Wild at Heart Revisited

Editorial by Tom Dooley

Here’s a list of movie personalities. See if you can guess which actor has shared the screen with all of them.

Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Forest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards, Phoebe Cates, Richard Gere, Diane Lane, Bob Hoskins, Fred Gwynne, Laurence Fishburne, Cameron Dye, Matt Dillon, Mickey Rourke, Dennis Hopper, Chris Penn, Tom Waits, Elizabeth McGovern, Crispin Glover, Matthew Modine, Kathleen Turner, Jim Carrey, Helen Hunt, Marshall Crenshaw, Christopher Plummer, Holly Hunter, John Goodman, William Forsythe, Cher, Frances McDormand, Oylmpia Dukakis, Danny Aiello, Charlie Sheen, Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Jennifer Beals, Aaron Neville, Steve Buscemi, Marisa Tomei, Laura Dern, Willem Dafoe, Isabella Rosallini, Harry Dean Stanton, Sherilyn Fenn, Tommy Lee Jones, Sean Young, J.T. Walsh, Lara Flynn Boyle, Dwight Yoakam, James Caan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Pat Morita, Anne Bancroft, Peter Boyle, Jerry Tarkanian, Michael Biehn, James Coburn, Peter Fonda, Talia Shire, Samuel L. Jackson, Dabney Coleman, Michael Lerner, Dana Carvey, Jon Lovitz, Bridget Fonda, Rosie Perez, Stanley Tucci, J.E. Freeman, Red Buttons, Isaac Hayes, Shirley MacLaine, Elizabeth Shue, Julian Lennon, Lou Rawls, David Caruso, Ving Rhames, Sean Connery, Ed Harris, David Bowie, John Malcovich, John Cusack, and John Travolta.

If you actually read this list from start to finish, two things probably happened. First, you were probably impressed by the range of personalities represented by these names. If you’re like me, and like most Americans, you’re fascinated by movie stars. Next to being an actor or actress yourself, you’d like to be a casting director. And you may despise tabloids, but you still read the headlines while in line at the grocery store.

The second thing that probably happened is you figured out the mystery star. I made it easy for you by putting them in chronological order. For me, the answer becomes obvious at Laura Dern, Willem Dafoe, Isabella Rosallini, Harry Dean Stanton, and Sherilyn Fenn. You remember: they were all in that crazy, 1990 David Lynch movie, Wild at Heart. And so was Nicolas Cage, as Sailor Ripley, wearing a snakeskin jacket he said was his symbol of freedom and individuality.

Sure, Cage is just an actor, and so I can’t really give him full credit for the movies he’s acted in and the characters he’s portrayed. But I do have to give him credit for being an indispensable part of a number of truly great movies. Alas, for every Wild at Heart, Raising Arizona, Red Rock West, or Leaving Las Vegas, there’s been a Guarding Tess, Honeymoon in Vegas, Amos and Andrew, and ConAir. With a John Woo Face Off coming out this summer, and an upcoming Superman project directed by Tim Burton, it looks like we may have seen the last of the Cage who plays quirky little heroes in quirky little movies for the likes of David Lynch and the Coen brothers. Hello Jerry Bruckheimer. Hello John Woo. Hello big bucks and all-star casts and regurgitated plot lines and, well, big, big bucks. But what am I complaining about? If someone’s going be the next blockbuster superstar, it might as well be Cage. One, he can act. Two, he’s paid his dues by doing just that—acting in great movies. Three, his screen persona demands reasonably complex characters and semi-intelligent lines. Screenwriters aren’t likely to have him saying, "I’ll be back." So, if it’s going to be Sly, Arnold… Nicolas, then so be it.

Incidentally, I’ve always wondered just how Hollywood blockbuster screenplays are written. I imagine it’s something like this:

Producer #1: Okay, we want a big ending with lots of destruction.

Producer #2: Las Vegas has worked pretty good for Cage projects so far. Why don’t we crash the plane into the middle of the whole thing? It’s a whole new honeymoon in Vegas bay-bee. You thought he was leaving Las Vegas, but now he’s comin’ back!

Producer #1: Great idea! How can we work Elvis into the picture? Remember Wild at Heart, when he kept singing Elvis songs to Laura Dern? And then, in Leaving Las Vegas, remember the skydiving Elvises? Let’s have him crash the plane into the middle of a casino, and he can pick up a mic and start singing "Jailhouse Rock."

