Leaving Las Vegas
Director: Mike Figgis /Screenplay: Mike Figgis (from novel by John O’Brien) / Editing: John Smith / DP: Declan Quinn / Score: Mike Figgis + Various Artists
Cast: Nicolas Cage / Elisabeth Shue / Julian Sands / Richard Lewis / Steven Weber / Emily Procter / Valeria Golino / Carey Lowell / R. Lee Ermey / Danny Huston / Laurie Metcalf / Julian Lennon
The Road Less Travelled…
After lambasting Nicolas Cage in my recent review of Drive Angry, I thought I’d redress the balance with what’s arguably his best performance. I’d go further and suggest that Leaving Las Vegas by director Mike Figgis, is one of the best films of the Nineties; a decade largely impoverished of enduring classics.
It all began with a novel by John O’Brien. A troubled alcoholic himself, O’Brien ended his own life, shortly after signing the film deal. In a sense, then, ‘Vegas stands as his own suicide note to the World. It features an idealised exit for a central character – Ben Sanderson – whose own alcoholism has almost run its course. O’Brien used a pistol to bring his own pain to an untimely end, but explored the equally-grim alternative in his novel.
Ben: ‘I came here to drink myself to death. Cashed-in all my money. Paid my Amex card. I’ll sell the car tomorrow.’
In retrospect, Figgis was the ideal champion for such bleak material; the received wisdom of the day, being that no-one would want to see a character endure such plausible agonies. A very British auteur, this multi-talented Writer-Director, had forged his own path, since being rejected from The National Film School. After gritty Northern drama Stormy Monday (1988) featuring an unexpected turn from Sting and a milieu lifted from Get Carter (1971), Figgis followed the money to Hollywood. There, he delivered a clutch of uneven movies that struggled to thrive ‘in the system’. As a result, by the time ‘Vegas came round, Figgis was presented with a tiny budget.
Ironically, for a director well-versed in the ‘hard scrabble’ of UK film production, it was to prove more of a blessing than a curse. For one thing, it meant less oversight from the studio and led to a smaller production unit; one that could move nimbly around locations, often without permits. Figgis also understood actors. He got them. ‘Vegas would offer its two leads, a chance to grapple with truth. With real life. With honesty, to a degree that Hollywood – to that point – had carefully avoided.
Nicolas Cage wouldn’t just play the role of Ben: he would inhabit Ben Sanderson. This, after spending time in the company of both those afflicted by this terrible disease and the health professionals caring for them. The result, is a natural, unaffected performance of a man who’s elected to see his misery right through to the end. It’s both harrowing and compelling in equal measure.
When we first see him, filling a supermarket trolley with booze, the manic, almost hyper-active Ben looks every inch ‘the happiest man on Earth’. A man ‘living his truth’, you might say. Yet with EVERY ‘up’, there’s a ‘down’: watching him tap an old friend for money in a crowded restaurant tells its own tale. His friend hands-over dollar bills with this payoff: ‘Don’t drink it in here’. Thus, are old friends and relationships, severed. But Ben’s already careering to the end, oblivious to his loss of dignity.
After a pleading, self-pitying attempt at picking-up a girl in a bar, he arrives at a strip club. Watching him neck a full bottle of bourbon as he watches the dancer, is to believe in Cage-the-actor. Already, there’s a ghostly pallor to his face. An ongoing ruination in the pursuit of forgetting just what it was that led him to this point.
Ben’s not much help when it comes to his own backstory, either. After being fired by a regretful, sorrowful boss, from his job as a Hollywood agent, he lights his own ‘bonfire of the vanities’ in his backyard, burning everything that links him to a failed past / marriage / life. His passport. Photos. All that was Ben Sanderson, now gone.
He told his boss, that he’d move to Las Vegas. What isn’t said, is that ‘Vegas bars never close…
Which brings us to Sera (Elisabeth Shue). As a young woman, Shue turned to acting in commercials to finance her college education and from there, side-stepped into movies with a few bit-parts, until getting noticed in The Karate Kid (1984). Her profile was secured after stepping-into Back to the Future Parts Two & Three (1989, 90) at short notice: not that this guaranteed further roles. A string of desultory material would follow, until Figgis made her his first choice.
