Behind the Camera

Behind the Camera: Leaving Las Vegas

Film: Leaving Las Vegas (Drama, 1995, Rated: R, 112 minutes)

Airdates (PDT) April 27 @ 12:35 a.m. on SHO; and May 2 @ 11:30 p.m. on SHO2W

Budget: $4 million

Box office: $49.8 million

Stars: Nicolas Cage, Elisabeth Shue

Supporting Cast: Julian Sands, Richard Lewis, Steven Weber, Emily Procter, Valeria Golino, Carey Lowell

Director: Mike Figgis

Overview: Come to Las Vegas, seize your life-transforming lucky break. At least that’s the promise of the fortune-changing flip of the card or turn of the slots. It’s why the Strip glitters with the possibility of down-on-your-luck redemption.

But what if the win-big-in-Vegas premise were turned upside down? Instead of being a shiny place to win, the city became a garish place to curl up and die? By booze? Alongside a prostitute? In the grimmest way possible?

That dire idea underpins Leaving Las Vegas, which won Nicolas Cage an Oscar (he was also nominated for Adaptation in 2003) and let Elisabeth Shue, who played the aforementioned prostitute, score her sole Oscar nomination and break a string of squeaky-clean-girl-next-door roles (Cocktail, Back to the Future, The Karate Kid, Adventures in Babysitting). considers Leaving Las Vegas Shue’s most famous role, listing it beside her name.

In the movie, Cage plays Ben Sanderson, a Hollywood screenwriter alone after his wife and son leave him. Ben trawls bars for sex, loses his job and heads for Las Vegas to end it all.

Once in the city, he meets Shue’s Sera, almost running her over on a crosswalk. Ben offers her $500 and invites her into his hotel room, but instead of having sex, they talk and bond. The rest of the movie examines their relationship; the couple accepts each other as is and Ben spirals downward.

The review site Rotten Tomatoes shows Leaving Las Vegas was liked by critics, who gave it a 92 percent “fresh” rating, and audiences, who gave it an 85 percent positive score.

 Production tales:

  • Esquire magazine reports that shortly after signing away the film rights to Leaving Las Vegas, author John O’Brien, who wrote the book on which the movie is based, committed suicide. IMDB says Figgis kept the movie going as a memorial to O’Brien; Cage wears the author’s Rolex wristwatch on camera.
  • Cage drank a lot to prepare for the role — bingeing and filming himself drunk. He was sufficiently credible that Empire magazine named a scene in which he sweeps through a supermarket as the eighth greatest movie drunk scene ever; Time magazine named Cage’s character one of the 10 sloppiest movie drunks ever.
  • A parade of famous offspring made cameos. Julian Lennon, the son of musician John Lennon, plays a bartender, as does Danny Huston, the son of actor John Huston. Mariska Hargitay, the daughter of actress Jayne Mansfield, plays a prostitute.
  • Booze makers didn’t want to be associated with a movie in which a character tries to drink himself to death — so bottle labels were changed.
  • Figgis created his own Easter egg, putting ads for Red Mullet, his production company, on top of taxicabs in the movie.
  • A limited budget meant Figgis couldn’t pay to have any portions of the Strip closed off, so some scenes were shot in one take to avoid police interference. “We didn’t have any money, and we weren’t pretending to be something we weren’t,” he said in an interview.
  • The Excalibur makes a cameo as Sera is propositioned there by a trio of randy college students.
  • A 1997 parody movie called Eating Las Vegas had the Cage proxy trying to eat himself to death at Las Vegas buffets, and the Shue proxy suffering from bulimia.

Soundtrack: The movie came a year after Sheryl Crow’s smash hit “Leaving Las Vegas.” The song isn’t in the movie’s score, which Figgis composed. The soundtrack album features performances by Sting, Don Henley and the Palladinos.

Cage-Vegas connection: Cage once owned a 14,300-square-foot, six-bedroom Las Vegas mansion that he reportedly bought for $8.5 million in September 2006. The Las Vegas Sun reported that the house, which also had seven-and-a-half bathrooms, a 16-car subterranean garage, an elevator and a theater room, was sold for about $4.95 million in January 2010 after one day on the market. It was bank-owned and foreclosed upon; Cage owed the Internal Revenue Service more than $6 million in back taxes at the time.

Philosophy: The Philosophical Films page on the University of Tennessee at Martin website says Leaving Las Vegas channels Jean Paul Sartre, the philosopher who argued that all relationships are sadistic or masochistic.

The critics said:

  • “Few films are more despairing and yet, curiously, so hopeful as this one, which argues that even at the very end of the road, at the final extremity, we can find some solace in the offer and acceptance of love.” — Roger Ebert, 2004.
  • “Dark and giddy at the same time, Leaving Las Vegas takes us into dreamy, intoxicated places no movie about an alcoholic has gone before.” — Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly, 2011.
  • “This film simply works as a character study, pitilessly well observed and intimately familiar with its terrain.” — Janet Maslin, The New York Times, 2009.
  • “Ben and Sera accept each other as is. He swigs; she screws — it’s what they do.” — Peter Travers, Rolling Stone, 1995.

— Compiled by Matthew Crowley from online resources

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