Angel's Heart
By P J Sloane
Nicolas CageBACK in 1988, German director Wim Wenders brought to the screen the quintessential movie about angels, Wings of Desire, starring Bruno Ganz, which became an instant classic. Ten years later, the picture about a celestial being faced with the choice of becoming mortal himself in order to be with the woman he loves was remade by producer Dawn Steel. Unfortunately, Steel didn't live long enough to see City of Angels, her vision of Wenders's masterpiece, reach the screen, as she died in December, 1997, at the age of 51.
In the early stages of development, Steel approached Nicolas Cage to play Seth, the loving but restless angel who ushers the dying to the next world. Following a trilogy of action pictures (The Rock, Face/Off and Con Air), the actor welcomed the opportunity to take on the role of the benevolent spirit, as he recalls, "I'd been thinking a lot about my acting, and what it is that I want to say. It sounds trite, but it occurred to me that I'd like to be able to get back to that place when I was a child, when I was awe-struck by something that was simple as a raindrop, or sunlight on my face, or the way it felt to go swimming in the ocean. City of Angels was a script that provided that for me, because I'm playing a character who is in awe of people. He loves people. He thinks they are God's greatest creation because they have flesh, spirit and light, whereas he is only light. And in that awe I could convey my own feelings, as an actor, about the awe of being alive."
Although City of Angels takes a different slant on the original story line, Cage's admiration for Wings of Desire is obvious. "It's a great film. Wenders did some remarkable things with telling how even pens, rocks and cars have a soul. City of Angels is much more of a love story. So I didn't really borrow anything from Wings of Desire, except that Bruno Ganz had a very neat look, and I wanted to bring his clothing into the movie. Wings of Desire was in black-and-white, and I wanted to tip my hat to that movie, so we have the gray-scale clothing as if I had walked out of a black-and-white film."
One of Seth's primary duties on Earth is to comfort and escort the dying as they make their transition into a new plane of existence. When pragmatic heart surgeon Maggie Rice, portrayed by Meg Ryan, loses a patient on the operating table for no apparent reason, Seth, who is there overseeing the patient's transition, is touched by the doctor's grief and wants to assist her in overcoming her crisis. Soon the desire to help has blossomed into love, then longing as Seth yearns to experience the sensory life that Maggie enjoys, but he can only observe. "One of my favourite scenes in the movie is where Meg and I go into the hospital," says Cage. "She says, 'Give me your finger'. I say, 'No, it's not possible'. She pricks her own finger and puts the blood under the microscope, and she says that's all she is, these cells. And I say, 'If that's all you are, then when you die, that's it'. She says, 'Yes'. And I go, 'What about the enduring myth of Heaven?' What I like about that scene is the age-old duel between science and religion, or science and metaphysics. Neither one of them seems to be able to exist without the other. That's encapsulated in that scene." During his time at the hospital, Seth becomes acquainted with Nathaniel Messinger, played by NYPD Blues's Dennis Franz, who he discovers is a fallen angel. In one scene, the actors sit on a narrow beam which precariously hangs over a Los Angeles street. Despite the 'movie magic' that can be accomplished by special effects, Cage found himself, with Franz, sky-high on "a little piece of metal. We were 38 storeys up. We were cabled in, but there was nothing in front of me or behind me. There we were, Dennis Franz and myself, and I knew that I couldn't look down because I have a normal fear of heights. I guess I felt then like I could really act, because when I saw the movie, I didn't seem scared… but I was terrified!"
Nicolas Cage Photograph copyright Warners
Read the full interview with Nicolas Cage in the July issue of Film Review

"I’m playing a character who is in awe of people. He loves people. He thinks they are God’s greatest creation because they have flesh, spirit and light, whereas he is only light."

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