I have just finished watching Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas for the first time since its release 25 years ago. I know, I know…and to call myself a Nic Cage fan, eh? Well now, here I am, at 2 a.m., in bed weeping. This film still has a profound effect on me.
I knew what the plot was: Ben (Nicholas Cage), an alcoholic screenwriter whose wife and kid have left him and has just been fired from his job, decides to travel from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to drink himself to death. There he meets Sera (Elisabeth Shue), a prostitute, and they fall in love. What I didn’t know was that this was going to be one of the most helpless and heartbreaking stories I have ever seen on screen.
The toughest aspect of witnessing Ben’s alcohol addiction unfold is the complete futility of his disease. He has totally succumbed to the depressing concept that his personal Grim Reaper is going to greet him in the form of a vodka bottle. From the opening scene of Ben dancing joyfully as he fills his shopping cart with a variety of bottles of alcohol, completely ignoring the water shelves, you know this is a man on a mission. He has completely given up on himself and any hope of being sober, as if he believes he has earned his demise, without a minute to waste on redemption. Ben wants to die but isn’t suicidal as such—he wouldn’t kill himself in any other way, he doesn’t need it to be over quickly, and he doesn’t particularly hate his life. Though he has some regrets, he just really loves booze. He makes no secret of it, doesn’t try to cover it up or make his addiction out to be less problematic than it is. Ben knows full well that he is too far gone to make it out alive, so he embraces it with open, loving arms.
Early on in the film, when a slurring, intoxicated Ben is receiving oral sex from a sex worker (well, his wedding ring finger is), he tells the girl, “I don’t know if I started drinking ’cause my wife left me or my wife left me ’cause I started drinking, but f–k it anyway.” It doesn’t really matter how or why the drinking started. We don’t need to know Ben’s backstory, and you don’t have to have “issues” to become an alcoholic, it can just happen over time. The girl slides his wedding ring off into her mouth, and the morning after, Ben lies on the kitchen floor with the world’s worst hangover, contemplating the symbolic moment when his marriage was gone forever.
Anyone who has ever been in a relationship with someone who is dependent on alcohol (or any other addictive substance) will tell you that it is as if there are three people in the relationship. They have a mistress in a bottle and they come in many forms, all of them alluring and exciting to them. They will give her up for short periods, but the attraction is always there. You can tell they’re thinking about her all the time. There is only so long any self-respecting person can put up with playing second fiddle to their spouse’s bit on the side. You might question why they’d marry them in the first place, knowing about their affair, but in the beginning, you think, “It’s just a fling, they’ll get bored, they’ll grow up, they’ll see that they have everything they need right here with their family.” It doesn’t work like that. No, over the years their relationship with the bottle became more important than pretty much anything. The more you try to stop them, the more they want her. It’s not to say that they don’t love you, but thoughts of their mistress are at the forefront of their mind all of the time, and those flames of passion just seem to burn brighter and brighter for them.
So you give up. What is the point in trying when the person themself has no fight in them at all? You just stop caring. Not about them, but you just accept it, lose your patience, and don’t want to hear the same old, “Just this weekend, then that’s it, from Monday I’m giving up” anymore. It’s their life and they can do what they want with it.
It’s not even Ben’s astonishingly toxic relationship with alcohol by the time we meet him in Leaving Las Vegas that upset me. It is the fact that he met an angel in Sera, in the last few weeks of his life, and it was too late. Could she have saved him if they’d met sooner? Probably not. It feels so hopelessly bittersweet that they were able to give each other so much in such a short time. I question whether their paths would even have crossed if they hadn’t both been living in such dire circumstances. They likely wouldn’t, and so things would be unknowingly worse for both without each other. Ben thinks of Sera as an angel, and despite her demons, she is an angel for him.
