Sunday, October 11, 2009

My Favorite Scene: Leaving Las Vegas

There is Jack Lemmon destroying a greenhouse, like a ravaged animal, in desperate search of the liquor bottle he hid there hours earlier in Days of Wine and Roses. There is Ray Milland slinging two bottles of whiskey out of his window, hiding them from his suspicious brother in The Lost Weekend. There is Ed Harris flipping the set dinner table over in an alcoholic rage in Pollock. Or Jennifer Connelly smiling drearily as she clutches her huge bag of cut heroin in Requiem for a Dream.

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.
After they talk, Sera gives Ben a few gifts, the first of which is a tacky, bright orange shirt, which Ben accepts in stride. Next, Sera hands Ben a small box, which he opens delicately. Moving the tissue paper out of the way, with the camera slowly closing in on Cage’s face, we see what he sees. A brand new, shiny silver flask. The camera stays on Cage’s face for the longest moment. He puts his hand over his mouth, fighting back tears. Then, with his voice cracking, he forces out: “Well, it looks like I’m with the right girl.”

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.
The underlying themes of Leaving Las Vegas are beautifully conveyed on that couch. Figgis, who has never made a better film, created a world that felt so vivid and real (thanks to his shoe-string budget and 16MM film stock), that you can’t help but fall in love with these battered characters.

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.


  1. It's always the quiet scenes that last, isn't it?

    No doubt, Cage and Shue have never been better, and realistically won't be that good again. Probably true of Figgis as well, but at least he kept creating challenging work, even it wasn't a huge success (Timecode, anyone?).

    1. It IS always the quiet scenes. Yes my friend, indeed.

      And I completely agree, everyone was in top form here but undoubtedly will never match the quality of this film. Shame, but I'm glad LLV lives on.

  2. Great piece. Great scene from a film of the saddest terrible beauty.

    1. Thanks. I agree, Leaving Las Vegas is just devastating.