Moviegoers enjoy a special relationship with actors who grow up onscreen, akin to witnessing the emotional and physical growth of a beloved child. For every Drew Barrymore and Leonardo DiCaprio who find their feet after the perilous transition from movie youth to adulthood, there are dozens of Lindsay Lohans and Macaulay Culkins who stumble. From Christian Bale’s 1987 big-screen debut in Empire Of The Sun (filmed when he was 12) to his 2013 Oscar-nominated turn in American Hustle, he quietly matured from pre-teen to adolescent to manhood. As a teenager, he didn’t resort to taking off his clothes like Barrymore (Poison Ivy) or taking out his gun like DiCaprio (The Basketball Diaries)—default moves of child actors who hope to be seen as grownup. The choices of the famously selective Bale, a shape-shifter like few others, serve as example not only to other juvenile performers who want to grow in the business, but to mature actors as well.
Bale is 40 years old. Onscreen for 28 years, he’s been starring in feature films nearly as long as Barrymore (32 years), Daniel Day-Lewis (also 32 years), and Tom Hanks (30 years). Unlike those performers, who almost always play leads, Bale is the prince of ensemble movies, feeding off the actors around him, elevating their performances as they electrify his. Excepting American Psycho and The Machinist, where he is the lead, Bale is an accomplished team player. It’s typical for Bale to play a role like G-man Melvin Purvis to Johnny Depp’s sensual John Dillinger in Public Enemies, or a haunted, prosthetic-legged bounty hunter to Russell Crowe’s charismatic, nimble outlaw in 3:10 To Yuma, or the introverted fanboy dazzled by glam-rock extroverts Ewan McGregor and Jonathan Rhys Meyers in Velvet Goldmine. Even when he’s the eponymous character in the Dark Knight trilogy, he’s one in the ensemble.
At age 8, Bale, born in Wales of nomadic British parents, followed his elder sisters into an acting workshop. (Kate Winslet was a fellow student.) Within a year, he booked ads for breakfast cereals and laundry soaps, and made his 1984 stage debut opposite Rowan Atkinson in The Nerd. As the frail Tsarevich Alexei in the 1986 telefilm Anastasia, Bale so impressed its star, Amy Irving, that she recommended the 12-year-old to her then-spouse, Steven Spielberg, who was casting an English boy to anchor Empire Of The Sun.
Bale is stunning as Jamie Graham, the youth separated from his parents in 1941 when the Japanese army marches into Shanghai’s International Settlement. It’s a nuanced performance, one part artful dodger, one part anarchist liberated from daily structure, and all parts naïf who does not comprehend the politics that result in his internment at a Japanese POW camp. Jamie is intuitive enough to ally himself with two morally and temperamentally opposite inmates, a wily American profiteer (John Malkovich) and an altruistic British doctor (Nigel Havers), effectively a surrogate bad dad and good dad.
Presaging future performances, Bale is startlingly intuitive and watchful, reacting mostly with his guppy mouth. From the beginning, he had the imaginative empathy to conceive how to be someone else onscreen—and/or the excellent fortune to have Spielberg guide him there. Something in his bursts of energy suggests he dances to rhythms only he can hear. (Bale also demonstrates a keen ear with pitch-perfect impressions of co-stars Malkovich and Joe Pantoliano.) At the end of the film, as Jamie strokes his mother’s face and hair to make sure she’s not a mirage, he projects a hunger and intensity like no child actor since Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker. He doesn’t need dialogue to hold the screen.
Actors’ filmographies are not to be confused with their biographies. Yet careful observers will note that the primal themes in Empire Of The Sun thread through Bale’s career choices. Many of his films are about a child or young man’s separation or estrangement from parents, or about working through such a loss. Most obvious in this regard is the Dark Knight series. Lost parents and/or estrangement from adults are factors in many of Bale’s efforts, particularly during the 1990s. The best of them—Newsies, Little Women, and Velvet Goldmine—are films in which a lonely teenager searches for, and finds, his spiritual tribe. (He’s effectively adopted by a unionist Jewish family in the first, an idealist Transcendentalist clan in the second, and pansexual glam-rockers in the third.)
A case could be made that Bale’s filmography conforms to universal stages of human development. In his teen and young-adult movies, he searches for his identity and individuates himself from his parents. He struggles with mommy issues in Laurel Canyon and with professional rivals in The Prestige, then mediates among fractious family members in The Fighter. He becomes a devoted husband and father in The New World. Add to this progression of characters his bedrock believability, and the sum is a relatable character actor-star in the spirit of Gene Hackman.
