October 08, 2001 12:00 PM

Leave it to a punk-rock prince to play cupid for the King of Rock and Roll’s kid. Not that Lisa Marie Presley was looking for love at Ramones guitarist Johnny Ramone’s 52nd-birthday party last October. After all, she was engaged to her date, Hawaiian-born musician John Oszajca. And although he came solo, Nicolas Cage was reportedly seeing his Captain Corelli’s Mandolin costar Penélope Cruz. But mingling with the 18 or so guests in the cozy living room of Ramone’s home in suburban Los Angeles, Presley, 33, found herself drawn into conversation with Cage, 37. Ramone says the two just “talked casually.” A fellow guest actor Vincent Gallo, sensed more—and not just because Cage is famous for doing a mean Elvis riff (demon-strated in both 1990’s Wild at Heart and 1992’s Honeymoon in Vegas). “Nic had a very special interest in Lisa Mane,” he says. When I saw them talking, I thought, ‘Uh-oh.'”

He thought right. A year later the Oscar winner (for 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas), who can command up to $20 million per picture, and the heir to Elvis’s $100 million-plus fortune are hardly casual. The now out-and-about couple threw a party in honor of Ramone at New York City’s hip Hudson Hotel after the MTV Music Awards on Sept. 6 so friends, including Sheryl Crow, Sofia Coppola and her husband, Spike Jonze, and techno artist Moby could toast the rocker. Sitting with pals on a dark back patio, says Ramone, the two were clearly “happy to be together.”

The pair first went public with their romance in May, taking in a Tom Jones concert in Las Vegas a month after Presley announced the end of her 16-month engagement to Oszajca, 27. Two months later Presley accompanied Cage to Washington, D.C., for a ceremony honoring Navajo Indians, whose language helped provide supersecure communications during World War II (the subject of his upcoming drama Windtalkers). While there, the two chatted with President Bush. The night before, the couple had feasted on lobster, steak and cheesecake at the pricey Palm Restaurant. “They were very cuddly,” says general manager Tommy Jacomo. They left “holding hands, in very good spirits.”

Later that month Cage was the one standing by—in 100° heat—as Presley cut the ribbon on a 12-unit apartment building in Memphis for homeless families built through her charitable foundation. “She is a very honest person,” he told Jay Leno in August, “and I admire that quality.” For her part, Presley, who is working on a debut rock album scheduled for release next year “is happier than I’ve ever seen her,” says Amos Newman the vice president of Java Records.

Of course, for both Presley and Cage, contentment—to say nothing of happily ever after—is a fluid state. Her six-year first marriage to musician and fellow Scientologist Danny Keough, 36—the father of her two children, Danielle, 12, and Benjamin, 8—ended abruptly in 1994. Less than a month later came her out-of-the-blue union with Michael Jackson, which went from odd to over in 20 months. But even that arrangement seemed more conventional than Cage’s romantic round-robin with his ex-wife, actress Patricia Arquette, 33. Cage proposed to Arquette the first time he met her, at Canter’s Deli in Los Angeles in 1987. After a brief fling, they went their separate ways: His included having a son, Weston, 10, with actress Christina Fulton in 1990 and becoming briefly engaged to model Kristen Zang in 1994. The next year he again ran into Arquette at Canter’s and two weeks later they were married. They separated nine months later making occasional public appearances until divorcing this May.

This time, pals are hopeful for smoother sailing, a favorite pastime, as it happens, for them both. When not spending time with their kids (both have joint custody) at her L.A. home or his $7 million Bel-Air place, they like to get away on his boat (named Weston). Fans of music (“Nic is very supportive of her careen” says Newman) and vintage cars (his collection includes Jaguars Corvettes and Ferraris; hers inherited from her dad boasts Cadillacs and others from the ’50s and ’60s), the couple spent a casual evening on Sept. 1 “smiling and talking” at Catalina Island’s Landing restaurant Says one observer: “They talk to each other a lot.” Ramone, for one, hopes the conversation continues. As he says, “If it clicks, it clicks.”

• Pamela Warrick and Karen Brailsford in Los Angeles and Macon Morehouse in Washington, D.C.

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