Christian Bale is arguably one of the biggest movie stars working today. With a career spanning 26 years and over 40 films, he also ranks among the most prolific, versatile and altogether successful actors of his generation. Apart from drawing major numbers at the box office, he has also gained wide acclaim, receiving numerous nominations and awards – most notably in recent years, an Academy Award for best supporting role in THE FIGHTER. While very few would deny Bale is an immensely talented actor, he’s also had his share of less-than-stellar moments. It’s time to put the good, the bad and the ugly in perspective...
Understandably, with a career as long and prolific as Bale’s, it’s hard to pinpoint a standout performance. I’m sure some would choose his harrowing part in Werner Herzog’s RESCUE DAWN or his Oscar-winning turn in David O. Russell’s THE FIGHTER, while others would go as far back as his breakthrough role in Steven Spielberg’s EMPIRE OF THE SUN, which put the then 12-year old actor on the map as an immense talent and a potential star in the making. However, while each of the aforementioned performances is in a class of its own, I would point towards his electrifying turn as Patrick Bateman in Mary Harron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ AMERICAN PSYCHO as the role that launched his career as a mature, versatile actor and a bona fide movie star.
While the film itself has its detractors, very few would argue that Bale’s performance is among its greatest assets. Able to switch from cold and calculated to joyfully over-the-top psychotic in the blink of an eye, whatever a given scene demands, Bale’s Bateman is easily one of the most memorable anti-heroes in the history of cinema. Pretty much every scene involving the main character is an instant classic. Whether he’s casually axing Paul Allen (Jared Leto) to the tune of Huey Lewis and the News, banging prostitutes in front of a mirror while flexing to Phil Collins or throwing a chainsaw down a staircase while laughing maniacally – Bale pulls it off without breaking a sweat. Creepy and hilarious, often at the same time. Better yet, he’s just as good in the film’s more subtle moments, like the famous business card scene (aka the yuppie dick measuring contest) or any of his conversations with Detective Donald Kimball (Willem Dafoe at his most charmingly bizarre).
Finally, I feel that there’s one lingering question that needs to be addressed. Namely – why not THE DARK KNIGHT? While I might agree that, taken as a whole, Christopher Nolan’s second Batman is a better film than AMERICAN PSYCHO, what you have to remember is that we’re focusing on a single actor here. While there is nothing wrong with Bale’s portrayal of Bruce Wayne (perhaps going so far as to call it the best of all Batman adaptations, though I’m sure some Michael Keaton fans would disagree), I feel like the role itself did not give the actor the chance to fully spread his wings (pardon the lame pun) – especially when you oppose it to Heath Ledger’s iconic take on the Joker. Perhaps it’s pointless and more than a bit unfair to compare such drastically different roles, but I still feel like I should call it like I see it and – ironically – even though he did play the title role, Christian Bale is not the star that comes to mind when I think of THE DARK KNIGHT. Let me be clear, by no means would I take anything away from Bale’s solid, physically demanding performance. I believe he’s done the best job possible with the material he was given. It’s just that Wayne is not nearly as mesmerizing a character as Bateman.
Ah, this one will take some explaining. While it’s hard to argue Bale did worse movies than McG’s TERMINATOR: SALVATION (Rob Bowman’s post-apocalypse-with-dragons romp REIGN OF FIRE being one such example), it was his take on the iconic character of John Connor that had the biggest potential and was therefore the most disappointing. Don’t get me wrong, Bale does little wrong here, but the script does him no favors. Not only is his Connor a surprisingly bland character, but for some reason, the story neatly shoves the supposed savior and last hope for humanity to the background, making him play second fiddle to Sam Worthington’s Marcus Wright.
What we get as a result is one of Bale’s lest memorable parts, that does very little to showcase the actor’s immense talent. Throughout the entire film, he’s not given a single line of dialog that’s worth remembering. Even the action set-pieces involving Connor fall flat and at times come off as somewhat moronic – for example, a veteran soldier, who spent most of his life battling machines should be well aware of the deadly worm-like terminators lurking in pretty much every body of water larger than a puddle and might therefore think twice before hovering two feet above a river in a helicopter. I know he’s the chosen one and all, but I would definitely think twice before serving under him.
What’s even worse is the disconnect between Bale’s Connor and the earlier versions of the character. He just feels like a completely different person. Even TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES, while being a semi-comedic retread of Cameron’s classic TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY, had Nick Stahl trying to actually seem like an older version of Edward Furlong’s kid Connor. If the makers of SALVATION allowed Bale to build upon the past and mature the character naturally, the results could have been breathtaking. Instead, he’s caught in the same default hero mode as Keanu Reeves in THE MATRIX sequels – just because the audience instantly knows who the character is and why he’s important, doesn’t mean you can’t at least try to make him richer and more meaningful. Having said that, I must once again stress that I’m not bashing Bale’s performance – he gave it all he had, as he tends to do, but the potential of him creating another iconic character was squandered by lazy writing. What we got was ‘OK’, certainly above average, but from an actor of Bale’s caliber, we’d be unreasonable not to expect more.