Elisabeth Shue is just breathtaking as Sera. Prior to this role, she had been known for films such as The Karate Kid, Back To The Future II, and Adventures in Babysitting. It was quite a jump to see her playing a tough but out-of-her-depth sex worker. And to hear her talking about how she was OK with men having anal sex with her, and that ejaculating over her face is fine, but not her hair (because she just washed it), raised my eyebrow—not because I am prudish, but because those words spilled from Elisabeth Shue’s sweet mouth. I worried at first that she wouldn’t be able to pull this role off, but she gives the performance of her life. This film is no Pretty Woman tale of prostitute-turned-princess, that’s for sure, and Shue knocks it out of the park.
Like Ben, we don’t need to know what happened to Sera in her life that led her to sell herself. But this was something she wanted to do. It was a job that she excelled at, and she was proud of her technique at making men the best they could be. She could enter a room and just know right away what their fantasy was, and become it. For her, the job was a performance. Isn’t that the same for all jobs, when you really think about it? You might like some parts of your job but hate some tasks that you have to do. Or you may just hate your job entirely but make good money from it, so you don’t stop no matter how degraded or miserable it makes you feel. Why should we think any differently about sex work? It’s a service, and your job doesn’t define you—at least you’d like to think it doesn’t. Half the time you’re just winging it and pretending you care about whatever it is you’re selling just to survive, no matter where you work or how much you get paid.
This is where Ben’s and Sera’s stories differ. Ben is determined to die; Sera is determined to live. Sera had fled LA for Vegas, too, trying to rid herself of Yuri (Julian Sands), her Latvian pimp. Through flashbacks, we see how Yuri treated Sera—not just like he owned her, but creepily obsessed with her, too. He forced sex on her, hit her, and cut her thighs with a knife when she didn’t make enough money for him or did something wrong (from his point of view). Despite all this, Sera’s golden heart holds some sympathy for him. Yuri was a cowardly man; he relied on Sera to make him money to stave off the mafia. If she didn’t make enough, his life was in danger, and she felt sorry for him. Both Sera and Ben are equals when it comes to self-loathing.
Sera and Ben meet when he first arrives in Vegas. He almost hits her with his car when he runs a red light. Of course, he has been drinking. Later he sees her again on the sidewalk and asks her to go back to his motel for sex. She agrees, and at first, everything goes as you’d expect. Sera gets down to business, but unsurprisingly, Ben can’t perform. Instead, they drink and cuddle, and talk and fall asleep. It is beautiful. Sera says:
I really liked this guy, I’ve never felt anything for anyone I’ve ever been with, as a trick, you know, and it’s weird. I feel a little confused about it. We were with each other only one night, but it felt like a relationship, it felt there was a relationship being formed, and I was kinda scared. No, I don’t think I should see him again, but I look for him.
Having been out all night and barely made any money, Yuri is not happy with Sera and sends her to work more that night. She returns to him with a bundle of notes, having worked hard for him, but Yuri’s paranoia has got the better of him, and he believes the people in the room next door are talking about him. He sends Sera away for her safety, and it turns out he was right to be scared. They were coming from him, and Sera leaves just in time before she’s caught up in it. In a roundabout way, staying all night with Ben saved her life. With Yuri out of the picture, she is free.
What do you buy an alcoholic as a gift, other than alcohol? Sera buys Ben a gift of a hip flask, and he isn’t offended at all, he is genuinely touched by her consideration in buying him something he would really want. In a sense, this gift will help him on his journey.
Now, this all may sound very soppy and romantic, but it’s not at all. Ben’s dependency on the liquor is painful to watch. He’s at the point where if he doesn’t stop drinking, it will kill him. If he stops, it will also kill him. Nic Cage won an Oscar for Best Actor for his role in Leaving Las Vegas, and I’m not sure an Academy Award has ever been more justified. It is extraordinary to watch him play out the end of Ben’s life so convincingly intoxicated. He wakes up with the shakes so bad he needs to neck a neat bottle of vodka just to be able to function. When he first becomes drunk he is funny, silly, and almost a joy to be around. But that can all change in a second. A brilliant night out can quickly turn into a flipped card table if a waitress refuses to serve him. A run of wins at the roulette wheel can soon lead Ben to take another sex worker back to Sera’s place because he has no idea what’s going on or he’s too drunk to care. Yet this is not the wild and over-the-top Nic Cage that we’ve all grown to love—his performance as Ben is tender, pitiful, perverse, and charming all at once.
