The Role of a Lifetime: 1

In Uncategorized on June 25, 2010 at 3:28 pm

An essay I considered sending to The Believer. I have since reconsidered, since they never respond to my queries. Photograph of actors Brad Stephenson and Allison Fatla, from a Pittsburgh production of SEX, a.k.a. Wieners & Boobs.

In 1995, Nicholas Cage won an Academy Award for Best Actor. He also won a Golden Globe, a Screen Actors Guild Award, and a dozen other awards from local film critics’ associations. He was nominated for a BAFTA, a Chlotrudis, an Independent Spirit Award, and a London Film Critics Circle Award, all for best actor.

The film was Leaving Las Vegas. Cage played Ben Sanderson, a jobless, tactless, suicidal alcoholic who moves to Las Vegas in order to drink himself to death. In an early scene, he packages all the belongings in his empty house – empty because his family has left him – and burns them in a bonfire. Sanderson eventually meets a luckless prostitute (Elizabet Shue), who turns out to be the only woman who understands him. After a long, subversive relationship, they make love, and he dies. His final word is, “Wow.”

To this day, after appearing in 60 feature films, Nicholas Cage is still most revered as “a serious actor” for Leaving Las Vegas. There have been other high points, such as his collaborations with David Lynch, Werner Herzog, Spike Jonez and the Coen Brothers. But Leaving Las Vegas is the pinnacle of his dramatic career. Ben Sanderson is the character who racked up the big-time awards. He is “the role of a lifetime.”

And who is Ben Sanderson? A drifter, an addict, a john, and, ultimately, a man who kills himself.

This has become the tradition: The Role of a Lifetime is an obscure, miserable, lonely, self-destructive loser caught in a whirlpool of loss and bad decisions. The role is the lead character, and often it’s also the name of the movie. This character appears in almost every scene, slinking from one horrible situation to the next. Halfway through the film, this tragic soul dares to hope for a better future. Will that hope be redeemed? Sometimes things get better. Other times, he screws a prostitute and dies in a strange hotel.


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