The so-called ‘tart-with-a-heart’ archetype had been a staple of film (and literature) since its earliest days, of course, but in O’Brien’s novel – and Figgis’ adaptation – the character of Sera would be drawn differently. The most obvious advance, is the lack of redemption on-offer for all concerned. During Ben’s first hour in Sera’s apartment, he tells her – no, he pleads with her – that on no-account must she ask him to stop drinking. In accepting this, Sera is bowing to the inevitable, along with us, as passive observers. Another revelation, is the sheer complexity of Sera’s motivation in all this. Ben’s is clear enough, but what of her? What’s she getting out of it? The answer’s not immediately obvious.
Our first glimpse of Sera, is a short clip from a therapy session. She talks with pride, of her ability to anticipate the needs of her various clients. But this is all just bravado, as she’s also in a dysfunctional ‘relationship’ with her Russian pimp, Yuri (Julian Sands). He’s a cowardly, emotional manipulator, who’s not above physically abusing Sera when it suits him: and she caries the scars of past transgressions. There’s a sadomasochistic side to her character, then, which finds solace in caring for Ben during his final days.
Sera’s as damaged as Ben, in her own way. Helping this stranger fulfil his last wish, is to salve her own wounds. Then again, are they really strangers? The speed of mutual acceptance – of their natural bond – makes me think of them more as timeless archetypes both; as if these people have danced to this tune many times before. The tragedy this time around, is that it’s taken Ben’s downward spiral for them to find each other; the unspoken notion being, that had they done so earlier, things either might have worked-out ‘better’, or (and more likely) they’d never have found each other, given their radically different circumstances: tragedy, indeed.
As it is, Ben is resolved. His pain is so all-consuming, that drink has become the dominant urge. If Ben drinks, he cannot think. He can no-longer remember why he drinks, only that he must.
This darker side to Sera’s character, finds its apotheosis in an ill-fated rendezvous with a gang of unruly college boys. In its wake, comes her own despair, in the form of eviction and lack of income. What follows for Sera then, is unwritten. For Ben? Well, we know that going-in. That said, I can picture a brighter future for Sera on the other side of all this. Yes, she’s lost perhaps the only man she’s ever – truly – loved, but that can change with time. Now at least she is free: of Yuri. The Game and of Vegas too, if she wants it. Free to cash-in her own chips and find the rest of her life knowing that, maybe, Ben’s out there, willing her on.
The film was shot by Declan Quinn on lurid 16mm, which lends a saturated intensity to the relentless, neon-filled facade that is Las Vegas at-night; a stark contrast with the warm, nurturing tones in Sera’s place. There’s grit here. Grain. The shadow-play is superb, especially in the final, desperate scene. About the only thing that graunched for me, was the soundtrack’s over-use of plangent numbers from Sting and other smoky standards, but it’s just a matter of personal taste over artistic choices.
Nominated for several Academy Awards, including nods for both leads, it was Cage who walked out with the film’s only gong of the night. Not that it matters, for ‘Vegas remains a career highlight for both actors. It gave Cage the confidence to fully immerse himself in future roles; trusting the audience to follow, even if their patience was tested more than rewarded. For Shue, it was a chance to go out on a limb with a character; a move that, even now, remains rare enough to trigger comment.
Yet without it, it’s possible to make the case that films such as Patty Russell’s Monster (2003) or even Margot Robbie’s take on Harley Quinn, wouldn’t have been possible, had Leaving Las Vegas not shown Hollywood the value to be found, by gazing into its own underbelly with more grit than it’d risked before. Once ‘The Suits’ realised there really WAS a sizeable audience just waiting for similar material, the way was clear: it was ever thus.
Figgis knew it, too. Question is: where did he get to and WHY has this singular talent been so conspicuously absent from our screens ever since?
Now, that’s a tragedy.
Ben Sanderson: ‘Don’t you think you’d get a little bored, living with a drunk?’
Sera: ‘Well… That’s what I want.’
Ben Sanderson: ‘You haven’t seen the worst of it. I knock things over… Throw up all the time. These past few days, I’ve been very controlled. You’re like some sort of antidote that mixes with the liquor and keeps me in balance. But, that won’t last forever.’