It’s really weird because you know, it’s just like this thing is happening, really quickly you know. I just don’t know what’s going on. I mean it’s just the second I met him and the way I told him my name, I just said, “Hi, I’m Sera” and that’s not what I do, and uh, it’s just all happening really quickly. I just felt like we were…like we’d been together for a long time, it just felt so easy, and I felt like I was me. I didn’t feel like I was trying to be somebody else.
On paper, nothing good comes for Sera in meeting Ben. She moves him into her apartment, and he passes out outside the gates, offending the prissy landlady. He returns home one day covered in blood after being headbutted by a guy whose girlfriend flirted with him in a bar. His behaviour, combined with Sera being seen sporting a black eye, gets her kicked out of the apartment. Yet Sera doesn’t really care about any of this. For all his faults, Ben gives her exactly what she needs—someone to go home to who truly loves her.
The pair take a little vacation to the desert, where Ben drinks more and more by the pool. Sera is right, too; she really does know what men desire. It took her a little longer to figure Ben out—his 101% proof breath made him somewhat harder to read—but in a scene that should have been ridiculous but is actually adorable, she straddles Ben on his sun lounger, takes a bottle of liquor and pours it over her bare chest, which he licks off her skin. It was just like a fantasy he’d described in an earlier scene at a bank, where he tried to sign off a cheque to be cashed but couldn’t because his hands were shaking so much. An attractive blond bank clerk, all fake smiles and acid-tipped politeness, inspires Ben to speak aloud his thoughts of her while waiting in line, customers looking on in horror and awe:
Are you desirable? Are you irresistible? Maybe if you drank bourbon with me it would help. Maybe if you kissed me and I could taste the sting in your mouth it would help. If you drank bourbon naked with me…if you smelled of bourbon as you f–ked me it would help…it would increase my esteem for you. If you poured bourbon onto your naked body and said to me, “Drink this.” If you spread your legs and had bourbon dripping from your breasts and your vagina and said “drink here,” then I could fall in love with you, because then I would have a purpose, to clean you up, and that would prove that I’m worth something. I’d lick you clean so you could go away and f–k someone else.
This passage sums up the tragedy of Leaving Las Vegas. Sera believes she has to give men whatever they want to have a purpose. Ben believes his sole purpose is to drink and that his soul is worthless. Yet somehow, in the midst of this bleak crudeness, they find true love with each other. I believe it to be true. I believe it because of the realness in the way they speak so breezily to one another. There is no treading on eggshells, there is no gaslighting, and they could sit in silence together for hours without feeling uncomfortable for a second. You can see it in the way that Sera twiddles her hair and fidgets when she’s telling (presumably) her therapist about him. Her eyes dance with delight. You can see what she was like as a little girl in her excited expression. He makes her happy despite everything. She isn’t lonely anymore and feels at peace with him around.
We see the love he has for her when he wakes up on her sofa and sees her face, and an adorable, goofy smile spreads across his. We see it when, even though he can barely stand up, he scours the Vegas streets all night hoping to bump into her again. We see it when, even after he has drunk several litres of various spirits, that he still remembers Sera, and she is at the forefront of his mind. We see it in their unconditional acceptance of each other the way they are. She doesn’t want him to drink; she wants him to live and be with her. He doesn’t want her to have sex with other men; he wants her for himself. But they are both realistic about the cards life dealt them. They can’t be together how they really want to be; all they can do is enjoy what little time they have left together.
