In the final episode of St. Elsewhere, something strange happens. Snow begins to fall around St. Eligius Hospital, and we cut to an image of Dr. Donald Westphall’s autistic son Tommy, a minor character in the series up to this point. He sits, staring at a snow globe, inside of which we see a replica of the hospital itself. This provocative final image led to the development of something called the Tommy Westphall Universe hypothesis – the idea that St. Elsewhere took place entirely in Tommy Westphall’s imagination. As characters and situations from St. Elsewhere crossed over with other television series, and characters from those series crossed over to other series, Tommy’s imagination consumed more and more of television – even jumping networks occasionally. By the reckoning of St. Elsewhere creator Tom Fontana, “Someone did the math once… and something like 90 percent of all television took place in Tommy Westphall’s mind. God love him.”
The question is, can something similar explain the career of Nicolas Cage?
My starting point here is Raising Arizona. Since crossovers of characters between films (excepting franchises or sequels) is uncommon, it’s important to note at the outset that Raising Arizona is a film that admits and allows for the existence of other films. The story that M. Emmet Walsh’s character tells Cage’s H.I. McDunnough actually comes from an earlier Coen Brothers collaboration, Intruder. This “head in one hand, sandwich in the other” speech opens a metafictional doorway between Raising Arizona and the rest of cinema. But this is not the only connection between the film and other films. Observant watchers will note that H.I. works for Hudsucker Industries, the corporation that would later be at the centre of the Coen’s screwball comedy, The Hudsucker Proxy. The alarm button the convenience store clerk presses alerts Odegaard-Trend Security, the security company from Sam Raimi’s Crimewave. And graffiti reading “P.O.E” and “O.P.E” in a public washroom in the film reference the recurring phrase “purity of essence” in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. (Thanks, IMDB trivia listing.)
So what? Nothing much, except for the fact that Raising Arizona ends with a dream sequence. A dream sequence from which the film, and the character – and, by extension, Nicolas Cage – never emerge. Narrated by H.I., the dream presents a possible future for all the film’s major characters, complete with happy endings and karmic comeuppances. But it is not presented as fact. It is never validated, and is in fact questioned by H.I.:
“And I don’t know. You tell me. This whole dream, was it wishful thinking? Was I just fleeing reality like I know I’m liable to do?”
If he was fleeing, and if, within the confines of the film, he never returned to his own reality, where did he end up? Maybe, just maybe, he stepped through that metafictional doorway and ended up in other movies.
It’s not much of a stretch to imagine that Moonstruck took place in the mind of a dreaming H.I. McDunnough; save for a prosthetic hand, he’s practically the same man, with the same hair and the same recidivist tendencies confusing his good intentions. It plays almost like a REM-state remix of H.I.’s issues. It’s easy to read Vampire’s Kiss similarly – a nightmare of the isolation to which H.I. nearly doomed himself. Wild at Heart, although made in 1990, is rooted in pop culture that would have been current in H.I.’s formative years. Sailor Ripley, the film’s conflicted, just-out-of-jail, one-step-ahead-of-the-law hero is likewise close kin to H.I., and walks a similar metafictive road.
Shortly after this, however, things start to go south. The further into the future H.I. dreams, the further he is from his own reality, and from anything he has any experience of. Consequently, the less convincing he is in his roles. A bodyguard to a former First Lady? An asthmatic gangster? How could the slumbering H.I. create realistic portraits of characters like that? He can’t, and so he resorts to ticks and shorthand and becomes increasingly unconvincing. It all spirals down to Leaving Las Vegas – in which it’s not difficult to read suicide as a desperate attempt to escape this life and wake back into his original.
But it fails. It’s as if H.I. emerges from Leaving Las Vegas with a brownout of what came before. He’s severed his connection with the past, and proceeds to sleepwalk (an irresistibly accurate term given the current topic) through his subsequent roles. How else to explain The Rock? 8MM? Gone in Sixty Second? Captain Corelli’s goddamned Mandolin? National Treasure? World Trade Center? Ghost Rider? The Wicker Man remake? (And yes, I am omitting films that fail to support my thesis. Let’s say for the sake of (my) argument that H.I. rolled over and neared consciousness during Face/Off, or Bringing Out the Dead.)
The only time he really seems to revive is when he skates close to the metafictional edge – most notably in Adaptation and his delirious cameo as Fu Manchu in Grindhouse. It seems that only when he’s allowed to connect with the unreality of the whole situation can he make it believable. When there is no crawdad, we eat sand.
Do I really believe any of the above? Maybe not. But it’s nicer to believe this than to just accept the idea that an exciting actor traded challenging roles for easy money and squandered talent in the pursuit of facelifts and hair replacement.
Wake up, H.I. Wake up.
Ian Driscoll is, in spite of all this, kind of weirdly looking forward to Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Go figure.