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Unforgettables: Cinematic milestones with Sara Michelle — Guarding Tess

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TriStar Pictures
TriStar Pictures

Nicolas Cage's overlooked, empathetic gem still resonates 30 years on

Nicolas Cage's run during the 1990s was one pretty much every actor dreams of but only a scant few experience. He won an Academy Award for Best Actor for Leaving Las Vegas. He made two of the best romantic comedies of the past three-plus decades in Honeymoon in Vegas and It Could Happen to You, and between them starred in one of the greatest neo-noirs ever made, Red Rock West. His three-picture summertime action run of The Rock, Con Air, and Face/Off speaks for itself. He bookended the decade too: starting things off working for David Lynch (Wild at Heart) before closing it out alongside Martin Scorsese (Bringing Out the Dead).

But that wasn't all. Intermixed between all of those justifiably lauded wonders were several risky endeavors, some of which worked out (the melodramatic weepie City of Angels — a remake of Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire — was a box office smash despite middling reviews), a few where they did not (the snuff thriller 8MM crashed and burned, as did yuletide crime comedy Trapped in Paradise), and others in which his performances are so indescribably bizarre that, no matter the film's overall quality (or lack thereof), they still must be seen to be believed (the softcore sex drama Zandalee, the racism comedy Amos & Andrew, the pre-Pulp Fiction pulp fiction Deadfall, and the Rashomon-like, Atlantic City boxing-espionage-military murder mystery Snake Eyes. And don't even get me started on whatever it is Cage was doing in the hardcore noir remake Kiss of Death.

Lost in all of this genre madness, Cage teamed up with icon Shirley MacLaine and Police Academy director Hugh Wilson to make 1994's Guarding Tess. It's a quiet film, somber, subtle, unabashedly sweet. Few big jokes. No large set pieces (even with its race-against-the-clock abduction climax).

And yet, I say this understated gem features the Oscar-winning actor at the height of his powers. This is a memorably gentle character study that's only gotten better with age and, here on its 30th anniversary, just thinking about the film again is enough for a single happy tear to form in the corner of my eye.

It's hard to fully express what it is exactly that makes this motion picture remarkable. This is the straightforward story of crack Secret Service agent Doug Chesnic (Cage). He feels his talents are being wasted protecting former First Lady (and recent widow) Tess Carlisle (MacLaine) at her family estate in the middle of Midwest nowhere. Just when he's finally going to be reassigned, she persuades the current president to keep Doug right where he is — in charge of her protective detail. They unsurprisingly butt heads from that point forward.

Wilson — one of the creative minds behind WKRP in Cincinnati, who then became the director of a string of ho-hum comedies like the aforementioned Police Academy and also Burglar, Rustlers' Rhapsody, Blast from the Past, and, yes, even The First Wives Club (I'm not much of a fan, sorry not sorry) — crafted the original screenplay with PJ Torokvei (Back to School, Real Genius), and it's shockingly great. The pair composed an introspective, character-driven treatise on friendship, aging, found family, and workplace drudgery that's intimately touching and cathartically unrestrained. It also fits Cage and MacLaine's immense talents perfectly.

TriStar Pictures  

It is clear these two characters were likely dreamt up with both actors in mind. But where Cage and MacLaine could have easily hammed it up to stratospheric heights in a playful battle to see which of them could go over the top the furthest (and loudest), instead they made the choice to tone things down. Each Oscar winner relies upon their physicality, their wardrobes, and the environment to do much of the heavy lifting for them. They inhabit Doug and Tess with stoically confident restraint, bringing an internalized authenticity to their performances that makes their battle of wills — and more importantly, the unspoken respect they have for one another — all the more effective.

This also means that when they do decide to cut it loose, those moments predictably stand out, and always in a good way. Cage's pent-up ferocity always comes to the forefront in the most unexpected of ways, while MacLaine's slow-burn emotional breakdowns are heartrending. They play comedic and dramatic bits with eloquent ease, and this allows them to be mean, belligerent, and unkind to one another without ever losing the audience's goodwill. We like Doug and Tess, no matter what.

Wilson surrounds them with a stellar supporting cast that includes Austin Pendleton, James Rebhorn, Richard Griffiths, Dale Dye, Harry Lennix, Edward Albert, and uncredited Noble Willingham. They all fit in seamlessly, everyone making a noticeable impression but not so much that they take the spotlight away from Cage or MacLaine.

There's this sublime moment in 2022's meta-comedy The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent when Cage, playing himself (sorta...it's too complicated to explain here), and Pedro Pascal, as a billionaire mega-fan (who may or may not also be a bloodthirsty drug lord) chat about everything from 1988's Vampire's Kiss to 2018's Mandy. It's funny and silly in all the best ways, and the obnoxious enthusiasm the two share while reminiscing over so many of the actor's films is infectious.

But when they get to this title, things stop cold. There is an immediate serenity. They smile: one because they are so genuinely touched that the other is so fond of this somewhat overlooked, maybe even semiforgotten flick, the other because their personal hero appears to hold it in the upper echelons of their filmography the same way they do. It's a magical scene for a multitude of reasons, and while their interaction is fictional, that does not make any of the kind things they say about the film a lie.

Far from it. There is an empathetic grace to Guarding Tess that's timeless. It embraces change and allows its characters to make mistakes, scream in anger, reveal harsh truths, find peace in honesty, and create lasting connections that will prove to be unbreakable when it matters the most. This is a story of compassion and understanding that's universally resonant on a level that goes far beyond gender, age, sexuality, or ethnicity.

Cage's 1990s run was one for the record books. Guarding Tess is one of the reasons why. It's unforgettable.

Celebrating its 30th anniversary, Guarding Tess is available on DVD and Blu-ray, and can be purchased digitally on multiple platforms.