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A case for Christian Bale

Wait ... is that ... is that a ... is that a SMILE? On Christian Bale's FACE?

Wait ... is that ... is that a ... is that a SMILE? On Christian Bale's FACE?

There comes a time in a reviewer’s life when she (this is my story, so the reviewer has girl parts) must defend the honor of a very fine actor who has, in recent times, made several not very fine movies. Or seems to have grown an ego large enough to consume Amy Winehouse’s beehive with a single dainty princess bite.

To no one’s surprise … that actor is Christian Bale.

Of late, several friends (and, OK, me) have mentioned that the post-“Batman” Bale bears precious little resemblance to the actor who wowed us with intense performances in movies of every genre, from odd, disturbing arthouse to coming-of-age drama to nihilistic horror. Whatever magic Bale had, whatever innate ability to dissolve completely into a character and eliminate all traces of self, he’s starting to lose it. He’s certainly never been a whimsical actor, but these days he seems to approach every role the way Idi Amin approached dissenters. And Bale’s just about that subtle, too.

Despite this turn of events, I want to believe that Bale isn’t through yet, that he didn’t let “Batman” fame ruin him for acting forever. Why, you wonder, would I keep hoping when there’s so much evidence suggesting that he is, well, a complete jackass? One: The cynic inside hasn’t managed to kill the dreamer … just duct-taped her and stashed her in the nearest closet. And two: Bale has a history too full of daring, innovative or just plain commendable performances that suggest there’s enough talent to beat down that ego.

So now I present the facts:

  • “El Maquinista” — Every list of great Christian Bale performances must be topped with his work in “The Machinist.” It counts as a stunning physical transformation because Bale did Matt Damon’s gaunt smackhead in “Courage Under Fire” one better. Bale lost a frightening amount of weight to play tortured insomniac Trevor Reznik, so much that you fear for the actor’s own safety. It’s an extreme, brave performance, and that’s what makes it so haunting and memorable.
  • “American Psycho” — Bale might not have been the first choice to play superficial, amoral serial killer Patrick Bateman, but he was the best. As buff as his “Machinist” character was skeletal, he manages to evoke wit, charm underlined by subtle menace as a murderer who takes lives for no other reason than to curb his boredome. Compelling, scary stuff.
  • “Little Women” — Anyone who believes Bale came out of the womb with a grim frown on that chiseled face need only look back to 1994, where he played the spritely, witty, delightful Laurie in Gillian Armstrong’s “Little Women.” Fifteen years later, his heartfelt speech to Jo March still makes my heart turn into a mushy, mushy bowl of Cornflakes.
  • “Harsh Times” — Bale, much like Ray Liotta, possesses just enough menace to make him seem a hair-trigger from cheerfully choking (or worse) the next person who steps in his path. He tapped into that bubbling inner rage pit to play Jim, an ex-Army ranger discharged for mysterious reasons. PTSD turns him into violent, delusional free agent, but Bale makes him into someone who seems human despite his seemingly inhuman rage.
  • “The Prestige” — Here is a movie that I love for many reasons, and the main one is Christian Bale as Alfred Borden, a magician with loads of raw talent but (surprise!) little flash and almost no skills. But Bale had a gleam in his eye, a slight spring in his step that suggested he was having a bit more fun with this part, crafted in part by Christopher Nolan. Oh, Chris, can’t you coax Fun Bale out again?
  • “3:10 to Yuma” — I can’t quite resist a film (especially a Western) where the hero (Bale) is far more discouraged and damaged than the villain. Enter Bale as Dan Evans, a got-nothing-left-to-lose man who can’t even farm his land, much less keep the respect of his wife or teenage son. There’s a hint of sly humor in his verbal sparring matches with Russell Crowe that suggests Bale does have a lighter side … buried under all those layers of dark twistiness.

Perhaps there is hope for Christian Bale yet, though his next projects — including a pic about boxer “Irish” Micky Ward, a pairing with Mark Wahlberg for 2011’s “Prisoners” and more movies for the “Terminator” and “Batman” sagas — hardly suggest he’s lightening up. Maybe he can wise up to the fact that it’s possible to play a serious character without losing his sense of humor.

At the very least, he could take Heath Ledger’s advice and, every other day or so, look in the mirror and ask himself: “Why so serious?” ‘Cause chances are, Mr. Bale, if you’re not having the slightest bit of fun, neither are we.

