The magic Christian

All bow before the young British actor with more going on than any American actor, ever -- Garland, Brando, Sinatra, you name it. And he's not even a major star (yet).

By Cintra Wilson
Published October 26, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

Christian Bale almost didn't get the treatment.

I was leery of writing about him, since he's on the cusp of mega-stardom, having beaten out the ubiquitous Ben Affleck and similarly Afflected über-celebs to be the new blockbuster "Batman." When I decided I was going to write about him, it was because I was doing it with a decidedly hairy eyeball -- I was not a believer.

I had been annoyed by him in "Velvet Goldmine," but I was morbidly, Robby-Benson, Tiger-Beat curious about him after seeing the teen-girl-Internet-cult Disney musical "Newsies." My curiosity was further piqued by his eccentric performance as an emotionally damaged and somewhat retarded person in "All the Little Animals."

What a strange range batch of roles, I thought. What weird career choices.

This week, Bale opened in "The Machinist," a role for which he pulled an Adrien Brody anorexia-thon and lost one-third of his body weight, making him 6'2" and 120 pounds. This horrific act of discipline alone is bound to win him points in Hollywood, where weight loss or gain has long been interpreted as acting skill, since they have no other apparent means of recognizing it.

I decided to write about him, because I wasn't what you'd call a fan. I didn't care about Christian Bale -- I figured he was just one of Britain's pretty boys who could sort of act -- the U.K.'s version of Brad Pitt, maybe.

About three DVDs into my bale of Bale, I began genuflecting deeply to my laptop, a changed harridan. I watched, over hours, the proverbial sword get pulled from the stone. Hear ye, and believe it or not: Christian Bale is the Arthur Rex of leading men -- the Once and Future King, born to rule the light-projected dimension of the silver screen in a natural, inalienable, yes, maybe even holy way; a real honest-to-God fucking star, with a frightening load of multiple talents, dazzling instincts, deadly beauty, cannonball cojones, a killer sense of comic timing, deeply empathic humanity and effortless authority that no actor in this country could get within 1,000 miles of, even in a Hummer.

It alarms me to say it, but I can't even think of an American actor in any era who, in his heyday, had as much mojo going on as many different cylinders, as Christian Bale ... Judy Garland? Nope, too screwed up; she didn't own herself. Marlon Brando? Nope, too flawed, too egomaniacal, too limited ... Frank Sinatra? Same ... Fred Astaire? Not sexy enough ... Buster Keaton? Not chameleon enough ... It's scary, but true. I think Bale is legitimately superhuman -- an advanced, evolutionary leap into Future Movie Stardom. He's the Michael Jordan of film actors -- the übermensch who takes the sport so much further than it was possible to conceive of its being taken, in one generation, that it changes the face of the game forever. And nobody really knows it yet.

Bale has done the more or less impossible: He was a child star who successfully became an adolescent star (while avoiding becoming a teen idol, incredibly) who successfully made the turn into being a serious adult actor. He is a virtual shape-shifter, shamanic and stealthy -- he comes and goes, he leaves a hook in your consciousness with some druidic act of goose-bump-raising screen voodoo, he vanishes; he reappears years later, wholly transformed, doing something completely different, but equally mind-boggling. I realized, re-watching the films I thought he sucked in, that even when he looks like he's sucking, he's brilliant -- once you've seen two or three other examples of his possibly limitless range, you realize that in roles where he isn't obviously hurting your eyes with his ultra-bright Apollo gleam, he is transmitting his role from the dark part of a distant planet, doing the kind of hard thespian thinking that is a real privilege to see, in a dunced-out medium like the movies.

Those of you who read my columns scanning for choice mud balls of character assassination had best bail out here (no pun intended): I don't bandy it around much, and I hate to hurl it at beautiful people, and I especially hate to use it on beautiful people who are currently rocketing to the top of the A-list, but I have to use the G-word -- Christian Bale is a friggin' genius.

Christian Charles Philip Bale, after being born in 1974, made his professional debut on the London West End stage, playing opposite beloved "Blackadder" comic Rowan Atkinson. American audiences first got a good look at Bale, the most gripping child actor since Jackie Coogan, when he beat out 4,000 other kids to star in Steven Spielberg's unregenerate, hugely overbudgeted, over-art-directed, hyper-sentimentalized sob-mop, "Empire of the Sun" (1987), where he plays a preadolescent boy separated from his parents in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation in World War II.

