Given his stated distaste for public consumption of the private lives of celebrities, one imagines that the actor Christian Bale was none too pleased to be crowned by Entertainment Weekly as one of the “Top 8 Most Powerful Cult Figures” of the decade for its tenth anniversary issue back in 2000. In its citation, the tabloid noted Bale’s legendary cult status on the Internet.
That status became all the more legendary in 2009, when Bale’s infamous rant against a crew member on the set of Terminator Salvation circled the Internet faster than you can say the f-word.
I myself happened to be on set shooting a TV series when our boom operator played the audio file on YouTube for a group of us who gathered like flies on a carcass to listen. It was a shocking record of Bale’s tirade, secretly recorded and released by someone who saw fit to let him suffer the fallout in a very public way.
Apparently the director of photography had walked on set during a scene, interrupting Bale’s concentration and, in turn, eliciting a barrage of curses, threats, and epithets—including the vow that he’d quit the film if the d.p. weren’t fired for doing it again.
Not to take the name in vain, but Jesus, Christian. Chill out.
As someone who has logged in many long hours on set, there are few things I resent more than extravagantly paid actors or actresses who treat their hardworking crew like cogs in a machine designed for their own glory. And listening to Bale go off his deep end—with as much malevolence in his own voice as in some of the characters he has brought to screen—it was hard not to peg him for just such an overpaid and under-grateful type.
Because as hard as he may work filming a scene, when he’s back in his plush trailer most of the crew are still on set pushing the plow forward with no such cushy breaks.
If that incident hadn’t been preceded by allegations of verbal assault made by Bale’s mother and sister around the premiere of The Dark Knight the year before, it might have been easier to believe that his explosion on set was just a passing incident, as he claimed in his public apology.
And even if the London police had decided not to charge him after reviewing the allegations by his family, still, it was hard not to think that one reason Bale gave such an acclaimed performance in American Psycho was, well...because he is kind of a psycho himself.
So when I first heard that his most recent film, The Fighter, was directed by another loose cannon, David O. Russell, I couldn’t help but laugh: Russell’s own shocking on-set tirade against Lily Tomlin during the filming of I Heart Huckabees had made similar rounds online thanks to YouTube. I wondered what on earth would come of the volcanic combination of Russell and Bale.
Something extraordinary, it turns out, something downright lovely; and, in my case, even a bit transformative.
For from the moment Bale appeared onscreen as the bug-eyed and jumpy Dicky Eklund, the crack-addled half-brother and trainer to Mark Wahlberg’s Mickey Ward, he had me up against the ropes, unable to escape a riveting performance.
Pun intended. I was hooked left and right from the get-go.
An ex-boxer who traded his gloves for a crack pipe and lives off the dubious claim of having knocked out Sugar Ray Leonard at the end of the latter’s career, Bale’s Eklund is both the pitfall and key to his younger half-brother’s quest for the title. From beginning to end he keeps you smiling and cringing in equal measure.
At the very least, Bale’s performance appears to be a dead-ringer for this year’s Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
But more than that, I found it nothing short of a revelation. Scene by winning scene, as my guard dropped and all my prior biases against him with it, I found myself feeling nothing less than a dumbstruck kind of love for Christian Bale.
A week later, I still can’t quite put my finger on what the spiritual lesson was in watching him win me over. But something of a reversal seemed to take place: my own judgments of Bale the person had been conquered in one fell swoop by a sudden and irrepressible love for Bale the character actor. And so I ask myself: might all that deserves judgment in my own character be equally forgivable in the eyes of an infinitely more loving God who knows the real me even better than I do?
In light of how completely he inhabits the role of Dicky—not a common feat among his Hollywood peers—perhaps there really was some truth to his claim that the blowup on set of Terminator was due to his being in character during an especially intense scene.
Not that this makes the incident more excusable, but it does incline me to forgiveness. And if my judgments were nothing more than the media-fed distortions of the real Christian Bale, then all the better that he so decisively did away with them.
I would be remiss not to cite Mark Wahlberg for such a humble turn in the limelight, considering the fact that as star and producer of the film (with a personal passion for its subject matter) he could have easily favored his own contribution in the finished product.
But he chose to practically give the film to Christian Bale instead.
In turn, Bale took the film and gave it to the rest of us.