In one of the TV commercials for Exodus: Gods and Kings, there’s a blurb that says Christian Bale “humanizes one of the most iconic characters in history.” If only it’d been the other way around.
In Ridley Scott’s biblical epic, Bale plays Moses, and if we’re talking relative population-size, that role actually represents a step-down responsibility-wise. This is an actor who was previously responsible for defending all humanity from rampaging robots in Terminator Salvation and saved Gotham’s millions of inhabitants from annihilation a handful of times over the course of three Batman movies. Even when the stories in Bale’s movies are smaller, and when his characters aren’t staked with protecting the future existence of species and city-states, he makes things burdensome for himself. His roles aren’t characters, they’re tests of will: He famously shrunk down to a skeletal 121 pounds for The Machinist, and again dropped a bunch of weight to play crack-addicted Dickey Eklund in The Fighter. Ditto for Rescue Dawn, in which he was a flight-obsessed POW. (He also ate live maggots in that movie, maybe to help put him off food.) In American Psycho, his 2000 breakout, he’d gone the other way, refashioning his body into an impressively ripped monument to his character’s own narcissism. Last year’s American Hustle brought with it 40 pounds of beer belly and a terrible toupee. This is very impressive stuff, and also sort of impenetrable. Bale never plays anything like a regular, recognizable human being. It’s all salvation or suffering.
That’s why even though Christian Bale is one of our biggest stars, he’s also our most distant and unrelatable. He’s not interested in “normal” or approachable, and he’s certainly not inclined to share anything about himself in an effort to bridge the gap between us. Misguided or not, we have a sense of who stars are as people. Tom Hanks? Decent guy. George Clooney? Suave charmer. Tom Cruise? Maximally actualized lunatic. Christian Bale? It’s a blank.
He likes it that way. Bale has parroted the old thing that famous actors often say about keeping his personal life private because he doesn’t want it to affect how audiences see his work. “If you know something about somebody,” Bale has argued, “it gets in the way of just watching the guy as the character.” He’s also said that inhabiting “a character without showing anything of myself” is his “ultimate goal.”
This line of thinking has never made sense to me, at least not as anything other than a deke to avoid personal questions. Does anyone really think that audiences aren’t smart or sensitive enough to navigate the boundaries between the actor and the role? No sane human thinks Christian Bale is Batman, and no viral tantrum likely made anyone think differently about The Dark Knight Rises. Never mind the notion that an intentional blurring of, and causing tension between, public persona and onscreen performance can actually help an actor in a given role (e.g., Tom Cruise in Magnolia, James Stewart in Vertigo). And, of course, no matter how little we know about their offscreen lives, actors reveal something of themselves in the work all the time. Their choice of roles, their thinking about those roles, their performance approaches: These are not directives relayed via Olivier’s ghost. They’re subjective and telling. But fine, perhaps Bale takes his position out of a pure desire for privacy. There’s still something else going on. Look at how he talks about acting:
“I have a very sissy job, where I go to work and get my hair done, and people do my makeup, and I go and say lines and people spoil me rotten.” (Esquire)
“Well, it’s embarrassing to be movie star. Most people look at you, like, ‘That’s not a fucking job, is it?’” (Esquire)
“All throughout filming there’s like, I love it, then, I can’t stand it, it feels like the most stupid thing ever.” (The Wall Street Journal)
I know this goes against Bale’s hope that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking that what he does is not related to who he is, but those words are awfully self-flagellating, aren’t they? Sissy. Embarrassing. Stupid. No wonder Bale is determined to use acting as a kind of endurance challenge, all strain and rigor. Is there a major actor who appears to be having less fun than Christian Bale? He can certainly do wonders with mania — his Oscar for The Fighter was well deserved — and, amazingly, he’s believable as all those avenging angels. It’s just that he’s working in a box.
Post–Batman Begins, when Bale presumably has had more leeway to pick and choose his projects than he did before, he’s decided, almost exclusively, to go dark, or at least gray: a dogged Depression-era G-man in Public Enemies; an impoverished and humiliated rancher in 3:10 to Yuma; a vengeance-seeking millworker in Out of the Furnace; the self-aggrandizing con artist in American Hustle. As far as Moses, Bale said he interpreted the character as “likely schizophrenic” and “barbaric,” and thought about how bad the prophet’s personal hygiene would’ve been.
The frustrating thing is that Bale can do so much more than what he seems intent on showing us. Early on in his career, he was a tender Laurie in Little Women. Before that, there was the immortal Newsies. (He can hoof it!) He played lusty vulnerability gorgeously in Haynes’s glam-rock spectacle Velvet Goldmine, and he was touching as Jamestown settler John Rolfe in Terrence Malick’s The New World. But these types of roles, especially in the latter part of his career, are aberrations. He’s just not interested in lighter stuff, and he’s said as much. A few years back, he noted that he has “no interest in ever attempting a romantic comedy” because “they never make me laugh.” Nor he, us.
Instead, it’s role after role of I am a serious man angst. Life, as Bale so capably portrays it, is about duty, sacrifice, struggle. But there’s more to it than that. There’s joy, silliness, romance. It would be wonderful if an actor as talented as Christian Bale could show us those things, too.