Like most of the great screen talents, Bale acts with eyes and body. He easily sheds his natural accent for various American or British dialects. Besides his obvious talents, he also dances: Consider his muscular stomp in Newsies, the waltz in Little Women, and the jitterbug in Swing Kids. His dance scenes are the gateway drug for many Baleheads, as his dedicated cult following calls itself.
In the movies of his teen years, he projects a sense of the outsider pressing his face to a window, dreaming about being part of the life he sees inside. A startling moment in Velvet Goldmine sees his character watching telly with his parents when an androgynous glitter-rocker comes on a variety show. “That’s me! That’s me!” he exclaims, jumping for joy, relieved that for the first time to recognize who he is.
In the middle of his journeyman period, there are stories, only Bale knows how credible, that he sought the lead in Titanic, a role that would reunite him with Kate Winslet. According to one version of the story, the role of Jack was Bale’s—until James Cameron decided it was un-American for two English actors to play Yanks. Leonardo DiCaprio got the part instead. Two years later, DiCaprio was attached to another role Bale craved, that of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. Arguing that DiCaprio would alienate his Titanic teen female fanbase, activist Gloria Steinem publicly lobbied DiCaprio not to play the part of Patrick Bateman, the smiling serial killer of his own fantasies. DiCaprio withdrew, and the part ultimately went to Bale, the first choice of director Mary Harron. The film was released in 2000, the year Bale’s father wed Steinem.
Mary Harron’s problematic—since the line between reality and fantasy is drawn too late—adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel is a pivot point in Bale’s career. It marks the first time he played an adult on the big screen, and the first time he transformed himself externally to suggest his character’s inner life.
And what a metamorphosis! Behold the Cubist face, its bold strokes of eyebrow, planar cheekbones, and calligraphic slash of mouth. Behold the hairless gym-bunny torso, its abs of steel and concave stomach. James Wolcott describes the sequence where Bateman peels off his herb-mint facial masque and reveals a kind of Kabuki mask underneath as the embodiment of “predatory yuppie narcissism.” Patrick is a fancy package with nothing inside. Bale makes this soulless monster into an abstraction, a streamlined machine of consumption with a chainsaw in the closet. Chainsaw? All the better to fantasize quartering and consuming those he is jealous of and competitive with. Bale’s is a whale of a performance in a shallow pond.
Bale has spent the subsequent 14 years continually surprising moviegoers. His weight changes, as does his gait and even his smile. His voice tends to be on the edge of audibility (another way of making moviegoers lean in). He gives the impression of building each character from scratch. No matter whether the character he plays is certifiably bonkers or in full possession of his faculties, Bale draws from a deep well of tenderness toward others.
He’s worked for indie filmmakers, auteurs, and studio legends: Todd Haynes (twice), Terrence Malick (twice), Christopher Nolan (four times) and David O’Russell (twice); once each with Gillian Armstrong, Lisa Cholodenko, Werner Herzog, Michael Mann, and John Singleton. Excepting Bale’s Oscar-winning performance as the manic boxer Dicky Eklund in The Fighter and Dieter Dengler in Rescue Dawn, his performances tend toward the depressive and/or repressed end of the emotional spectrum.
Two years after the pyrotechnics of American Psycho, Bale played Sam, the bottled-up son of an uncorked hippie mom, Jane (Frances McDormand), in Laurel Canyon. A music producer, Jane thrives on a diet of forbidden fruit, chaos, and cigarettes, while Sam’s rebellion takes the form of self-control. The shutdown Harvard Med graduate doing his residency in psychiatry sublimates and intellectualizes desires Jane doesn’t think twice about acting on. Though Sam is engaged, he’s deeply attracted to his colleague, Sara (Natascha McElhone). In a comic and erotically charged sequence, they exchange fantasies of what they’d like to do to each other in the tightly enclosed space of Sara’s car. Pulling back from a prolonged open-mouthed kiss, Sam valiantly struggles to be faithful to his fiancée, and becomes a human volcano willing itself not to erupt.
Ordinarily when it comes to a thespian’s visible struggle to put himself in his character’s shoes, it’s hard not to side with Laurence Olivier, who, on watching co-star Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man, supposedly told director John Schlesinger, “Why doesn't the dear boy just act?” Yet in The Machinist, Bale—who lost 60 pounds to play the ghostly insomniac—doesn’t seem like a Method stuntman. Bale, who never received formal acting training, has long held that he is not a Method actor: “[It would be] very limiting if I have to relate every damn thing in somebody else’s life to something that’s happened in mine,” he said in a 2011 Mirror interview. “At the end of the day, I’m faking it. Pure imagination.” For most of his career, he’s struggled to create that imaginative sympathy—or is it empathy?—that characterizes his work in Empire Of The Sun.
