After watching 3:10 To Yuma, I could imagine Russell Crowe in the Christian Bale role, playing a one-footed rancher whose hardscrabble life has left him without hope and only one slim chance to ever be a hero, but I couldn’t imagine Bale in the Crowe role, playing an outlaw who relishes his badness and takes equal pleasure from shooting Pinkertons and bedding barmaids. I couldn’t see it because Bale doesn’t have a real smile, and because Bale doesn’t have a twinkle in his eye. Bale doesn’t have fun.
I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen an actor more drawn to grimness and torment and darkness than Christian Bale. His filmography is filled with po-faced sufferers; the few characters in his oeuvre who smile tend to be sociopaths like Patrick Bateman in America Psycho or Jim Luther Davis in Harsh Times. Even Arthur Stuart, the young man at the center of the gayest time in British history (in all possible meanings of the word) in Velvet Goldmine is far more tormented than the glam rockers with whom he surrounds himself. Had Bale played Curt Wild the character would have probably been more Bauhaus than The Stooges.
It’s this endless grimness that has made me come to dread seeing Bale’s name in a film’s credits. It’s not that he’s bad in these roles, it’s just that the repetition has become grinding. I know what Bale’s going to give me every single time, and lately it’s just getting worse as I see him playing opposite actors who imbue their characters with some mischievous life, like Hugh Jackman in The Prestige or Colin Farrell in The New World. I just can’t imagine Bale playing those roles, at least not with the same kind of glint and glimmer and liveliness that those actors did. In Bale’s hands Robert Angier and Captain John Smith would have been much more somber, much less magnetic. This self-inflicted typecasting is going to have a baleful effect on the man’s career.* Hell, I’m pretty sure that Bale’s part in the excellent and intriguing looking Bob Dylan fractured funhouse mirror biopic I’m Not There is Dylan post-motorcycle crash, when he was born again – the single least playful and fun part of the man’s life.
I think it’s this uber-seriousness that has made Bale so popular online while keeping him from becoming a real star in the mainstream world**. There’s an element of self-denial in every Bale character – Arthur Stuart is a miserable libertine, and Patrick Bateman may well have imagined it all – and I think that there’s a certain segment of the online community that doesn’t like people who have fun. Or at least fun on their terms, which leaves out swaggering, confident macho types like Farrell or Crowe, two actors who have outshone Bale in their collaborations (I think most online types are OK with Jackman because they sense he’s not quite that macho after all). I don’t know that either actor is actually technically better than Bale, who apparently takes his craft so weirdly seriously that he does press for films using the accent he had in the film, but they’re certainly tons more fun to watch, and they’re definitely the kinds of guys I would want to hang out with. There’s a different rabbit hole to be followed here, where we investigate the monkish and prudish tendencies of online types, but it’s Bale’s pizzazz-free acting style that appeals to these types.
What Bale needs to do is to find a funny role, and not one that plays on his type – ie, don’t play the serious guy who gets neck-deep in comedic shenanigans. He shouldn’t play the straight man. He shouldn’t play a guy who only smiles because there’s a serious wiring malfunction in his brain. He shouldn’t play a guy who has killed, could kill or who looks like he’s contemplating killing you right now. And I think he has to play a role like this before he tackles a role where he’s playing Just A Guy, because the second Christian Bale pops up in a film as a husband or a Senator or the local school teacher, I’m assuming something heavy and creepy is coming along with him. It’s hard to imagine a Christian Bale character having a nice day, let alone a regular life.
Of course I get the impression that Bale doesn’t really care about all this. These are the choices he’s making, and not yet the ones into which he’s being forced. Of course, that could be the next step for him if he’s not careful; Bale has yet to earn the kind of critical and awards acclaim that sets him aside as A Serious Actor, and without that mantle, he might find that the roles being offered will make his Shaft villain seem nuanced. Stuck in the no-man’s land between being a movie star and being a widely respected and lauded thespian, Bale’s in danger of being yet another talented actor who finds himself being the biggest name a B movie can afford.
My plea to Christian Bale is to lighten the fuck up. A couple of years ago I was thinking that you were on the cusp of being one of the great actors of your generation, but you’ve stuck yourself into a rut just as surely as Cuba Gooding Jr has, and at least that motherfucker has an Oscar with which to console himself. You’ve established yourself as an actor interested in being serious, now spread your wings and try something new. Surprise me for once.
*See what I did there?
** Also, he seems to be drawn to genre type projects that are either fucking awful, like Equilibrium, or gimmicky, uncommercial and eventually unsatisfying, like The Machinist (a film to which I was too kind when it was released).