The Mystery of Christian Bale
At 13, he starred brilliantly in Spielberg's Empire of the Sun, which was a box-office disappointment. At 18, he starred in the musical Newsies, which bombed. How is it that Christian Bale, with only small performances in Little Women and The Portrait of a Lady to recommend him, stands poised at 23 on the edge of what odds say will be a long, impressive screen career?
Ten years after the fact, Hollywood and most filmgoers have still not caught up with the blistering, mysterious experience of Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun. An unreal-but-true chronicle of a British boy imprisoned in China during World War 11, the film has moments of ascension and naked grandeur that are unlike any other in American movies. At its shuddery heart burns the complex, unnerving presence of Christian Bale, all of 13 at the time, and dominating nearly every frame. As Bale's character. Jim, gets separated from his parents in a heaving Chinese mob, or stares off at the distant Hiroshima explosion and mistakes it for a dead woman's soul rising to heaven, it's obvious we're not talking about another mere coming-of-age tale starring another proficient kid thespian. Bale's performance is without question one of the best ever given by a child on film. All the same, Empire and Bale were largely overlooked when the film was released and so today it may seem that Bale, if you notice him at all, is slowly, craftily emerging from next to nowhere.
Bale's Hollywood saga is unique, a subtly managed trek around career potholes, up astonishingly steep acting challenges and neatly over the barbed hurdle of puberty, all transpiring more or less outside the godlike eye of publicity, gossip and personality hype. His career and public profile could be an object lesson for his contemporaries, many of whom have already skidded out or gone squirrelly. Bale has survived with his sanity, privacy and gift intact. He has never been the subject of a publicity campaign, and even in the current Era of Hype, where unknowns vie for magazine covers, he keeps a low profile. Hence, his name might not fluster your chimes like "Leonardo DiCaprio" does, but he occupies the same high ground, and stands poised on the verge of one of the most promising adult careers of his generation.
That Bale has never quite gotten his due for Empire may have been his divine good fortune: if the Spielberg film had been a hit, what 13-year-old on the planet could have kept body and soul together under the pressure, opportunity and madness that would have inevitably ensued? Having been spared or cheated of such a fate, Bale has, in the years since Empire, alternated quietly between lofty supporting roles (e.g., Henry V) and leads in a couple of big-budget train wrecks, including an unforgettably monstrous studio musical (_Newsies_) that plummeted into the dirt like a not-so-smart bomb. Bale breezily rose above the dark times like a gull above landfill. And then his grownup profile suddenly lit up stark with his appearance opposite Winona Ryder in Little Women, which initiated a subterranean cult following that has engulfed the online world. Now Bale is shooting the lead in the film of Julian Barnes's novel Metroland, and will, sooner or later, very likely emerge into the glare of certifiable stardom.
"I've never worked more than once a year," Bale tells me in Paris, where I meet up with him. "In between I've had nothing written about me whatsoever. It was definitely a strategy. I like not being in magazines, not being seen on TV, except when I'm actually in a film. I want to work as much as I can and still go to parties and be the geezer in the corner."
Unlike his contemporaries, Bale has never had a publicist. "I've got a real minimum amount of people," he explains. "My agent and my dad." Bale's agent used to run her business out of a Dublin pub and a public phone on the street--nearby construction workers would halt work whenever a call came through, and even occasionally answer the phone as if they were her hired team of receptionists. His father, David, an ex-hippie/ex-pilot, does for him those parts of the jobs of manager and publicist the two deem necessary.
Born in Wales, Bale has lived in L.A. ever since making Newsies, and isn't quite the recluse the lack of offscreen publicity seems to suggest. "I love going to nightclubs, but there are things that should be done anonymously, y'know? The key is to dress like shit, which I always do." Bale's tales of being accosted in public back up his claims. There was a New York subway confrontation with a homeless guy who, after watching Bale get surrounded noisily by schoolgirls, asked him to sign a dollar bill, saying, "I don't know who the fuck you are, but maybe that'll be worth more than a buck someday." Then there was the casting director who bumped into him in a Prague hotel lobby. "Christian!" the woman cooed right to his face. "It's so great I met you like this, I have a script you just have to read! This is so terrific--finally I meet Christian Slater!"
Before Empire of the Sun, Bale had only a handful of stage and TV credits--"All I wanted was to be a Storm Trooper in Star Wars"--one of which was the miniseries Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna with then-Mrs. Steven Spielberg, Amy Irving. "I usually just say I costarred with Amy Irving and that's how I got into Empire, but that's not true at all," he says. "I was shooting and auditioning at the same time. Spielberg actually told me he didn't like my performance in Anastasia." Nevertheless, Spielberg picked Bale from some 4,000 British kids to shoulder the film that the world's most reliable pop culture architect decided to make when Warner Bros. told him he could make anything.
"I don't really remember thinking one way or another about doing the work," Bale recalls. "When you're 13, you just do things. Before we started, my dad told me, 'This could be a fantastic experience, but it could also be the worst thing that could happen to you.' There have been moments when I've wished it had never happened--you know, when you're a teenager, you just want to be normal. Kids would walk up to me saying, 'Where's that kid in Empire of the Sun? and we'd get into a fistfight. Things like that happened a lot. But I have no bad memories, and I haven't the slightest idea what I'd be doing now if it hadn't happened."
After doing a superb Shakespearean bit in Kenneth Branagh's Henry V, and a turn as Jim in the TNT version of Treasure Island, Bale was already well on his way to being pigeonholed as a costume-picture mascot, a situation that wouldn't change for many years to come (and, who knows, may never). Then he got his second big, starring role in what turned out to be the cinematic Three Mile Island that was and still is Newsies. "You say something bad about Newsies and you have an awful lot of people to answer to," Bale says with a laugh. He's right: Newsies has a burgeoning cult following that can be described as nothing less than rabid--one fan literally changed his name to that of Bale's character in the film, Jack Kelly.
The musical that Bale's admirers discovered retroactively, after being turned on by his performance in Little Women, was released at a time when no one was dying to have the musical form revived. Even if they had been, it wouldn't have been this musical. "I never had any interest in doing a musical," Bale says. "I still don't. In fact, when I first read the script, I thought it wasn't a musical. Later, after I realized it was, I asked Kenny [Ortega] if maybe I could duck over here into the pub while the numbers were going on, and then come out when it was over. I hoped I could be the lead in a musical without doing any singing and dancing! Eventually I said, 'Fuck it, let's just do it.' But I had a lot of doubts about it--I never liked musicals, and even then I knew I'd never do anything like that again."
Maybe it's me, but I get the sense that no matter how sunny Bale's sky gets. Newsies will always occupy a corner of it like a dark cloud heavy with hailstones. But Bale maintains he's philosophical about what would have sent other young careers into smoking tailspins. "I look back on it rather fondly now. It was either go to college or go to California and do Newsies. I decided to do the film. Which was an education.