Christian Bale: screen legend?

Feature Robert Zak 24 Jan 2014 - 06:16

As Christian Bale puts in a startling performance in American Hustle, Robert looks at how the actor's grown into a great character actor...

Christian Bale's performance in American Hustle sets him up for a future in which he can become screen legend, but for a while it seemed like we may never see the scope of his unique gifts as a character actor.

From the moment he fire-axed his way onto the Hollywood A-list with American Psycho in 2000, Christian Bale became a cult film icon. His character, murderous banking executive Patrick Bateman went on to become one of the most quotable film characters ever, as evidenced by the sheer amount of internet memes and YouTube clips dedicated to him. Bale set the bar high for himself with a performance that hit the extremes of darkness and hilarity, if not exactly emotional complexity. We had good reason to be excited about the Welshman's future.

But for this writer at least, Bale failed to recapture the raw, unhinged energy of this role for the next decade. While featuring in a panoply of successful films between 2000 and 2010, Bale's acting ambit was channelled into taut, brooding roles that failed to showcase his versatility (similar to what Ryan Gosling is going through right now). Certainly, starring as the Dark Knight in one of the most successful film franchises of all time further engraved Bale into filmic folklore (not as much as his nemeses, mind), but throughout this whole period something of what made Bale so damn captivating in American Psycho appeared to buried; not quite dead, but certainly in a state of dormancy. 

Defined though he was by it, there was more to Bale than Batman in the 2000s. He gave powerful-yet-restrained performances in The Machinist and Rescue Dawn, where he successfully evoked two disparate images of man pushed to the extreme limits of human resilience. Further accomplished films included 3:10 To Yuma, I'm Not There and Christopher Nolan's The Prestige, but all of these encapsulated my frustration in Bale. The unique, colourful acting abilities he previously showed were not being exploited. In all these films he shone as part of an ensemble, but in none of them did I inextricably connect the actor to his character.

Where was the madness, the explosiveness, and the charm? While proving himself to be a stalwart performer, it's telling that what's most memorable about Bale from these films are the harrowing images of his emaciated figure in The Machinist; a powerful portrait of the extremes actors (like Bale, at least) go to for their craft, but hardly a testament to the man's talents.

With all this in mind, we should perhaps have shown a bit of sympathy for poor Christian when he had that infamous tirade on the set of Terminator Salvation in 2008. After nine years of being typecast as a dark, mysterious character with much more going on on the inside than meets the viewer's eye, he exploded like a dormant Welsh volcano presumed to be extinct. For the first time in nine years, Bale showed that he still had that crazed energy that brought him to fame, but with few opportunities to show it in front of the camera, what was Bale to do but take it out on a mediocre film's director of photography? (Though to be fair, Bale's behaviour was extremely unpleasant.)

But maybe the Terminator freakout served as an inadvertent audition tape, showcasing Bale as an actor filled with misguided vivacity and fire that was literally screaming to be put in front of the camera. His calls were answered, as Bale was roused from his brooding stupor in the 2010 Micky Ward biopic, The Fighter, playing Ward's crack-addled brother and trainer Dicky Eklund.  

Even though Bale once again drained himself for the role, turning himself into a convincing crack-skeleton, this time it wasn't just his physical image that burned itself into the imagination, but the tragedy, the madness, and the warmth of his character  - a word that felt awkward to pin to Bale's performances of the previous decade. Shaky, wild-eyed, and twitchily shadow-boxing in elegiac recollection of his character's pro-boxing days, Bale kept us guessing whether Dicky was high on crack, or on life and love for his family. Despite his superficial grubbiness, Bale infused the character with charm and dignity, bagging himself a well-deserved Oscar.

With the help of director David O Russell, Bale finally outdid himself, fusing the fervour of the performance that brought him to fame ten years earlier with elements of the cerebral, tortured characters he'd spent the 2000s mastering.

Now, a mere three years after Bale asserted himself as one of the greatest actors of his generation, he has passed another milestone as pot-bellied scam artist Irving Rosenfeld in American Hustle. While we want to avoid defining Bale by a body that expands and contracts more regularly than his own lungs, the physicality he brings to this role shows all the qualities that could yet turn him into an all-time screen legend. 

As Irving, Bale shows an unprecedented level of versatility; who would've thought that Batman would two years later be a sickly, overweight man with a combover who we want to prop up lest he has a heart flutter? Not that the character is weak. Far from it, Irving is a man who has an understanding of the world more acute than any of his peers; a kind of world-weary wisdom that is only kept in check by his love for jazz music and his girlfriend. From the professorial adjustments of his glasses as he divulges some wisdom, to his absolute physical ineptitude when his comb-over gets mockingly ruffled by Bradley Cooper, Bale embodies this aged character superbly.

These are crucial qualities to showcase as Bale moves towards acting veteranship. Turning 41 this month, Bale isn't going to be playing hoary wizards, eccentric grandpas, and hospice residents just yet, but his ability to capture the nuances of a character who explicitly relies on wits and wisdom to make up for an ungraceful, unreliable body suggests that he'll be ready to make the transition towards distinguished, venerable roles when the time comes.

Bale has been freed from his Bat-manacles, and from the reputation as that guy who goes to physical extremes for his roles (though he's sure to populate 'actors who lost/gained most weight for films' lists for a long time to come). While his dormant talent as a character actor was unleashed on us with The Fighter, American Hustle builds on it, and shows that he'll have plenty to offer us in the near and distant future. Christian Bale can become more than a fondly-regarded acting veteran. In the years ahead of him – which I'm sure will be his best – he has the potential to become an all-time screen legend.

