Here’s an unusual Oscar winner from 1995, with Nic Cage on career best form. He won Best Actor at the 1996 Academy Awards for his incredible performance.
The low-budget film is a challenging work, dealing with addiction, depression, and death. Not your standard Oscar fair. It’s kind of a visualised take on Kerouac’s Big Sur (1962), with nothing held back.
But beneath its dark surface there’s a touching love story and a lot of black humour. Although there’s no happy ending.
Contemplating Leaving Las Vegas’ Drunken Melancholia
The film is adapted from the eponymous 1990 semi-autobiographical novel by American author John O’Brien, who committed suicide in 1994.
That kind of sets the tone for what’s ahead here. You can also see Hollywood wasn’t entirely sure how to deal with the film.
Whoever created the trailer clearly had little idea what they were dealing with, trying to play on the film’s occasional bursts of humour like it’s some fun barfly romp.
Anyway, the plot. Ben Sanderson (Nic Cage) is a successful Hollywood screenwriter who loses his job due to his drinking.
His wife has also left him, taking their son with her. The plot doesn’t make it clear if this is due to Ben’s drinking, or if them leaving has led to him drinking.
Clearly inwardly distraught, he decides to abandon everything, head out to Las Vegas, and drink himself to death.
When he gets there he checks into a seedy, bargain bin motel. Director Mike Figgis sprinkles the film with a laconic sense of humour, which is evident as Ben checks in.
But also bumps into Sera (Elisabeth Shue), a prostitute, who Ben drunkenly pays for.
However, back in his motel the pair forego sex and instead spend the evening drinking. They soon hit it off, with Sera taking to Ben’s gentle nature and easy charms.
Sera works for the abusive Yuri Butsov (Julian Sands), who’s bumped off early in the film leaving her as a free agent.
As a result, she tracks down Ben at his motel and they go for a meal.
The strange thing about Leaving Las Vegas is, despite the terrible subject matter, the love story is genuinely touching.
As those two hit it off, Sera invites Ben to live in her flat.
He accepts and moves in, even if Ben is passed out unconscious on her doorstep when Sera arrives home.
As the pair continue to hit it off, the audience begins to wonder if Ben will abandon his plans and commit to Sera.
However, Ben is very clear about his drinking intentions and Sera promises not to interfere with his goal.
Sera doesn’t seem to quite understand this and later attempts to stop Ben from drinking, which leads to the relationship coming to an end.
We think this is the powerful force behind the film. The manic depression so deeply welling up in Ben is so forceful nothing will stop him completing his goal.
As we mentioned earlier, we don’t know the full circumstances of Ben’s situation. We just know his wife is gone, along with his son.
His depressive spiral has an edge of gallows humour to proceedings, as he doesn’t show much outward emotion about what’s happened.
Instead, he’s very smart, witty, and engaging. Even when his drunken antics make him lecherous and pathetic, most of the time he’s likeable.
However, when extremely drunk in a casino one evening he has a violent rage where he tellingly screams, “He is my son!”
And we think Leaving Las Vegas nails this perfectly, as Cage’s performance is quite outstanding. It really shows the nature of mental health issues beneath our outwardly sociable exteriors. Bottling things up is the norm.
But in this explosive instance, Ben is clearly burning from agony within.
After the pair split, their lives take a sudden downturn in fortunes. Yet they meet for a final time when Ben is on his deathbed.
And that’s Leaving Las Vegas—an unflinching insight into depression.
But also a strangely upbeat film. In a kind of existential way. Ben’s ready wit and humanity are what make it memorable.
It’s an exhilarating performance from Cage in a stumbling, deadbeat way. We think its great triumph is in the authentic portrait of manic depressive self-destruction.
Tackling these subjects is important and Figgis’ production was decades ahead of its time, for which we think he should be commended.
The Production of Leaving Las Vegas
Nic Cage is an odd beast. One hell of an actor when he wants to be (check out Pig from 2021), he’s also eccentric and leads an extravagant lifestyle.
Cage once spent $276,000 on a T. Rex skull. Later it turned out the skull had been stolen, so he graciously agreed to return it.
He’s also been in some terrible films over the last decade. But also some great and intriguing ones—Mandy (2018) is another fine example.
For Leaving Las Vegas, his pre-shoot research involved binge drinking in Dublin. He’d then film himself when drunk to get an understanding of the right body language, speech, and hand gestures. He also visited hospitalised alcoholics to understand their stories.
Famously, director Figgis used a super 16-mm camera for the whole shoot.
That was directly due to the low budget—the camera was created by Swedish cinematographer Rune Ericson in 1969.
It provides a gritty texture to the scenes, almost like its representing the drunken haze of Ben’s mind (good symbolism, eh?).
Director Figgis filmed many scenes on the Las Vegas Strip. He didn’t have a filming warrant so the two actors had to be quick to avoid the police.
Off its $4 million budget, the film was a bit of a success—it made almost $40 million in America. Again, surprising given its subject matter.
For Cage, the success opened the door to bigger projects. He went with a more action film focus after this, with daft (but entertaining) films like Con Air and Face/Off.
Elisabeth Shue’s performance is also excellent. However, her career never really took off—a shame given the talent she showed in the film.
We’ll also close by adding we think Mike Figgis (who also wrote the script) offers a thoroughly genuine account of mental health struggles here.
That’s very uncommon in cinema. To be this realistic takes a lot of guts and we’re pleased it worked out for him and this cult classic.