He's really, really good, and there is no need for the "for a kid" caveat -- when he loses his mother in a bustling mob and screams for her; when his face registers the discoveries of lust, betrayal, cataclysmic loss and various fugue states in between, it is clear that we are dealing with a freak of nature. This is no mere child actor; this is a kid who knows how to act as well as most 50-year-olds in the Royal Shakespeare Company -- the kind of preternatural, precocious talent that suggests a boy that has lived human lives and done this kind of thing before.

He successfully captures a sophisticated nuance of being traumatized but still being a kid; having long stretches of forgetting he's traumatized by being distracted by his kid instincts -- mucking around, collecting cool trinkets, horseplaying at survival. He is at times a beautiful, innocent child and at times properly annoying. He shows that he can both act cool and lose his cool. He loses his mind and he finds it again. It's an undeniable tour de force; the National Board of Review created the Best Performance by a Juvenile Actor award to laud the performance. I'm not sure how he avoided getting sucked down the Macaulay Culkin rabbit hole or otherwise dodged an insane amount of toxic overexposure after "Empire," but he must have had marvelous parents and/or management.

Shortly after this, Bale was Falstaff's "Boy" in Kenneth Branagh's "Henry V" (1989). It's not a big part but one that spikes the already heady emotional punch -- he's the angel-faced darling young lad whose unjust slaying, in the war, drives Branagh's Henry to wild, salivic fits of sky-ripping poesy; his bloody, limp young body is toted around like a grief-promoting handbag by Branagh in the final scenes.

"Newsies" (1992) is an incredibly strange, perversely commercial, yet weirdly compelling Disney musical, largely ripped off from "Oliver Twist," that involves dancing, singing pre-pubescent orphan newsboys in turn-of the-century New York organizing against child-labor abuses by the Big Newspaper. Bale plays Jack Kelly, the Artful Dodger re-imagined as a union-organizing Bowery Boy.

Another spooky thing that proves Bale is something slightly beyond human is that he does not ever appear to have had any awkward adolescent period. He always looks perfectly like himself, perfectly proportional, just smaller or larger. Which is not to say he's perfect. He's not. His eyes and mouth sometimes hang ridiculously open like that of an excited collie; when he smiles, it looks like his tongue is hanging out, just a little.

In this film, Bale should by all rights look ridiculous -- like poncing, mincing, homo-boy bait, a mass-produced Twinkie cake. The role of Jack Kelly should have been enough to turn stomachs, alienate his fan base, and kill his career for several years. I can't really figure out how he does it, but he emerges from even this wild embarrassment smelling like a rose. How? How can Bale sing wussy songs about having "no muddah or faddah," on artificial cobblestones, clutching a prop-room wagon wheel and pirouetting in musical numbers so sellout-sational they make "Mary Poppins" look like a freebase weekend with Bob Fosse, and still look great? How can he be that emotionally exposed, in a project so Disney-twee it could only be considered an artistic success by 11-year-old girls and pedophiles, without ever looking twitted-out and dickless?

I will tell you.

There is something that great stars like Cary Grant and Michael Caine have: the elusive Common Touch, which makes their divine gifts non-alienating to the less fortunate. How does one recognize the Common Touch in a star?

I have devised a fail-safe, if vulgar, test: Can you easily picture him shitting his pants?

With Bale, the answer is a resounding yes -- you can also picture him becoming wildly frustrated by the parking valet or sticking his elbow in the gravy boat. He's human, in every beautiful, fucked-up sense of the word. He wears all the inconveniences and embarrassments of being alive very openly. He also lays a kiss on his teen co-star at the end that is so surprisingly salacious I'm surprised it didn't boost the film to a PG-13.

"Swing Kids" (1993) was kind of a "Flashdance" for Nazi Germany-era jitterbuggers. Bale plays the weak-minded hothead kid in the swing clique, who is eventually brainwashed by the nationalistic narcissism and brotherly calisthenics of the Hitler Jugend. He is a hypnotizing, wonderful dancer, easy, loose and sarcastic -- his character transforms into an equally convincing stupid, wrathful Nazi, who in one scene brutally strangles a co-star whose multiple first names I can never remember properly (hence, I call him and about six other guys Michael Sean Patrick Scott Leonard).

Probably to come off as not jarringly different from his co-stars, Bale utilizes a perfect -- I mean undetectable -- American accent; something that most British actors, including Ewan McGregor and the entire cast of Monty Python, really can't do (granted, it sounds a little Bronx-y from time to time, but hell, he'd just come off "Newsies"). For me, the thing he displayed in this movie, besides great dancing, is super-advanced, black-belt self-control. Some of this had to be direction, but it is evident that even as a flailing, hormone-squirting teen, Bale could go hugely comic and over the top, or play ultra-subtle, eyebrow-flinching minutiae with equal credibility, and weave both into the weft of his overall character ... this, to me, given his age, is freaky.

