15 Life-Affirming Facts About Leaving Las Vegas
After losing his family and job, Ben Sanderson (Nicolas Cage) moves to Las Vegas to slowly drink himself to death. Along the way, in Mike Figgis’ movie adaptation of John O’Brien’s semi-autobiography, he befriends and moves in with a prostitute named Sera (Elisabeth Shue). The two agree to not judge one another, but it doesn't take long for Sera to break their pact and try to put an end to Ben's suicidal bender, which prompts Ben to sabotage their relationship.
Cage won the Oscar for his heartbreaking performance, and Shue was nominated for her role as well (the film earned additional Academy Award nods for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay). On the 20th anniversary of the film's release, here are some life-affirming facts about Leaving Las Vegas.
1. JOHN O’BRIEN KILLED HIMSELF BEFORE THE FILM BEGAN PRODUCTION.
John O’Brien’s father described his son’s 1990 novel as his suicide note. Nicolas Cage said it was “bittersweet” that the author, who was 33 years old when he died, never got to see the film based on his novel—and life.
2. NICOLAS CAGE HONORED O’BRIEN IN HIS OWN WAY.
Cage told Roger Ebert he found it “creepy” that while he played Ben Sanderson, he unknowingly ended up wearing the same watch and driving the same model BMW as O’Brien. The late author’s family informed him of the coincidence on set.
3. IT WAS SHOT ON 16MM INSTEAD OF 35MM FILM.
Though 35 millimeter film was the norm for mainstream movies, 16 millimeter was a cheaper option, which was necessary because of Leaving Las Vegas's tiny $3.5 million budget. Cage said having a 16mm camera in his face was less intimidating and made him less tense than when he dealt with 35mm cameras.
4. PEOPLE WERE SKEPTICAL OF THE CASTING OF ELISABETH SHUE.
Shue was known for her work on more lightweight films like The Karate Kid (1984) and Adventures in Babysitting (1987). Figgis said people told him "You've lost your marbles" when he cast Shue in such a serious movie. She later was nominated for an Oscar for playing Sera.
5. CAGE SPOKE TO MANY ALCOHOLICS FOR RESEARCH.
He also watched four movies: The Lost Weekend, Days of Wine and Roses, Arthur, and Under the Volcano. Figgis called Albert Finney, star of Under the Volcano, on Cage’s behalf to ask if Finney was actually drunk when he acted in the film. Finney said that would have been impossible. Actor-comedian Richard Lewis (Peter)—who himself is a recovering alcoholic—also remembered Cage having someone on set describing drunkenness to help him out.
6. LIQUOR COMPANIES DIDN’T WANT TO BE ASSOCIATED WITH THE FILM.
For obvious reasons, bottle labels had to be changed or reversed. Figgis teased that "one very famous beer company offered us free booze not to put their label in the film."
7. NAOMI CAMPBELL BAILED AT THE LAST MINUTE.
The supermodel was supposed to play the hooker at the bar who Ben takes back to his and Sera’s apartment. At the last minute, a pre-SVU Mariska Hargitay agreed to replace Campbell, who dropped out to promote her album.
8. CAGE SANG WAGNER.
“For some reason or another,” Richard Wagner’s “Parsifal” came out of Cage’s heart—and mouth—while shooting a gambling scene.
9. THE DIRECTOR ALSO COMPOSED THE SOUNDTRACK.
Mike Figgis composed the jazz instrumentals and provided the trumpet and keyboards himself. He also appears in the film twice: Once as the mobster at the gas station and once as the lounge singer in a taxi ad.
10. LOU RAWLS' SINGING WAS CUT.
The three-time R&B vocal Grammy winner played the concerned cab driver. He sang “Stormy Monday” in the cab before he talked to Sera, but Figgis cut it for seeming too “self-indulgent” when it came time for editing.
11. SERA’S THERAPY SESSIONS WEREN’T IN THE ORIGINAL CUT.
Figgis added the therapy sessions to get some more insight into Sera’s character that otherwise didn’t make the leap from the book to the script. Since a producer asked Figgis to take the added therapy scenes out, he wanted to make sure they were absolutely necessary. Figgis determined after seeing his first version of the movie that they were.
12. CAGE TRIED TO USE ICE FOR HIS DEATH SCENE.
He was on a bed of ice to get his body to spasm. He dumped it because it made too much noise.
13. THE FILM WAS SHOT IN 28 DAYS.
14. CENSORS HAD VERY SPECIFIC ISSUES WITH THE FILM.
Significant cuts in the U.S. version needed to be made for Sera’s “Fat Hairy Man” speech. Censors also thought Yuri’s (Julian Sands) buttocks were “too strong” when he was in bed with Sera.
15. A 40-MINUTE SPOOF CALLED EATING LAS VEGAS WAS MADE IN 1997.
Instead of an alcoholic, Eating Las Vegas was about a corpulent man (Johnny Cocktails) who comes to Las Vegas—where "the buffets never close"—to eat himself to death. Julie Benz played Shue’s character, who in this version was bulimic. Dean Cain also starred.