Perhaps Christian Bale is too gifted an actor to be considered an A-list heartthrob. Then again, maybe he’s too good-looking to be taken seriously as a thespian.
The truth is that Bale is both handsome enough to qualify as an effective leading man and accomplished enough as an actor to be mentioned around awards time. In Hollywood, he may be stuck in that no man’s land of the categorization-challenged.
In sports, they refer to someone like Bale as a ’tweener — stuck between two classifications, a man without a pigeonhole.
And that may be just as well. It is Bale’s unique position in the film business that makes his career so intriguing. Movie buffs can be sure that each time the 33-year-old native of Wales signs on to a picture, he will eventually deliver a performance that demands a viewing, and in a project that is worthy of his considerable talents.
That has become more and more evident with each role. His road to stardom in big-budget Hollywood films — which leads most recently to “3:10 to Yuma,” director James Mangold’s remake of the classic Western that opens this weekend — began with stage roles as a child actor and moved on to significant career moves in pictures like “Empire of the Sun” in 1987 and “Newsies” in 1992.
Bale’s breakthrough performance as an adult actor was as the suave and upscale serial killer Patrick Bateman in Mary Harron’s film adaptation of the Bret Easton Ellis’ novel, “American Psycho” in 2000. While the picture itself received a mixed reception from critics and audiences, Bale’s chilling turn as a charming psychopath caused casting directors to scurry for his head shot.
The film is yet another example of Bale’s penchant for playing characters that have depth and complexity at the same time that he satisfies Hollywood’s demand for box-office appeal. And with each outing, he succeeds on both counts.
Here are five films that a Christian Bale fan shouldn’t miss:
“Empire of the Sun”
Bale was 12 when he snared the plum role of Jamie, a British schoolboy enjoying a privileged life overseas, in Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of the novel by J.G. Ballard about a family that tries to flee Shanghai during the Japanese invasion of 1941. The crush of attention after the film’s release almost caused him to give up acting. But his nuanced performance — delivered under the pressure of working for a director who had already become a young legend — set a new standard for child actors. Bale is in almost every frame of the film, and he has to age from 9 to 13. The film itself is considered glorious by some, uneven by others. But Bale’s work is cited almost as often as Spielberg’s. After this, he played a small part in Kenneth Branagh’s “Henry V” but didn’t have another major Hollywood role until “Newsies” in 1992, a much-publicized disappointment that at least served to bring Bale some attention. From there, it was a tough but steady slog until “American Psycho” in 2000.
The movie version received lots of advanced publicity because of some grisly depictions that were present in Bret Easton Ellis’ novel. Bale plays Patrick Bateman, who has an important job on Wall Street but who also has some issues with humanity. He kills, and he enjoys doing so. It was the kind of role that either catapults a young actor’s career if it works, or sinks it if it doesn’t. The film wasn’t a complete success at the box office or among critics; most of the lumps resulted from the satirical tone and the anemic attempt at social commentary. But Bale seemed to avoid any of the shrapnel that often accompanies a high-profile bust. Actors often talk about the importance of working without a net. Bale threw himself into this despicable character with enthusiasm and glee, and the result was a radiant portrayal of a dark-hearted creep.
Let’s see, there was “Batman” and “Batman Returns” (Michael Keaton), “Batman Forever” (Val Kilmer) and “Batman & Robin” (George Clooney). Why make another “Batman” movie, and why subject Christian Bale to it? The reason: Christopher Nolan. The franchise needed an infusion of new ideas, and the director of “Memento” and “Insomnia” was the perfect candidate. And instead of hiring the hot Hollywood hunk du jour, Nolan tabbed a real actor. Together with screenwriter David S. Goyer, the filmmakers crafted an ingenious new take on a familiar story. In fact, Bale — who had auditioned to play Robin in “Batman Forever” in 1995 — didn’t think about pursuing the role at all until he heard that Nolan was directing, and therefore he knew it wouldn’t be “Batman” as usual. Nolan’s darker and grittier “Batman Begins” was a hit in 2005, and both director and lead actor are back together shooting the next film in the series, “The Dark Knight,” set for release next summer.
Bale shares the marquee with Hugh Jackman in this adventure drama set in London at the end of the 19th century about two magicians who once were friends but became bitter rivals. This was another collaboration with director Christopher Nolan, who co-wrote the script with his brother Jonathan. Bale’s Alfred Borden invents a trick to top all others, Jackman’s Robert Angier becomes insanely jealous and determined to figure out how it’s done, and both actors excel at playing semi-maniacal illusionists who are under no illusions about how much they dislike each other. The real star of the film is Nolan. He has a keen eye for period and a knack for organizing a complicated set of story points and making sure the whole thing makes sense. But Bale plays another dashing yet flawed individual. Think Patrick Bateman of “American Psycho,” only without the random killings, and with clothes from the 1800s.
Werner Herzog’s Vietnam-era P.O.W. film could have been a typical entry in the war action genre. But Bale’s performance as real-life Navy flyer Dieter Dengler has enough layers to elevate it past typical fare. Bale’s Dieter is heroic but strange, strong and tough but quirky and unsure. Dieter strikes up a fierce friendship with Duane (Steve Zahn) and they establish the kind of platonic bond that only two men enduring harsh treatment in adverse wartime conditions could ever have. Herzog is a favorite among film buffs but hardly a Hollywood cash machine, which is a most recent example that suggests Bale is not intent on making himself The Next Big Thing but rather is committed to doing quality work with directors who have distinct and powerful voices.