Christian Bale: screen legend?

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.

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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. 

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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.

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