Obsession and The Void: The Performances of Christian Bale

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In an early scene in Mary Harron’s “American Psycho,” youthful and Adonis-like stockbroker Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) runs through his almost pornographically detailed morning routine: a workout with 1,000 crunches, an array of hair and skincare products, all in an exact order to present “an idea of a Patrick Bateman.” Bale performs the scene with a blank fastidiousness, showing no joy or even stray morning wakeup feelings of exhaustion or boredom, all while narrating in a calm but detached tone of a magazine readout. There is a similar scene in the opening of “American Hustle” that functions as a parody, in which Bale’s con man Irving Rosenthal, flabby and balding, puts just as much work into maintaining his elaborately pathetic combover with a far more careful level of focus, a sense that what he’s doing to prepare himself has a real function. The two men are at different ends of the food chain, one obscenely wealthy, the other scrambling to get by; one is cold and unfeeling, the other empathetic and desperately human. Their commonality, then, is how much they have to work to do just to maintain a sense of self, to show that they have a reason for being, even if only to those on the outside looking in. 

That’s in line with much of the praise, and sometimes the criticisms, of Bale’s career. He’s undoubtedly skillful at reshaping his own appearance—often gaining or losing weight to extreme degrees—but the focus is frequently put on the surface external appearances, lauding how he’s become “unrecognizable” (both an exaggeration and more accurately praise for the makeup crew) or knocking his work for being too focused on nailing an impression or a physical quality at the expense of emotional connection. This misunderstands Bale’s strengths, however: he is an actor for whom physical transformation is but an anchoring facet to a depiction of obsession, be it Patrick Bateman’s pathological need to project normality to hide his depravity in “American Psycho,” Irving Rosenthal’s need to project success to attain some sad measure of it in “American Hustle,” or Dicky Eklund’s fixation on his one brush with greatness as a fighter to stave off the truth of his all-consuming crack addiction in “The Fighter.” They’re people who feel a deep need to construct or pursue some idealized form of self as a way to succeed or survive. It’s reflected in Bale’s own process, in which he seemingly constructs a façade, an attempt to hide himself, in order to find something authentic in his roles. The prosthetics, the hair changes and the punishing fluctuations in weight can sometimes be a crutch, but they’re also directly tied to the ring of truth in his best performances.

Bale’s new film, the Dick Cheney biopic “Vice,” has drawn fiercely polarized responses, with criticisms thrown both at typical Great Man Movie problems (lumpy one-thing-after-another structure, an over-explanatory script) and writer-director Adam McKay’s own additions (divisive fourth wall breaks and an uneasy tone that walks a thin line between “lacerating” and “lecturing”). The actor’s deceptively sensitive work as Cheney, however, does showcase much of what makes him interesting as a performer beyond the bodily transformations and close attention to detail: he plays people with a single-minded obsession that outweighs other concerns, a need to pursue it at all costs or else fall into the void of their lives, and a self-presentation meant to prop it up.

One could look at any number of Bale performances to highlight this, but these five best discuss the range of emotions and tones he’s able to explore while exemplifying this theme.

“Empire of the Sun” / Warner Bros. Pictures

1987: “Empire of the Sun”

When Steven Spielberg cast 12-year-old Christian Bale as Jamie “Jim” Graham in his adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel, he had no way of knowing his young lead actor would grow up to become one of the biggest stars of his generation. Even so, “Empire of the Sun,” the story of an English boy coming of age in Japanese-occupied China, marks the breakthrough of an extraordinarily gifted young actor, one with a real skill for sketching out the death of innocence. Bale’s early scenes show a classic Spielbergian dreamer, one whose fixation on airplanes shows no real understanding of the ideology behind the battles or the life-or-death situations that people find themselves in. He looks to everyday misery (beggars in the street) with curiosity but not compassion, and his casual cruelty to his family’s Chinese servant (a matter-of-fact, disinterested “you have to do what I say” when told his mom doesn’t want him eating before bed) is less out of a sense of superiority than a total lack of understanding of how his privilege dictates her life, to the point where he’s completely shocked when that same servant slaps him after the Japanese invade and she no longer has to pretend to respect him. 

