Batman is not like other superheroes, and Christian Bale’s iteration of him stands apart from the Thors and Iron Mans of contemporary hero-cinema. Because Bale’s Batman, as we know him from Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, is human and flawed, the tragedy that accompanied “The Dark Knight Rises” opening leaves us feeling more vulnerable. DC Comics’ Batman is grounded in a dark reality, not supernatural fantasy. Psychotic vigilantes are the threat, not inter-planetary aliens or robots. Bale recently visited victims of the Aurora shooting. Neither Bale nor the franchise are to blame for the tragedy, but when life imitates cinema in tragic ways, it was cheering indeed to see a super-actor step off his pedestal.
Bale boasts a unique actor’s resume. For every Batman film (of the three, he was best in “TDKR”), there’s a startling character portrait; “American Psycho,” “The Machinist,” “The Fighter.” He’s worked with a wide range of top directors, from Steven Spielberg, Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick to David Ayer, Michael Mann and McG. He can do song and dance or sexy, psycho, lawbreaker or lawmaker. Yes, he’s even lost his cool on set. Method acting is hard work, after all.
Below, we revisit Bale’s career beginnings, highs and lows.
SIGNATURE QUOTE: “I’m whatever Gotham needs me to be.” As Batman in “The Dark Knight.”
GREATEST ASSET: A super-actor with impossible good looks and a dark side.
THE START: Welsh-born Bale was just twelve when he starred in Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun,” after appearing in a few commercials and performing on the London stage with Rowan Atkinson in “The Nerd.” His performance in “Empire” earned him excellent reviews, and served as “early evidence of the good actor [he] would become.” After a small role in Kenneth Branagh’s masterful Shakespeare adaptation of “Henry V” (1989), Bale starred in Kenny Ortega’s 1992 musical “Newsies,” which–despite being critically condemned for failing to revive the movie musical–is still a cult favorite for a select group of true Bale enthusiasts, and spawned a Broadway hit. The hearts that Bale didn’t win with “Newsies” were convinced with his portrayal of Laurie in Gillian Armstrong’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” which was a winner in 1994.
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: After a handful of supporting roles and smaller films, from Jane Campion’s “The Portrait of a Lady” (1996) and Philip Saville’s “Metroland” (1997) to Todd Haynes’ “Velvet Goldmine” (1998) and Michael Hoffman’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1999), Bale was handpicked to star in Mary Harron’s “American Psycho,” based on Bret Easton Ellis’ novel about psychopathic ego-maniac yuppie Patrick Bateman. He delivered an unnerving and commited performance that still ranks as one of his best.
After Lisa Cholodenko’s “Laurel Canyon” (2002) and Rob Bowman’s “Reign of Fire” (2002), Bale returned to disturbing character portraits with Brad Anderson’s psychological thriller, “The Machinist,” (2004) which was our first look at Bale sans body fat and muscle. His performance in “The Machinist” is even more impressive considering he would debut as the Batman to end all other Batmans in “Batman Begins” only a year later. The film not only spawned the uber-successful trilogy that concluded after “The Dark Knight” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” it also cemented Bale as a certifiable action star/badass as well as a great method thespian. Werner Herzog’s “Rescue Dawn,” David Ayer’s “Harsh Times” and Nolan’s “The Prestige” all followed in 2006, with Bale alternating between heroic and villainous roles.
Between the “TDK” and “TDKR” Bale also starred in James Mangold’s remake of Western “3:10 to Yuma” and Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies.” Often forgotten in Bale’s oeuvre (amidst the Batman hoopla) is Bale’s performance as John Rolfe in Terrence Malick’s tragically underappreciated “The New World.” Luckily, Bale has two more features in the works with Malick (one untitled, the other “Knight of Cups”). While Bale’s Oscar win came for his lauded supporting role in David O. Russell’s “The Fighter,” as fallen-from-grace crack-addict Dicky Eklund, it’s shocking that none of his earlier performances were nominated.
MISFIRES: We can blame “Terminator Salvation” on McG, but truth is, it wasn’t Bale’s best work either. It’s still his highest-grossing film after the Batman trilogy, with “The Fighter,” “Public Enemies” and “The Prestige” following behind. 2011’s “The Flowers of War,” despite being China’s most expensive film, failed both at the box office and as a foreign Oscar hopeful–and landed Bale in hot water with the Chinese government during his publicity tour. He is unlikely to be allowed back anytime soon.
CAREER ADVICE: Since Bale has maintained a successful chameleon career outside of the Batman franchise, he has little to worry about. He still lacks a Best Actor Oscar; earning it is up to him. Reteaming with Malick and joining Scott Cooper (director of Bale’s upcoming “Dust to Dust”) aren’t bad places to start.