As the emaciated insomniac in the twilight zone between consciousness and derangement, Bale’s Trevor Reznik sees refrigerators bleed, and imagines he’s on a carnival ride called Highway To Hell. He is, but figuratively. He’s grieving, but does not ask for sympathy. Like a lot of characters Bale plays, he doesn’t know he needs help, or doesn’t know how to ask for it. Bale’s performance is nerve-fraying, the quivering human equivalent of the theremin score on the soundtrack.
There’s much going on in Batman Begins/The Dark Knight/The Dark Knight Rises, but the triumph of Bale’s collaboration with Christopher Nolan is this: What stands out about Tim Burton’s Batman is the Gothic noir of Gotham City, where everything is moist from the cold sweat of fear. What stands out about Nolan’s Batman Begins is the human struggle of Bruce Wayne. Bale plays it with a melancholy ordinarily reserved for Hamlet. Once again, he physicalizes grief. Years after the death of his parents, Bruce Wayne’s downturned mouth, sloping shoulders, hoarse whisper, and self-conscious gait attest to the unbearable heaviness of being.
What a surprise, then, that when Bale shows up in the last half of Malick’s The New World, his John Rolfe is lightness itself. The lately widowed English tobacco planter arrives at the Jamestown colony and is beguiled by Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher), exiled there by her family because of her intimacy with John Smith (Colin Farrell). Though she pines for Smith, whom she believes is dead, Pocahontas and Rolfe develop a relationship. The audience hears their inner thoughts in voiceover. The acting is like that in silent movies: They communicate through body language and facial expressions. They ravish each other with their eyes. Unlike the vagabond Smith, Rolfe is dependable and warm as the sun. Pocahontas grows to love him. She says, “He’s like a tree, he shelters me; I lie in his shade.” Theirs is a love story transcending tragedy and time. The movie marks the first time Bale plays a father onscreen, and Rolfe’s joy in his child is palpable.
From The New World, Bale went to Southeast Asia as German-born Dieter Dengler in Herzog’s Rescue Dawn. To earn U.S. citizenship in 1965, Dieter enlists as a pilot. Shot down over Laos, he is taken to a POW camp, eats worms and pretends they are pasta, engineers an escape, wrestles snakes, and endeavors to save his buddy, played by Steve Zahn. Again, Bale plays an emotional rock, emanating calm and humor that barely mask his fear.
A magician with a dark secret in The Prestige. A bounty hunter risking his life to provide for his sons in 3:10 To Yuma. The acoustic-era Bob Dylan in I’m Not There. Gaunt crackhead Dicky in The Fighter. Initially, Dicky’s feints and jitters keep the movie off-balance, but he provides it with a heartbeat and a heart. When he’s on crack, racing through the streets of Lowell, Massachusetts, the film palpitates and hyperventilates. When he cleans up, stops hogging the glory, mediates family disputes, and passes the torch to brother Micky (Mark Wahlberg), the film takes a deep breath and achieves a healthy heart rate.
Let’s review. Bale holds the screen in musicals, Westerns, literary adaptations, biopics, costume dramas, and superhero films. Notably absent from his filmography, though, is romantic comedy. He rectifies this with a calm, deadpan performance in the otherwise hectic farce American Hustle, playing Irving Rosenfeld, a paunchy con man who wants to leave his helpless wife (Jennifer Lawrence) for the resourceful Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). Irving talks with his hands, nervously rakes his fingers through the world’s worst combover, and resembles a bearded turtle about to pull his head back into his shell. As he foxtrots down 5th Avenue with Sydney, he conveys the sense that he is both in the moment and out of it, joyful in his partner while plotting to transform his life so he and Sydney can enjoy a legitimate future. And it is in this moment that Baleheads discern the link between his preparatory measures for a movie and the characters he plays. Here is an actor who physically transforms himself in order to play the men who reinvent themselves.
A character in The Prestige observes of the Bale character’s low-key skills as an illusionist: “He’s a wonderful magician. He’s a dreadful showman.” The line perfectly captures Bale’s aversion to flash and his struggle to inhabit the flesh of those he plays. It’s hard to think of another mid-career actor with such range—and such restraint.