As Jamie falls in with John Malkovich’s savvy crook Basie and they’re both sent to an internment camp, Bale shows a child’s adaptability, rushing through the camp and carrying out chores to win over everyone from his mentor to his captors. He’s at once a young opportunist and an earnest child, one whose mimicry of Malkovich and company (adopted American clothing, repeated jokes without understanding their cruelty) never quite gives way to comprehending that they don’t care about him (his sincere declaration that Basie is his friend is met with little more than amusement from the older man). At the same time, his admiration for the Japanese—a childlike fascination both with their aircraft and their sense of honor—protects him from the harsh realities of the camp, where people are beaten and starved or left to disease. In a late scene, Bale’s shift from unbridled joy at seeing bombers in action (hugging himself, cheering) to emotional breakdown after he’s rebuked by an elder (“I can’t remember what my parents look like”) show how much he’s depended on a fantastical sense of the world to escape how little he has left. His adoption of American habits and Basie’s theory of survivalism, paired with his salutes and bows to Japanese military men with a palpable sense of respect, is a child’s way of playing war games, an ideology- and nationality-blind view of war straight out of boys’ games and comics. Jamie has to act it out, or else realize that there’s little honor in doing whatever it takes to survive and that he’s unlikely to make it out in one piece. If the film and performance show a child’s resilience, they also show how quickly their views of the world can crumble, yielding only pain.

“Velvet Goldmine” / Miramax

1998: “Velvet Goldmine”

A few notable exceptions like his cocky performance in “Newsies” aside, Bale spent much of the ‘90s giving quietly sensitive, soulful supporting performances that he’s since only reprised on occasion (most effectively for Terrence Malick, who yielded one of his very best performances as John Rolfe in “The New World,” where Bale somehow makes unfailing kindness magnetic). Bale is very good in literary adaptations such as Gillian Armstrong’s “Little Women” (as the charming, lovelorn Laurie), but his best work of this period is in Todd Haynes’ “Velvet Goldmine” as Arthur Stuart, a music journalist reminiscing about his self-discovery as a gay man in the glam rock era. Haynes’ film borrows its structure from “Citizen Kane,” attempting to find how Jonathan Rhys-Meyers pop superstar Brian Slade disappeared, but it also works as a “Kane” for Bale’s character, who’s introduced in the middle of a youthful, “A Hard Day’s Night” rush to a concert, all teased hair and youthful excitement. Then we’re yanked to 1984, and his eyes are sunken, his demeanor sad and reticent. What happened that brought him to this place?

Bale’s greatness as a physical actor is often yoked to his extreme dedication to losing and gaining pounds, but “Velvet Goldmine” can serve as an example of how he can use his body to tell a story. He plays teenage Arthur with a measure of shyness that suggests a boy who hasn’t yet found an outlet for his dreams or a place to be himself; he hangs his head in embarrassment when he’s told his musical hero is a “poof” and that he himself is “disgusting.” Contrast that with his first strut on the streets of London minutes later, in a tight purple shirt, a moment of freedom that’s both liberating and frightening, his gait more open but still uncertain. The rest of his journey in the ‘70s scenes of the film is a navigation between those two poles of repression—his heaving frame as his father shames him for his homosexuality—and short-lived freedom, including a first romantic connection with rock star Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor). It makes his scenes in 1984 all the more painful, in which a withdrawn, older (and older-looking) Arthur shuffles through the streets, looking as if he’s trying to blend in with everything rather than stand out on his own. 

Bale plays the role not as someone who’s found a permanent new identity and acceptance, but rather as someone who, briefly, saw a better life and the first stabs of individuality in the music and fashions that meant so much to him, before those small gains were rolled back and a new, more powerful form of repression turned his world to gray. Perhaps Arthur wouldn’t have stayed glammed up his whole life—most people don’t look and dress like they did when they were teenagers—but he’s stuck in a point in time where he can’t even find a modest form of self-expression. Bale the actor locates that moment of temporary self-discovery and shows just how it’s so intoxicating: it’s a first assertion of self, even in an idealized form. That adult Arthur can’t fully break from that fixation is understandable; that he should be required to totally deny any semblance of it is tragic.

“American Psycho” / Lions Gate Films

2000: “American Psycho”

Bale really arrived as a Great Actorwith “American Psycho,” the first film that showcased his ability to dramatically transform his appearance for a role. Bale hasn’t shaken his attraction to these challenges, and while he usually manages to transcend the stunt-y nature of these roles (“The Fighter,” “Rescue Dawn,” the otherwise tedious “The Machinist”), there are times where the trick is more impressive than the performance (“I'm Not There,” the “Dark Knight” trilogy). Still, none of this detracts from his work as psychopathic yuppie Patrick Bateman, which remains his most iconic performance. 