Producer #2: That’s it! That’s how we explain he’s on the plane!

Producer #1: He’s there to entertain the prisoners?

Producer #2: No, no, no! Wild at Heart, dude! Remember how he had to go to prison, and his kid grew up without him, and they had that scene where she met him at the train station and he gave the kid a stuffed animal?

Producer #1: Oh, so we’re going to have him be an actual convict now?

Producer #2: Why not? That way he can keep that long, scraggly hair-do he’s got. Then we can show him in the cell doing badass calisthenics. Remember Red-Rock West, when he was doing those one-handed pushups in the opening scene? Or how about Kiss of Death, when he bench-pressed that girl? Cage has got some pipes. Let’s show ’em off a little.

Producer #1: Okay, I’ve got another problem. How do we work in the obligatory stripper? I mean, we’re still doing that, right?

Producer #2: Whenever we can, although Striptease just about killed it. But this is a movie about a bunch of convicts on a plane. How are we going to get a stripper into that act?

Producer #1: Maybe have one of the convicts be a cross-dresser. He can strip for the rest of the guys.

Producer #2: It’s a possibility. I’ll have some people work on that angle.

(Note: These guys are entirely fictional. Judging from the predictable crap Hollywood has been spewing out lately, you might’ve assumed they were real, though, so I thought I’d better make it clear that I made them up.)


Speaking of Wild at Heart, I rented it last night. It’s been four or five years since I saw it last, and I'd been bragging it up, saying it was one of my five most favorite movies. After watching it again, I’m afraid I have to step back from that assessment. I still think it’s a good movie, but I’ve seen five in the past year that were better (Fargo, English Patient, Shine, LoneStar, and Sling Blade). It seems I’m just not on the right wavelength anymore to appreciate David Lynch’s vision, such as it was. To be honest, I’d forgotten how violent, gory, twisted, and sexually explicit this movie is. How heavy-handed and campy the whole Wizard of Oz thing is. How tedious the many flashbacks become. What I remembered were the many delightfully oddball characters, the outrageous dialogue between Lula and Sailor, the haunting night-accident scene, the leering perfection of Willem Dafoe’s character, and the great soundtrack.

The violence in Wild at Heart, I think, is intended to be shocking. The sad part is, it no longer is shocking so much as just plain ugly. Which may be a good thing, as far as this movie is concerned, but a sad commentary on the mainstream Hollywood movies of today. Wild at Heart’s violence isn’t shocking because today’s major, mainstream movies have just as much violence. The difference is that in movies like ConAir and The Lost World, the violence is glamorized. It’s made into something powerful—a powerful act of perversion, or tragedy, or revenge. But in David Lynch’s world, people die dingy, unimpressive, sickening deaths. The rude way his camera thrusts gore at us ends up showing violence for the ugly little thing it is. A good example of this is at the end of the movie, when Dern is going to the train station to pick up Cage after his stint in prison. On the way, she sees a traffic accident and makes the kid look away so he doesn’t see it. But we see it, and it seems completely out of place at the end of this movie to see a man with a horribly disfigured face, bleeding on the sidewalk. I mean, why is Lynch making us look at this awful stuff when we’re supposed to be gearing up for the happy lovers’ reunion? Why indeed. This one scene lets us know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, what violence is in the Lynchian world. It isn’t pretty, and it isn’t something I want to see more of, but it does seem less morally reprehensible than the "acceptable" violence we see in today’s blockbusters.

One scene I’d forgotten was where Laura Dern’s character flashes back to her childhood abortion—one made necessary when she was raped by her mother’s business associate. It was a brief scene, with Dern’s face distorted and magnified through some kind of medical apparatus. Most of the work in the scene is done by sound effects (a discomforting blender/suction combination), Dern’s magnified eyes widening in pain, and a plastic, straw-like tube that fills with blood. Regardless of your views on abortion, this scene does more to discourage it than a street-full of protesters ever could.

Ironically, Dern is now playing a woman considering an abortion in Citizen Ruth, a woman who when young was also sexually molested.

Seven years after Wild at Heart, Dern and Cage continue to climb their respective ladders in the motion picture industry. They’ve both enjoyed blockbuster commercial success (The Rock, Jurassic Park) and solid critical acclaim (Leaving Las Vegas, Rambling Rose). She’s still facing issues of molestation and abortion, and he’s still giving stuffed animals to children he hasn’t watched grow up. I just hope they both continue to take time out from the big studio projects to make some more truly great movies.

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