i watched 4 christian bale movies last weekend. yes, im obsessed. especially with his body. (and yes, i know how this sounds.) but lemme explain:
he takes the idea that 'an actor's body is his instrument' to somewhat extreme levels. he is a method actor, which usually makes me worried that someone is possibly unbalanced. method acting makes me cringe a little. i understand the importance of researching and understanding a role, but fully becoming another person for an extended period of time and continuing that off the set is a little worrisome to me. however, bale's commitment to preparation for a role is impressive, if only for his apparent abundance of self-discipline.
i watched (in chronological order of filming (and almost of watching)): american psycho (2000) the machinist (2004) batman: the dark knight (2008) and the fighter (2010)
this was a somewhat ridiculous list physically, because between each film he had lost or gained at least 60 pounds. for 'american psycho' he is trim and cut beyond belief, and ridiculously well groomed (particularly his skin) as if he was trying to be a ken doll. he looked that perfect and almost that fake. but this was integral to understanding his character. a psycho/sociopath who desperately needs to fit in perfectly so that he can torture and kill without ever being suspected. he does an incredible job of portraying someone with no emotion or conscience mimicking the speech patterns and expressed emotions of a 'normal' person. the facade is so impressive that when it cracks and he breaks down, showing humanity for the first time, its possibly the most disturbing part of a disturbing movie. bale's immense control in being able to navigate these two extremes is undeniable.
for 'the machinist' he somehow (by allowing himself one apple and one can of tuna a day, plus coffee and cigarettes) cut his weight down to 120lbs. he is 6ft tall. this means he literally looked like skin and bones. you could see his ribcage standing out where his pecs should be. his hip bones stuck out worse than any 'waif' model ive ever seen. (the only allusion i can make to describe his body is to mention auschwitz, which i would prefer not to do, but thats the idea) this weight loss hollowed out his face too. made his eyes big and bright as headlights, his face pared down to the angles which made it more feminine and beautiful than ever. and again, all of this was very important for the character he played. trevor reznik is a man wracked with guilt, unable to sleep or eat, living a nightmare of paranoia, unsure of reality. his exhaustion, fear, and loneliness mark his wasted face so strongly, it inspires the audience to identify with him even as the story reveals him, in more and more ways, to be an unreliable narrator and then, ultimately, the 'bad guy'. i was left still being desperately in love with trevor reznik, even after what he'd done. i pitied him his state of mind and his past but i never stopped caring for him because it was so obvious what his actions had done to his mental and physical health.
ive heard multiple actors talk about what makeup can do for them, in getting into character. paul giamatti just spoke (on npr, somewhere) about what the age makup he wore for his most recent film (barney's version) did for him in being able to really understand his character as 30 years older than himself, and how it required him to think differently about how to play him. because the mask, when viewed by the wearer, gives reality to the role they take on, gives weight to the personality so they can embody it well. this is what christian bale does inside his own skin. he is able to (by intense discipline and training) carve his character out of his own body and feel exactly what it feels like to be in his skin. yes, its kinda creepy. and kinda admirable. he is a notoriously hard worker in every movie he is a part of. he takes his craft phenomenally seriously.
so much so, that he has been reviled on the internet for the audio of him chewing out the director of photography on set of 'terminator: salvation' for walking into (and ruining) the shot multiple times during the most emotionally charged scene in the movie. this could prove he's an asshole, but to me it proves that he is astonishingly committed to his work and when others undermine it, he is going to get upset. unprofessional? possibly, but prompted by the unprofessional behavior of another. (note: the audio only catches bale's words, not any responses by the dp. the argument gets heated, but no one knows what the other guy said.)
i have very little to say about bale in 'the dark knight', aside from the fact that he went from an emaciated 120lbs to at least 200 of bulky muscle. his reserve behind the batman mask is more than i think necessary, and the real emotional weight of the movie is carried by the other actors. this is really heath ledger's movie, and its a job admirably done, i feel.
however, 'the fighter' is another story all together. bale's role is based on a real, living person, who bale was able to meet and study and embody, and from his first moments on camera i could feel the fact that he was possessed by another man's soul, not bringing to life a fictional character. he is playing a crack addict so, of course, he lost a lot of weight for this role too...he isnt skin and bones, but he is so very scrappy, which, playing opposite of marky mark (wahlberg) as his brother is perfect. there is something about this role that had me riveted. i think its that bale has amazing control which allows him to play a character that seemingly has no control. this guy is high more often than not in the first half of the movie, and is just a complete 'character'. he just has that kind of loud, attention-getting persona, the kind that knows, and says hi to, everyone on the streets of their hometown. the whole town knows him as once a hero, now sort of a laughingstock, and at one point in the movie, someone to be deeply ashamed of. his relationship with his brother is the most compelling thing in the movie, and bale and wahlberg play off each other with increasingly less glancing blows, until their confrontation almost makes time stand still. except that's the moment the climax starts. if you were to study the narrative arc of the story, its wahlberg's character's film. but bale's journey feels as tho it has so much more at stake, that i was almost surprised when i saw he'd gotten a golden globe for best supporting actor, and not best actor. but as he said in his acceptance speech, "you can only give a loud performance like the one i gave when you have a quiet anchor and a stoic character. ive played that one many times and it never gets any notice...but thank you, buddy. kudos to you for all that." (said to wahlberg in, i might add, a welsh accent. *swoon*) note: mark wahlberg is exceptional in this movie. everyone is. but there is something about christian bale here that is extraordinarily impressive. he has this man down to his last finger movement. the way he hitches up his pants. the glassy-eyed look of his crack-brained schemes. he's playing a man that makes strong (and usually wrong) choices in his life, and he's playing him with all the strength he can muster.
i saw the same thing in 'the machinist' as i did in 'the fighter', the almost visible strings attached to bales limbs and lashes and fingertips that his mind has hold of, and is able to maneuver just exactly right, just pitch-perfect the way the character would do, not bale, himself, in there, but the role completely embodying him (not vice versa). every movement, facial expression, and noise trevor reznik makes in 'the machinist' i see as being his alone. maybe because he starved away any of bale that was left to get in the way. i felt the same thing in 'the fighter', but its possible even bale didnt have the strings of this marionette, but dickie eklund himself, the man bale was portraying. at least, i think thats what bale believed. that his job was to create a direct line from dickie to the screen, and to stay out of the way of the flow. this is an astoundingly difficult thing to ask of himself, but an honorable goal to have. and when someone playing a boxing trainer gets up to go running at 2:30 in the morning cuz it feels good, you know they have gotten in the right zone and will do everything in their power to stay there. they will strive to play their instrument with every last ounce of their stellar concentration and masterful virtuosity.
kudos to you, mr. bale. glad you are getting notice.
(hm. if this isnt a convincing argument for an oscar, i dont know what is...)