The film of Bale's that surprised me the most, and gave him a great trunk of emotion to unpack in a finely embroidered arena of human experience, was "Little Women" (1994), where he is darling Laurie, the rich boy next door and playmate of the March girls, whose heart is eventually broken by tomboy Jo. Both Bale and Winona Ryder (in a role that reminds you she had talent for something besides grand larceny) are incandescent in their deep, familiar, civilized affection for each other. In their roughhousing they look as sweet and natural as puppies; joy circulates between their faces. Bale throws on the nitrous-oxide switch and zooms into the stratosphere with the proposal scene; I have (I hate to say it) never seen its equal: a visible human heart presented glowing and vibrating on a silver plate with a brave confession of love -- then a crushing rejection -- and a recovery, from that rejection, which is so tender, and so moving in its being too of a piece with that fine and delicate character in that lovely little world to be concealed or defensive, at all.

I enjoyed the strange Danish movie "Royal Deceit" (1994), in which Bale plays Amled, Prince of Jutland (from the original Saxo-Grammaticus ur-text of "Hamlet"). It's a weird but not unsatisfying flick, with Helen Mirren, Gabriel Byrne and Bale running around in burlap tunics in 6th century Denmark. Bale, the young prince, pretends to be insane in order to avenge the death of his father and gets to goon out and drool and rave non sequiturial Dutch japes about ducks and ride a horse backward and engage in other puzzling medieval Anglo-Saxon antics, before swooping in for the kill and bedding Kate Beckinsale. What is a little arm-hair raising, here, is that Bale, at age 20, has an easy rightful Kingliness to his bearing that is as compelling as Dame Judy Dench's stranglehold on the inner state of Queenliness.

Then there was "Metroland" (1997). The book had to be better; there must have been more nuance. But the on-screen adaptation reduces Julian Barnes' meditation on ... uh, the compromises of maturity, I guess ... into seeming like a sentimental old fuck waxing self-congratulatory about his overprivileged sexual heyday in France while trying real hard to imitate the "Alexandria Quartet." Here Bale shows a mask that he will wear several times in his film career -- that of the goofy, marshmallow-white, repressed feeb. It is so utterly convincing, it can give the uninitiated Bale viewer the impression that he is that guy -- some hapless, pasty, sexually anxious dork. He actually turns down the volume on his charisma for these roles, something I find incredibly satisfying to watch -- he has absolutely nothing to prove by not serving the character.

This film also marked the arrival of another aspect of Bale that audiences would soon see a lot of: his ass. There is a lot of sex in this movie, though painfully Caucasian and unsteamy; Bale has no apparent fear of nude scenes, with unclothed actresses or otherwise. And unsurprisingly, given his bastard-child-of-Charles-Berlitz-and-Meryl-Streep ear for language and accents, he speaks exquisite French.

The next time he played an uptight honky was in "Velvet Goldmine" (1998), the first movie I ever saw Bale in. I remember thinking, Who is this drip? Is he Todd Haynes' boyfriend or something? Why is he in this movie?

He looks kind of dumb, greasy and awful; the '70s androgyne shag and bad eye makeup is counterproductive to his naturally square, masculine face. He plays a journalist reflecting back on his glam-rock days as a young English dolt suffering a squirmingly awkward, self-conscious gay awakening. Again, he opts for muted charisma. He does slide a lot of humor in this role, but it's so subtle that American audiences probably missed it entirely (I did, on first viewing), such as the scene in which he's clumsily prettying himself with cosmetics, grumping at his mate with a brogue-y accent: "Oy, wait a muhnut, oym puttin' on moy oyloynah."

On closer scrutiny I wonder if Bale intrinsically disliked playing gay. But you have to admire him for taking that career bungee jump.

Naturally, after "Velvet Goldmine," Bale was cast as Jesus.

"Mary, Mother of Jesus" (1999) is an abysmal TV movie featuring a Linda Ronstadt look-alike as the Holy Mother of God, saying dumbed-down, made-for-TV, Bible-epic schlock like "Is this world mad? Where's God?" and, "Why the suffering? I beg you for an answer! How can I ease this suffering? What can I do?" Bale, with sandals and neck beard, gives his most generous, spiritual smile and pats the knee of a little Aramaic girl with Down syndrome in the first scene he's in. "He's nice," she lisps to her mom, pointing at the Christ.