To help him along the way, let's give the man another Oscar.

Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.

Disqus - noscript

Completely agree, when I watched Matthew McConaughey's performance in Wolf on Wall Street, he reminded me of Bale physically and in the madcap performance. I'd love to see the pair together on film as some kind of brothers and let loose.

In the meantime we'll just have to make do with Reign of Fire.

I still need to watch Spielberg's Empire of the Sun,i have had it on DVD for ages now

I have been a big fan of "The Bale" for a long time, American Psycho is easily one of the best films I have seen, I too have always wanted him to go back to that sort of role, the "do you like Huey Lewis" scene is so, so good. I have not got round to seeing American Hustle or Out of the furnace yet, but the reviews that I have read suggest he is at the top of his game right now, looking forward to seeing Knight of Cups later this year, good article D.O.G.

McConaughey and Bale have both had similar careers in that they both went through quiet phases of downbeat roles; main difference being that Bale's choices of films to star in were much better.

I agree that they should get together again to banish the memory of Reign of Fire. That said, when I hear 'brothers let loose,' I start imagining films like Step Brothers, or something Dennis Dugan would direct, and it makes me fearful!

It would be fantastic to see these guys together now that they're being chosen for more colourful roles.

true but that's just the type of serious characters the article is saying we want less of. I mean I want to see them both together going batsh*t

yeah, not stepbrothers type but colourful characters as you say. when i first saw the Wolf trailer i thought it was Bale

Bale needs to display more warmth and humour in his roles before he takes on the legendary role in my opinion. I've still yet to see Hustle but it sounds like a good start.

Definitely one of the greats. Usually with a performance like the one he gave in American Hustle, you would say he would take home the best actor Oscar this year. However, he's up against Chiwetel Ejiofor, Matthew McConaughey AND Leonardo DiCaprio. All amazing performances. It's a tough one to call this year, some great films.

Unfortunately it seems his amazing run may come to an end with Out of the Furnace.

It's getting very mediocre reviews and it's current Rotten Tomatoes rating is 52%.

One of my favourite films growing up.

Easy mistake to make. Matt's character in Wolf is like the anti-Patrick-Bateman, utterly embracing the Wall Street lifestyle rather than murderously rebelling against it.

Great comment but I reckon it is safe to say Christian Bale and Matthew Mcconaughey will never appear together in a Step Brothers type film

Never got the hate he gets sometimes. He always puts 100% in, whether the outcome is something you like or not. The guy LIVES acting. Give him another 10-15 years and he'll be sealed into Hollywood's 'legend' status like the current older generation. I can see him getting many a lifetime achievment when he's in his 70s (and still going)

Part of me feels like I should defend 'Reign Of Fire' from all the hate it's getting here. I know I shouldn't because it's a bad film but I have a weird soft spot for it. The sky diving sequence in it is actually really good. Saw American Hustle yesterday and he is great in it.

I didn't think he was Welsh, I know he was born there but I thought he classified himself as English. Good article nonetheless about one of my favourite actors. I youtube the business card scene from American Psycho at least once a month, hilarious.

Bale is pure class! Would it be too late to cast him as James Bond for Bond 25??

Off topic (ish) but that pose Bale's maing in that American Hustle picture never fails to make me laugh.

The hate is because he ambitious and successful. People hate that.

I thought he took on warmth and humour in his Bruce Wayne role. I mean when he was Batman obviously he wasn't meant to be warm and funny, but he had his funny moments with Alfred and Lucius Fox I thought.

You'll like him in American Hustle for sure though! Go see it.

Oh Bald-beard, son of Dwalin! Shut up, Smaug!

... and no one ever mentions he voice acting in Howl's Moving Castle

I actually didn't like a lot of Christian Bale's roles but was very impressed by American Hustle

Does this man look serious to you?

Without doubt one of the greatest actors alive today. "What don't you fking understand!" He thought he was John Connor, the human race was at stake over them lights. And the Machinist is a masterpiece of what is a subjective descent into madness.

He is most definitely Welsh if he was born there trust me call a Welshman English you'll get a bit of a shock.

Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott Andrew Scott

Christian Bale both makes me scared of him and admire him. I have yet to see American Hustle but he was amazing in The Fighter and deserved that Oscar. However I liked his Bruce Wayne and Batman and that's probably the role I will remember.

A table for two at Dorsia please.

Born in Wales, grew up in England now lives in America.
There was silly old me thinking he dared to class himself as "British".

All this talk of American Hustle, but Out of The Furnace was genius from him too. I've said for a while now, he's probably the best method actor right now.

I totally agree! I know Reign of Fire is an awful movie, but I developed weird affection for it!
I think I saw Bale in all of his movies, I always regard him as one of the best actors. Loved him in American Psycho and Equilibrium. And in Batman! Only The Machinist didn't appeal much to me.

He will be turning 40, not 41

You will be astounded by the warmth of his Irving in American Hustle - it's unprecedented in his career. He convinces you that two beautiful woman would fight over this balding fat guy.

I'm the same,of all the non batman movies, i liked him in fighter, he did seem to come to life playing the role

i agree i think he showed the most warmth and humour with batman, american hustle seems to be the one everyone is talking about alright, worth the watch then? will have to check it out!

In his own words "I was born in Wales but I'm not Welsh – I'm English".

I've been looking forward to Out of the Furnace for ages, it has two of my favourite actors in it, Bale and Casey Afleck. But it's getting very 'down the middle' reviews. In fact, Rotten Tomatoes currently has it at 51%.

well that settles that one, cheers.

i love equilibrium

Sponsored Links