After Ben takes back a girl (a rival sex worker, at that) to Sera’s apartment, she understandably kicks him out—it is a bridge too far for any self-respecting woman, and probably the only thread she had left of it. Sera may hate herself, but she won’t act that like she does. She never cries in front of a man, never shows weakness—everything bad that happens to her she takes without complaint, without self-pity. But without Ben, she’s not at the top of her game. She gets picked up by three frat boys who seem harmless and childish enough for her to handle at first. But after she tells them that they have to take turns and makes a jibe at the boy who is there to lose his virginity, that perhaps he’d prefer to have sex with one of his friends—not forgetting she can read the room in seconds—this kid, who clearly has a lot of issues with his sexuality (is most likely gay but cannot admit it), becomes enraged with Sera and knocks her to the ground. One other boy films the attack, and like a pack of laughing coyotes they all jump in, beating, raping, and sodomising her.
She gets out alive; presumably, the boys just did this to show off to their mates. These frat boys are the future business leaders, Wall Street bankers, Senators, and politicians of America and this is how they feel about women. Twenty-five years on, we know very little has changed. We know that college rape is a huge problem and that Ivy League boys get away with it because of their families’ money and influence on old white male judges. White boys with privilege are at the very top of the food chain, especially if they’re good at sports.
Knowing this, Sera doesn’t even consider going to the police. Even the cab driver who picks her up and notices her bruised face, and that she can barely sit down, can’t help but add insult to her injuries by judging and blaming her for what happened to her because of her occupation and what she was wearing. It’s not hard, then, to understand why Sera would fall so quickly and so deeply in love with Ben. He is nothing like any of other guys she knows. He is brutally honest with her, appreciates everything she does for him, and accepts her for who she is. Likewise, she enjoys his drama and his company and feels totally at ease with him, accepting him for who he is. And when he’s gone, and she doesn’t know where, she misses him.
As he lays dying, he picks up the phone and calls her. She rushes to his side in the dark grime of another cheap motel room. His body convulses regularly now, and drinking more doesn’t make it stop like it used to. In his final moments of life, she climbs on top of him, and he convulses inside her; it’s the first time they’ve ever had full sex. He climaxes as she watches him from above, then lays down beside him. Ben turns his head and says “Wow,” then takes his last breath.
Despite knowing that this was ultimately always going to be the way the film ended, my heart broke for the sincerity, the stark deprivation, and humiliation of it all. There is nothing pretty or sexy about it, but my word, it’s so full of love. They both show each other how much they love one another in those final minutes. Ben needs to show her that she can make him reach orgasm, that she is beautiful and sexy enough to do that despite his body giving up the ghost—that she is what he wants at the very end, not the bottle. Sera needs to show him that she will be there for him until the bitter end and that he will not be alone, like an angel leading him toward the light. They both came from the City of Angels, and they saved each other’s souls in the only way they could.
It’s bittersweet on screen and just as heartbreaking behind the scenes. The writer of Leaving Las Vegas, John O’Brien, committed suicide by gunshot at his Beverly Hills apartment on April 10, 1994, two weeks after learning that his novel was to be made into a movie. His father says that the book was his suicide note. Two more of his stories were published posthumously: Stripper Lessons (1997) and The Assault on Tony’s (1996), both of which had been left unfinished at the time of his death and were completed by his sister, Erin. A third manuscript, Better, was published in 2009.
Knowing what an incredible writer he was, and just what a success he could have been, truly is tragic. Still, as a semi-biographical story, you can understand that he felt that the only way to defeat his demons was to end his life—your demons die with you.
Watching Leaving Las Vegas 25 years after its release doesn’t make a difference with regard to its impact. It is a timeless story of love and addiction, of the way men treat women and the way men and women treat themselves. In addition to directing, Figgis also created the music. The score may date the film a little, though not enough to notice, and it feels like Vegas, which will always be a bit flashy and kitsch, but we love it anyway. In contrast, the cinematography is gorgeous, and Figgis pours all of the focus on Sera and Ben, drowning out everything that is happening around them into a blur of bright lights and noise, making you feel part of their intoxicating love.