“American Psycho” director Mary Harron has spoken about Bale being inspired by a Tom Cruise talk show appearance in which the star displayed “intense friendliness with nothing behind the eyes,” and the film itself draws parallels between him and President Ronald Reagan’s use of sunny optimism to sell cruel policies. Either comparison works: in his public life, Bateman has a near-permanent tone of unfailing cheerfulness, discussing the importance of ending apartheid and world hunger as he flashes a killer smile. His eyes, however, always have the glint of predator, a coldness that only occasionally breaks through in creepy remarks, delivered with the same psychotic chipperness (“Not if you want to keep your spleen”) that might not hide their perverted nature if any of his friends were a little less self-absorbed and a little more perceptive.

What’s brilliant about Bale and Harron’s conception of Bateman is that they’re able to convey the character’s essential loneliness without losing the humor or downplaying the grotesque nature of his (possibly imaginary) crimes. Most talk about Bale’s performance focuses on his informercial slick delivery of Huey Lewis factoids before chopping up Jared Leto with an axe. More telling, however, is his scene with Chloe Sevigny’s secretary, in which Bale shifts from blithe morbidity (bringing up Ted Bundy’s dog, Lassie) to psychotic fixation on consumerism (lashing out at Sevigny for almost leaving an ice cream-covered spoon on his coffee table) to insincere, monotone openness (“I guess you could say I just want to have a meaningful relationship with someone”) to, finally, a real recognition of his own hideousness (“I think if you stay, something bad will happen,” delivered with something that approaches but doesn’t quite reach sadness).

Bateman’s cruelty and emptiness couldn’t be plainer, and yet he finds no release in his actions or his confessions. We see that morning routine, the search for the perfect business card, the hunt for the reservation at the best restaurant, and see an attempt to assume the role of the idealized yuppie, but it’s all work … no soul, no joy. The same goes for Bateman’s more sociopathic actions, whether it’s a self-regarding attempt at a threesome (in which he’s more enamored with striking godlike poses than the sex itself) or stabbing a homeless man on the street. He has the impulses that give him a brief flash of life, but there’s little catharsis. Bale plays his compulsions, both murderous and consumerist, as those of a joyless man who attempts to approximate enjoyment. His intense commitment to the role’s physical requirements mimics the character’s own intense commitment to a lifestyle, but where one finds a pulse, the other finds a pit. If most of Bale’s characters attempt to outrun an emptiness or pain in their lives, Bateman is his own emptiness, and no amount of heavy lifting and slashing can change it.

“The Prestige” / Warner Bros. Pictures

2006: “The Prestige”

If “American Psycho” made Bale a name actor and “The Machinist” cemented his reputation for near-deranged commitment, “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight” made him universally recognizable, physical transformations be damned. Truth be told, his most famous films with Christopher Nolan aren’t his most notable, succeeding primarily on the basis of their villains and thematic ambition. While he’s admirably grounded and present as Bruce Wayne, Bale never quite dives into the monster that Batman’s alter ego is fighting so hard not to be; his line readings are too glum, his face too stoic, rarely registering the internal struggle that Nolan’s scripts try (a little too hard) to give him (for a better heroic Bale performance, see “3:10 to Yuma”). It’s his other collaboration with Nolan, “The Prestige,” that best exemplifies that inner conflict and, indeed, the defining theme of Bale’s career.

There’s no way to talk about Bale’s performance in “The Prestige” meaningfully without diving into spoilers, so here’s your warning.

Bale’s Alfred Borden is established as the more risk-taking of “The Prestige’s” central characters, compared with Hugh Jackman’s Robert Angier, something hinted in early scenes as the actor speaks to Angier and Michael Caine’s Cutter with an air of arrogance and almost demented devotion to the craft. This extends to his personal life, which is eventually revealed to be a literal double life: Bale’s playing both Borden and his twin (dubbed “Fallon”), who loved separate women (Rebecca Hall and Scarlet Johansson) and ruined their lives through a total obsession and commitment to their craft over all else. Observant viewers can spot the moments in which Bale’s warmth with Sarah (Hall), Borden’s wife, is genuine and when “Fallon” is speaking to her with nothing behind the eyes. One particularly painful scene, a final confrontation between “Fallon” and Sarah, features one of the most gutting moments in Bale’s career, in which his anger at her realization of the truth prevents him from even attempting to maintain the illusion. Asked if he loves her, he spits out a “Not today” with a level of coldness worthy of Patrick Bateman.