Even in a schlock monster like this heap, Bale, consummate professional, gives it up. He is suffused with raw compassion. As Jesus, he is surprisingly wild: by turns broody, tortured, savage and ecstatic. He plays it more like a classic John the Baptist, so the John the Baptist had to overcompensate by screaming his entire performance like John Cleese with a loincloth full of scorpions. Carrying his cross to Golgotha, Bale is in suspiciously awesome shape for a desert-dwelling guy; he bares his blue-white teeth in anguish, straining his shining, bloody pectorals and ripped Nautilus obliques. All in all, Bale's Jesus was more a Warrior Christ of the Apocalypse than a peaceful Lamb of God, but he was the only saving grace in a movie that otherwise should have been flayed, skinned alive and crucified Mel Gibson-style.

I think a lot of people probably didn't see "American Psycho" (2000) because the tedious and disgusting book it was based on suggested a dumb, bloody and stomach-churningly misogynistic film. The movie is an exponentially better piece of art, and Bale, as the Psycho, is world-slicing, laser perfection. Poetry. Riveting. A firebird. So perfect it kind of makes your stomach turn inside out watching him, like when you're watching a once-in-a-lifetime opera with a perfect cast; a rare convergence of talent at its apex and the ideal opportunity. This is a movie not to rent, but to own -- when I am Supreme Dictator, I will demand that all Americans watch it every Christmas morning.

For starters, he looks beyond incredible, like "Brad who?," gasp, rend your clothing and wail like an eighth-grade Bay City Rollers groupie incredible. Just from a Soloflex, gym-slut centerfold perspective, he is in Triple Crown racehorse condition. The best thing about that movie, though, is how incredibly funny he is. The scene in which he puts on a transparent raincoat and hacks a co-worker to death in his living room with a shiny ax while doing some very prissy interpretive tap dancing and giving an edge-free, Parade magazine-style fluff-piece oration on the Huey Lewis and the News song "It's Hip to Be Square" is, I think, one of the great comic scenes of the 20th century.

"I have to return some videos," he says, at three different points in the movie, and every time he says it, it rolls around slimy in his mouth like some foreign animal innard. If you can't appreciate Christian Bale after "American Psycho," well, I'm sorry, but you just can't have Christmas anymore.

"Reign of Fire" (2002) is a curiously dark, post-apocalyptic dragon movie in which Bale has a macho dick-unrolling contest with the hilariously heavy-handed Matthew McConaughey, who looks like Fidel Castro re-imagined as a tattooed bodybuilder by Tom of Finland. Bale has a rather scraggly, unbeautiful beard and a Cockney accent, and he retains the one rudder of sanity throughout a film where the director was clearly telling everyone to go for melodramatic, hair-tearing, chest-pounding hysteria -- McConaughey (who is supposed to be the cool guy), by comparison, ends up looking like he's acting in a gay Mexican soap opera.

In "Laurel Canyon" (2002) Bale puts on his uptight-white-guy face again as the beleaguered fiancé of Kate Beckinsale and the devoured son of the fabulously narcissistic Frances McDormand. He is tempted by the fruit of another, in this case a sultry Eastern European co-worker played by the ravishing and very underrated Natascha McElhone. There is a highly steamy conversation in the front seat of her car, which starts with Bale festooned with awful guilt for thinking impure thoughts about her:

"I think about you too, Sarah. A lot. Trust me."

"How do you think about me? Do you think about having sex with me?"

He is shocked. "[Gulp] Yuh."


"How do I think about having sex with you?" (He is shocked, bemused, shocked again, blushing, thrilled, a little petrified.)

"Yeah. Do you think about me going down on you?"

The look in his eyes, here, is so turned-on, it looks like he might start to cry. But there's a whole lot more going on in his face, too:

  1. raging hard-on
  2. male/human validation
  3. something close to the euphoria of falling in love
  4. relief that he feels Nos. 1-3, since it reaffirms No. 2.

In short, he went for some very complicated thinking and feeling when all he really had to do was look sort of vapidly present and give her a solid, open-mouthed kiss. But it gets better. McElhone delivers a Dietrich-worthy sex chat that would fog the windows of an Airbus, and Bale plays along more than willingly -- the scene is about 50 times sexier than 92 percent of all film scenes in which both actors are fully or partially naked, and worth the price of the DVD.