15 Responses

  1. Have you seen Herzog’s “Rescue Dawn?” Bale lost a “Machinist”-amount of weight for that movie, too. And it’s a great movie in general. Bale’s wonderful in it.

  2. Thanks for the reminder — I tend to forget about “Rescue Dawn” because it made zero splash in the theaters and I saw it on DVD. It certainly deserves to be recognized as a fine Christian Bale performance.

    M. Carter

  3. I think all this Christian Bale bashing is very unfair. The moody brooding character is perfect for Batman and Terminator. In public he played the part to perfection but is criticised because of the nature of the character. He was also really good in I’m Not There as where all the other actors.

  4. That should have read Public Enemies not just “public” but you get the idea. The other comments must have come while I was typing. Not got around to seeing Rescue Dawn yet.

  5. Great post about Bale. Absolutely adore him as Laurie, best thing in the film IHMO. I think I’ve said this also on my blog that he needs to lighten up and shows that great acting can be fun as well (just ask his bud Russell Crowe).

    Btw, he’s great as a supporting actor in The New World: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W47cZ9JRAMM&feature=related – in fact, he’s way better than Colin Farrell. He smiles a lot in the short scenes he’s in, which is probably why I love it so much!

    » http://flixchatter.wordpress.com/

  6. have to say, i too love a bit of Bale-hem. hes a great actor. okay, he made a poor choice with Terminator Salvation (a dull performance in a dull film) but hes a great batman. good that you mention The Prestige, its a super film and hes brill in it. if you took scarlet johannsen (i couldnt be bothered spelling her name correctly) out of that film it would be almost perfect. hes just very watchable. a while back i caught a movie called Metroland that had him in it late on BBC2 one night – the film was pretty mediocre but he is just very watchable. he will have to go some to beat American Psycho though, without a doubt his signature performance – every line is delivered to perfection. if only oscars were handed out to the performances that deserved it

    • Delivery is key in “American Psycho.” The scene where Patrick mentions what Ed Gein said about women — the “what her head looks like on a stick” line — still gives me chills. Bale says it in a way that makes you cringe with laughter. Classic.

      M. Carter

  7. I really like Christian Bale and I saw him in a lots of movies (American Psycho really scared me!). He’s such a chameleon actor!

    • Yes, his ability to transform himself physically and emotionally into totally unique characters is what I love most about Christian Bale. I just fear he’s starting to pigeonhole himself into serious roles. He’s got such a great range that he can do anything, and I’d like to see what he could do with lighter roles.

      M. Carter

  8. Bale is going through what a lot of handsome young actors deal with when they make a transition from artsy or “B” type movies or character driven roles to the big hit blockbuster. People forget the work he did to establish himself in the first place and attempt to pigeon hole him. Leo DiCaprio and Matt Damon have suffered through the same crap. Bale, however, took on two MAMMOTH sized shoes to fill in the past couple years with Batman and John Connor. I admit to having a good chuckle at the Batman voice myself, and it DID seem to appear in some of John Connor’s “frustrated” moments, but that doesn’t take away from his talent or the good work he has done. If Batman and Terminator are his largest criticisms they are also his biggest successes.

    Naysayers are simply jealous.

    BTW, LOVE your site. Adding you to my blogroll, thanks for continuing to visit mine.


    • Points well taken, Heather. I can’t fault Bale for biting off more than he could chew with “Terminator.” It’s hard to step in as the leading man in a possibly dying franchise(although I didn’t think “T3” was THAT bad). I like the DiCaprio/Damon comparison. People only recent — around the time of “Aviator” and “Blood Diamond” — started thinking of DiCaprio as more than a pretty face. I hope Bale can conquer these growing pains, too.

      Thanks for the positive reinforcement!

      M. Carter

  9. Bale was great in the Prestige.

  10. Yep, I do have a soft spot for Bale, but I don’t think that blockbusters suit him… He doesn’t have quite that ability Depp has to anchor popcorn consuming movie-goers with a few minutes of screentime surrounded by a large cast, explosions and CGI. Now, put Bale on screen by himself for two hours in an empty room and he’ll find a way to hold your attention.

    He’s like steak: having it as the only meat on your plate is fantastic, but if you throw it in a stew you’re liable to shrug it off as ‘meh’.

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