The performance is, on some level, as much of a stunt as “The Machinist” or “Batman Begins,” but the trick of it feels all the more appropriate, given the subject. Bale imbues his twin magicians with a combination of mischievousness and palpable sadness, showing a flash of joy in their eyes after showing a child a magic trick … and a sense of loss as the twins face each other, knowing only one can exist. Perhaps Bale found something moving in the idea of men who find purpose in deceiving viewers in order to entertain them, and in the idea of men who are madly committed to realizing an idealized form of craft at the expense of their personal identities. The dual performance shows two men who are constantly amused at their own ability to pull off a trick (especially at the expense of bitter rival Angier) and simultaneously aware that they’ve sacrificed true happiness for an obsession that they seem to be pursuing without any real thought as to why.

“The Big Short” / Paramount

2015: “The Big Short”

By the late 2000s, Bale’s own commitment to his craft seemed to have lost real direction, lapsing into self-seriousness (“Terminator Salvation,” “Harsh Times,” his dull work in the otherwise sturdy “Public Enemies”) or pure imitation (“I’m Not There,” in which he’s by far the weakest Bob Dylan). Whatever the weaknesses of post-“I Heart Huckabees” David O. Russell (shapelessness, self-satisfaction, volume over everything), he managed to get Bale to loosen up as few directors beyond Gillian Armstrong and Werner Herzog had, directing a pair of lively performances in “The Fighter” (for which Bale won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor) and “American Hustle” (another nomination). Bale is at his best as of late when tapping into his comedic side, as best demonstrated in his first collaboration with Adam McKay, “The Big Short” (a third nomination). 

Playing hedge fund manager Michael Burry, the oddest of the men who made millions by betting the U.S. economy would collapse, Bale roots the comedy of the character in his behavior. A whiz with numbers, Bale’s Burry nevertheless has no social skills; the humor of his bizarre compliment (“That’s a very nice haircut. Did you do it yourself?”) to prospective employee is not only in its inherent strangeness, but in his halting delivery and blank expression, as if he knows he’s not good with these interactions but not exactly why the thing he’s about to say is weird. His gestures are similarly uncomfortable, whether he’s flashing a smile for no reason or awkwardly rubbing at his glass eye while stammering about subprime mortgages. And yet, Burry is one of the least deceptive and most honest characters in Bale’s three-decade career, focused entirely on the tangible at the expense of more difficult-to-pin-down things like social niceties and gut instinct. It is a very different, but equally telling, echo of Bale’s own methods that one can find in his more deluded characters. If Dicky Eklund or Irving Rosenthal act in self-deception to convince themselves and others of something, Burry concentrates only on what he can see empirically to find his truth, not unlike how Bale drills down on tangible external details (hair, weight, voice) as a way to find his own.

If Bale’s performance in “The Big Short” is his funniest, it is also among his saddest, as his character’s obsession with numbers at the expense of person-to-person interactions make him both the ideal person to predict a market collapse and the worst person to convey it. When confronted by angry investors, he does little to assuage their concerns, instead speaking in a low but self-assured tone (at the idea that nobody can see a bubble: “That’s dumb … ”) that he can’t see is doomed to only further enrage people. When he’s rebuked, he can admit his weaknesses, but not without reinforcing his total conviction in what he does. “I don’t know how to be sarcastic,” Bale says with a slight shrug and a tone that’s equally confessional and weary. “I just know how to read numbers.” It’s the rare Bale character where one’s obsession is what can help spot the looming, soul-and-economy-destroying void, even if it can’t help avert it. 

“Vice” / Annapurna Pictures

(a small head jerk on “different understanding,” a shift from a guarded posture to a hand wave on “mundane” to suggest a helping hand) show someone who has weighed exactly what he has to do to pull someone over to his side in a way that makes them think he’s nudging them along to where they always wanted to be, rather than totally manipulating them. 

Bale actually almost played George W. Bush himself in Oliver Stone’s “W.” before finding the prosthetics weren’t to his satisfaction (another case of needing tangible details, or self-deception, for a successful performance), but he feels like a better fit for Cheney, a man hiding behind a façade of reserved normality to hide an all-consuming desire for expanded empire, denying ulterior motives to the public and possibly to himself. The world is remade in his cruel image in a way that persists to this day, and that will be near-impossible to change. If Burry, like Bateman, can clearly see the void, Cheney, like Bateman, is the void.

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