It’s better copy to say that I fell in love with Christian Bale in American Psycho – see, I like men who are complicated – but it’s, alas, untrue. Nor was it either of the Batman movies; they’re terrific, but Bale tough, ripped, and wearing beautifully-tailored Italian suits doesn’t make me all fluttery.
For that, it’s The Prestige. That spectacular cinematic abracadabra started my crush not just on Bale, but on the Nolan brothers, Christopher and Jonathan. It’s one of the few movies that I immediately watched a second time through upon completing it (there aren’t many I’ve done that with; they include Il Divo, A Prophet, and Sexy Beast), and Bale was one of the main reasons. For one thing, he has the good sense to fall head over heels for Rebecca Hall, which anyone with any sense does within 3 seconds of seeing her. But additionally – spoiler alert: read no further if you want to be surprised – he plays two identical men who switch places throughout. The extraordinary thing is that, once you know the twist, you can tell when Bale is playing which man; the differences are subtle but unmistakable.
He’s famous for transforming himself, and he’s a curiously vanity-free actor for someone who’s so classically handsome. In Michael Mann’s elegiac Public Enemies, he’s stocky, humorless, and unattractive, a blunt instrument of truth. It’s what his character needs to be, and frankly, no one can out-pretty Johnny Depp.
In The Fighter, a standard issue but bracing underdog sports flick, Bale performs one of the greatest morphs in American cinema – and does it not once, but twice. Ravaged, emaciated, teeth blackened and eyes red, he’s nearly unrecognizable; it’s as if Gary Oldman’s breakout impersonation of Sid Vicious had survived heroin to live into his 30s and switch to meth. (On the plane trip, the kid and I watched The Dark Knight, in which Oldman plays old school law enforcer Commissioner Gordon to Bale’s Bruce Wayne; it’s interesting to see how the actors resemble each other, not so much physically, but in intensity and approach.) But lots of actors have gotten to good places by going ugly. What makes this performance so extraordinary is that, after a stint in prison, Bale’s character comes back, clean, sober, the same man but remade brick by crumbled brick. He’s a little smarter, a lot more sad, and still with barely contained fire in his eyes.
The movie has a lot of other delights, chief of which is Melissa Leo in a powerhouse turn as a bottle-bleached, working-class Caucasian tiger mama who you would not want to meet in a dark alley. It’s too bad that Amy Adams’ nomination for the same award will likely cancel out any chance of Leo getting the Oscar; the best supporting actress category is especially tight this year, and while I’m still pretty sure Hailie Steinfeld will get the statue for True Grit, Leo could give her and Helena Bonham Carter a run if Adams weren’t in it. Playing a tough, f-bomb dropping Massachusetts chippie, Adams atones for the beaten-to-death-with-a-valentine awfulness of the Julie half of that movie where Meryl Streep was so awesome as the Julia half, but it’s not interesting (certainly nothing compared to Amy Ryan’s ferocious work playing basically the same character with a bitter right turn in Gone, Baby, Gone).
I like Mark Wahlberg a lot; he doesn’t have a lot of range and has a singularly inexpressive face, but he chooses his roles well and delivers consistently. I think his breakout performance wasn’t Boogie Nights (a silly movie that got way too much love and didn’t signal how great Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow-up, Magnolia, would be), but Three Kings, a favorite of mine, and manned by Fighter director David O. Russell. It’s nice to see them reunited, and it’s great to have Russell back; he basically disappeared other than bobbing up for I Heart Huckabee’s back in 04. Russell’s outstanding with grit and combat; he helps the movie stay on top of, if not transcend, the sports film cliches. Yes, there’s a training sequence, but you sort of want one. Ditto a few, but just few enough, slow-mo shots of faces jarring and wobbling after impact with a glove. But mostly, it looks like what boxing is, particularly below the heavyweight category: a tough, rib-breaking, nose-crunching war with high, barely achievable stakes that matter like hell to a few people – but only to them.
Bale remains the movie’s engine, its soul. It’s a classic performance, miles above anyone else nominated in his category or any other. The acting winners have become increasingly easy to spot in recent years, and this win is probably the one everyone will get right on their ballot. He deserves it. No scenery was harmed by chewing in this performance. This is real, and so is Bale.