When Christian Bale won his Oscar for The Fighter (2010), I was hardly surprised, but nor was I elated. And I had to ask myself why.
This now hugely successful movie star is prodigiously talented, blazing with intensity and intelligence -- not to mention killer good looks.
Still -- with apologies to all the self-proclaimed "Baleheads" out there, on an emotional level the actor leaves me cold.
This fact got me thinking about how we relate to public figures and celebrities, and the importance of that elusive, yet fundamental human connection- admiring someone famous not just for their ability, but because we feel we know and "get" them.
In the realm of major politicians and movie stars, the "likeability" factor has always been important. This quality has helped more than a few undistinguished if not downright inept politicians get by. The clearest recent example for me is George W. Bush.
Though frequently hapless and inarticulate, many Americans liked him not only for his policies, but also because he seemed like the kind of guy who'd be fun to have a beer with.
Think of all the movie actors -- past and present -- who've made their careers out of a distinctive yet innate likeability in their characters: Clark Gable, James Stewart, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Alec Guinness, Cary Grant, Jeff Bridges, George Clooney, Tobey Maguire.
Then there are less approachable personalities whom we like less, but still respect and understand. Again in the political arena, our current President falls under this heading.
You may sense Obama wouldn't be as much fun on a fishing trip as good ol' "W", but you recognize the challenging path he took to get to the summit of public life, and how that shaped his character. If you're like me, you value his moral principles, sharp mind and cool head as President.
In the movies, Henry Fonda and Gregory Peck had that sort of restrained yet virtuous quality now exemplified by Obama.
Next we have a more complex variety of actor: think Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando, Robert Mitchum, Lee Marvin, Robert de Niro, Sean Penn. We relate to these personalities primarily because they embody the angst, courage and defiance of the rebel. They're familiar to us, because at their core they feel things very deeply and most always show some trace of vulnerability -- and we admire them for it.
Of course our best actors can straddle more than one category: Spencer Tracy could be likeable, restrained, or intense, seemingly with just a flick of the switch, as could Jack Lemmon. These were "actors' actors", and they come along rarely.
I appreciate all the stars I've mentioned because right or wrong, I feel I have some kind of handle on them. I can look behind their eyes and see something that forges an instinctive connection.
Christian Bale on the other hand strikes me as a complete enigma. Yes, his acting chops are prodigious, but he seems to me to be all technique and no heart; we get buckets of perfectly formed ice, but very little fire. I see nothing behind his eyes.
Case in point: his portrayal of Bruce Wayne. Admittedly not the deepest of roles, it's still important to get it right. To my mind, this is a guy we're supposed to like. Particularly in 2008's The Dark Knight, I felt Bale turned him into a conceited jerk, a slick, humorless "master of the universe" with a supermodel on each arm.
Why play him that way? Just to be different?
Tellingly, Bale's star-making turn in that perverse shocker, American Psycho (2000), a part he almost lost to the more established Leonardo Di Caprio, seemed tailor-made for his cold, remote quality because basically he was playing a monster in an Armani suit.
It's clear he does best in tortured roles: his finest work -- and my favorite Bale movie by Farr® -- is The Machinist (2004), where Christian plays an insomniac industrial worker whose lack of sleep is driving him mad -- a demanding part for which he actually shed 60 pounds! (One thing not in doubt is Bale's dedication to his craft.)
But in a feature like 3:10 To Yuma (2007), a remake that pales next to the 1957 original, he falls flat in a role that calls for a modicum of emotional resonance, as a father, crippled by the Civil War and an elder son's perception of his cowardice, redeems himself by guarding a deadly outlaw against overwhelming odds.
When Bale's character says goodbye to his boy, very likely for the last time, I should have been moved, but alas, not one tear, nary a goose bump, materialized.
(In the prior version, Van Heflin brought so much more feeling to this part, and his character was not even physically maimed... it was a purely psychological take, much more subtle, and in my view, ten times more effective. Watch it and see.)
All of which brings me to The Fighter. Bale does turn in a bravura performance, and it must have posed a considerable challenge for this British actor to essay the part of a working class New England pug. Still, I can't help remembering Jimmy Cagney's famous advice to actors: "Don't let 'em catch you at it." I may be alone here, but as good as he was, I felt I caught Bale acting in this film.
We know very little about Christian Bale the man because he is intensely private. That is his right, and should be respected, within reason. After all, any serious movie actor who doesn't realize he's choosing the most public of careers when he signs on ought to have his head examined.
In the plus column, we know he is exceedingly bright (no surprise), a loyal friend, extremely family-oriented, and supportive of good works. On the debit side, he is known to be prickly and prone to temperament- perhaps not that unusual for a performer whose unsettled, peripatetic early life created a burning ambition to succeed in his chosen field at virtually any cost.
Still, there are limits.
His prolonged ranting at a crew member who broke his concentration on the set of 2009's Terminator Salvation was caught on tape and widely circulated online. While reportedly an isolated incident, which Bale has apologized (and paid the price) for, still the extent of the abuse was so out of proportion to the offense as to be slightly creepy, if not downright shocking.
So, who are you, Christian? A bona-fide misanthrope, an angry man struggling with his demons, or (deep down) a sweet, sensitive guy who's just really shy? Give us a sign, will you?
Right now Christian Bale is sitting at the very top of his profession and can do most anything he wants. I'd suggest a change of pace -- perhaps a light comedy?
Not that he needs my vote, but one thing's for sure: I'll appreciate him a lot more when I can see something familiar and sympathetic behind those steely, impenetrable eyes.
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