Each of these scenes masterfully conveys the often misunderstand disease of addiction. And while these films are memorable in their own light, the most unflinching, brutal, realistic depiction of addiction I’ve seen is Mike Figgis’ modern masterpiece Leaving Las Vegas.
Nicolas Cage embodies alcoholism in a way I’ve never seen. As Ben, a helpless writer who moves to Las Vegas with the sole intention of drinking himself to death, Cage quite simply delivers one of the best acting performances of the ‘90s. His performance is unselfish, unrelenting, and immensely horrifying. It’s the type of acting film students study.
About an hour into the film, when Ben first arrives at Sera’s (Elizabeth Shue) home, they sit on the couch and discuss their awkward arrangement. Sera, a prostitute longing for some kind of human connection, has asked Ben to stay with her until he fulfills his life-ending goal.
He is completely dumbfounded. Never in his life has someone been as accepting of his disease. And that’s the power of the scene. Is it a nice gift? Of course. That’s what great gifts do, they fill a lack of want that we previously had (or didn’t know we had). But is it a noble gift? My god, no. It’s the same as giving a box of syringes to a heroin addict. Sera knows this. And she accepts it. She knows that by giving the flask to Ben, she’s only speeding up his untimely death. But there’s something tender and beautiful about the scene. Something… uplifting, but at the same time, devastatingly heartbreaking. In short, it’s the single greatest film moment I’ve seen involving addiction. It’s the scene that won Cage the Best Actor Oscar.
I love recommending Leaving Las Vegas to people. I warn them that it’s heavy cinema and it stars a great Nicolas Cage. “What? Nicolas Cage? Great?” I know, it’s strange to hear. But it’s stranger to watch, because what we get is a performance free of any inhibitions. It’s the essence of acting: we don’t see Nicolas Cage, sell-out action star. We see Ben Sanderson, helpless alcoholic.
Watching Leaving Las Vegas is being thrown into a world that you knew existed, just not with this much severity. It’s a remarkable experience. You’ll end this favorite scene the same way you’ll end the film; feeling grimy, sad, deserted, but also terribly moved.