to a weird, small project like Bad Lieutenant, but he will always scurry back to the comforting glow of a CGI fireball. He's like Charlie Sheen, except with lavish purchases and big paydays as his vice.

The Bottom Line: By focusing on trying to keep his fortune steady while paying out to the IRS, he's stubbornly refusing to take the long view. We're looking at years more of these kinds of dreck choices, with progressively diminishing returns. And his name is becoming so inextricably linked with garbage (and his docket seems full of them for at least the next couple of years) that few quality directors will want him associated with their movies. The longer he goes on his current track, the longer it will take people to forgive him; it will take years of laying low for someone to re-offer him a redemptive Wrestler. The half-life of The Wicker Man is a long one.

Buy/Sell/Hold: Weak Sell

Photo: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images