"Equilibrium" (2002), is a surprisingly terrific, über-stylish, "1984"/"Brave New World"-style movie about futuristic totalitarianism that got stupidly marketed as a poor man's "Matrix" with Bale as a poor man's Keanu Reeves. It features Bale as an unfeeling "cleric," a supercop whose mandate is to destroy all evidence of the pre-apocalyptic sensory world, e.g., emotion-inspiring articles like Leonardo da Vinci paintings, books of Yeats -- in order to preserve a regime that forbids feeling and worships emotion-assassinating psycho-pharmaceutical drug ampuls. Naturally, the cleric's great stillness is shaken by the wild blue eyes of sense criminal Emily Watson, and he stops taking his neck shots -- and the good fascist's identity crisis ensues.

OK, it's a straightforward, any-Keanu-could-cut-it role, but Bale is a genius, so what does he do?

Act 1: Bale is, essentially, a robot. He looks clammy and flawless, and he seems to enjoy his job, killing the outlaws who emote. He's great at it. He makes you admire the insect. When he sets his jaw and says, "Burn it," at a pile of masterpiece paintings, it gives one a twinge of sadistic pleasure; oh, the simple, beautiful cruelty of the obedient fascist machine.

Act 1 Turning Point: Bale, sifting through Watson's apartment, cranks up her Victrola and is exposed, for the first time, to a symphony. He hasn't been taking his shots. The look on his face, hearing the opening strains, is one of innocent shock, sudden heartbreak, flash humanizing -- you watch the music gently, suddenly, impale him and activate his forgotten soul; the finger of God to the clay body of Adam. He falls into a chair and weeps. An indelible moment.

And he gets even more stunning.

Act 2: Bale sets his jaw in the exact same, robotic way he set it in Act 1, but now he is a poet pretending to be a robot, with a hugely bleeding, emotive heart that is screaming to claw its way out of his black trench coat.

Try that, Keanu, I double-dare ya.

Try that, any actor under 50 living.

I told you: He's scarily evolved.

If you love Christian Bale, don't see "The Machinist" (2004). This kind of vanity ultra-masochism in the film industry shouldn't be encouraged or rewarded -- it sends a horrible message. The film isn't good enough to justify Bale's horrendous physical sacrifice. I wanted to point a screwdriver at the director's eye and hiss: Find a fucking ectomorph actor for your poorly conceived protagonist, you wannabe David Lynch, Daddy paid for film school, ooh ain't I edgy, no structure havin', tired-ass disturbing film clichés of the post-noir '80s abusing motherfucker. Don't shrink down and sicken one of the most beautiful physiques of our time to fit your B-rate material.

I can't figure out what Bale was thinking, taking this role, other than, I will show the world how far I'll go. Which is, I think, too far. When he stands up, shirtless, the audience gasps. It's fucking horrible to see that body at 120 pounds; it represents the kind of fascist, wholly objectivized, uncompassionate terrorism imposed on a body by the hateful will of people like Nazis and Mary-Kate Olsen. To the Freudian psyche, hunger is the opposite of love, or something like that. From this perspective, "The Machinist" is totally anti-life, and not in a fun way, and it looks, in a queasy way, like Bale is hunger-striking for his own cause-celeb.

Today, Christian Bale is teetering on the brinkety-brink and enjoying his final seconds as a "cult figure."

He's had a few high-pop-visibility accolades in the past -- the 10th Anniversary issue of Entertainment Weekly called him one of the "Top 8 Most Powerful Cult Figures of the Past Decade," largely because of his zillion fan-sites on the Internet, and he was once referred to, by Premiere, as one of the "Hottest Leading Men Under 30" -- but in America, he's still no household name, at least for the next, uh,..tick...tick...tick...

He's Batman now, and it's all over. Christian Bale is about to explode into a Hollywood super-duper-nova. Who knows what kind of inspirational humanity he can sustain? He did survive Disney, and Spielberg ... this is encouraging. Chances are, he's got the golden inner reserves to survive "Batman" and the publicity-slave mob that will follow it and surely change his life forever. Who knows? Some of us will be watching his eyes very carefully to see how he does in the face of this mega-mega-media onslaught. What Happens Next to Christian Bale, post-Batman, will answer the question: Can a modern St. George slay today's dragon of worldly corruption, or are we as a celebrity media brainwashed society too far gone? Is the dark disease of fame too powerful? My urgent Princess Leia cum S.E. Hinton SOS message to Christian Bale, over the next four years, is, Stay gold, Obi-Wan Pony Boy. You're our only hope. Beep.

Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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