Bale is one of those precious few actors combining the personality and quirkiness of a character actor with the versatility and ‘star factor’ of a leading man. He can tackle a straight-faced action hero just as well as an emotional, dramatic role or an oddball supporting character. In fact, the dichotomy of his performances is perhaps one of the most peculiar aspects of his career. Judging by the choice of roles alone, Bale wears his acting versatility on his sleeve – effortlessly switching gears between summer blockbusters and more reserved, highbrow features.
Another of Bale’s characteristic features is the intense physicality of his performances. The actor was never one to shy away from extremely demanding roles, whether they required punishing workouts and buffing up, or vice versa (more on that in a moment). Without any question, Bale takes his craft very seriously, which earned him the reputation of not being the easiest person to work with – best demonstrated by the widely ridiculed recording of his infamous on-set freakout over DP Shane Hurlbut crapping up a scene (we’ve all heard those techno remixes on YouTube). Still, it seems reasonable that – considering the level to which Bale is willing to sacrifice for a role – the actor would expect the same amount of professionalism from everyone involved.
Last but not least, Bale’s very physiognomy has also played a vital role in his career. While handsome enough to slap his face on the poster for a summer blockbuster, there is also something distinctively unsettling about his features and demeanor, which allows him to portray darker and deeper characters. The movie that perhaps best demonstrated this “darker” side in recent years was Christopher Nolan’s THE PRESTIGE, in which Bale played the illusionist Alfred Borden – a character not only obsessed with his craft, but also being a walking dichotomy himself. Looking back at what I’ve written on Bale’s career in the paragraphs above, I could not think of a better actor for the part.
While there are several of Bale’s lesser known movies that could be seen as deserving this spot, for my money, the honor must go to THE MACHINIST. Easily the best of Brad Anderson’s movies (with SESSION 9 in a close second), Bale’s turn as the guilt-ridden insomniac Trevor Reznik still ranks amongst his most memorable and harrowing performances. The actor was said to have lost over 60 pounds for the part, wanting to slim down even further, until the producers intervened, fearing for his health. An astonishing feat, especially considering that he had to bulk up soon after for his role in BATMAN BEGINS.
Still, even if you disregard the immense amount of sacrifice that went into the role, Bale’s performance manages to shine on its own merits. With a movie so heavily relying on its leading actor, Anderson was lucky to have one as talented and devoted. Reznik’s tired look and worn-out demeanor only add to what is otherwise a devastatingly powerful performance. Bale takes the viewer on a nightmarish rollercoaster ride, that’s both deeply emotional and unflinchingly convincing. Perhaps it’s no wonder Anderson hasn’t been able to approach the level of sheer visceral intensity in any of his later movies. A perfect storm of such magnitude only happens so often.
While THE MACHINIST is often overshadowed by the rest of Bale’s artistic output, mentioned merely as a piece of trivia regarding the lengths dedicated actors will go to, I wholeheartedly believe it deserves a spot amongst his most remarkable performances.
Picking up where THE DARK KNIGHT left off, Bale will once again reprise his role as Bruce Wayne/Batman in Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. Considering the pedigree of both the franchise and everyone involved, the level of anticipation could probably rival The Second Coming, but it’s especially important for Bale. No longer overshadowed by the hype surrounding THE DARK KNIGHT’s main villain, the actor will surely want to further develop the character and take it to another level. Especially considering the fact that, with it being the final chapter of the story, all bets are pretty much off the table.
Just in case you’ve spent the last year and a half hiding away in the Batcave, here’s the synopsis:
When Commissioner Gordon stumbles upon a plot to destroy the city from within, Bruce Wayne gets back into action as the Batman. Waiting for him is the mysterious Selina Kyle and Bane, a lethal adversary on a crusade to tear apart Batman’s legacy piece by piece.
Considering that Christian Bale is still an actor in his thirties, the level of success he has already achieved is nothing short of astounding. Avoiding the struggles typical for most child actors and continuously perfecting his craft, he became one of the most successful performers out there – both financially and critically. Through tireless work ethic and smart choice of roles, he’s managed to become a bone fide movie star, while at the same time retaining much of his artistic integrity. Whatever you might think of the man himself or some of the movies he’s been in, you have to give credit where it’s due. Whether it’s sci-fi, action or drama, if there’s a part in there he can work with, Bale will make it his own.