CC2K contributor Pat King walks us through his experience seeing The Fighter.
It was a Saturday night a couple weeks ago and my wife had given me free reign to decide what to do on date night. I figured we should go to the movies.
“What movie?” she said.
“How about The Fighter?” I said. She said she didn’t want to see a “boxing movie.”
“It’s got Christian Bale in it,” I said. She groaned. Which surprised me. I thought that Christian Bale was universally recognized as a great actor. Maybe she just didn’t want to go to the movies.
Despite having to work with a lump like Mark Walberg, who has the acting range of a turtle, Christian Bale turned out one of the best performances of his career. Which is saying a lot. Not only did he easily steal the show from his co-star, but he managed the kind of mesmerism that only a great actor can achieve. Bale became a man possessed, disappearing completely into his character. He was wonderful.
I mean, if nothing else, this guy has a way with accents. Not only is he a British dude doing a pitch-perfect working-class New England accent, but I suspect he’s also mastered the regional dialect of Lowell, Massachusetts, the hardscrabble industrial town where the film takes place. I have no real evidence to support this argument, just one of those shaking-in-the-bones kinda feelings. Know what I mean?
The word “enthusiasm” has become pretty watered down by centuries of English usage, but it comes from the Greek word “enthousiasmos,” which basically means that a person has become possessed by the divine. A person gives possession of their body to a god, extinguishing their own personality, in effect becoming a god themselves. The actor, if she’s worth her salt, performs a secular version of this act. Christian Bale is this kind of actor.
In The Fighter, Bale plays Dicky Eklund. Dicky used to be a professional boxer but now, after years of drug use, he looks almost skeletal. The high point in his boxing career came during the mid-80’s, when he knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard, though he ended up losing the fight. There’s a heartbreaking scene toward the beginning of the film. Dicky is supposed to be at the boxing gym, helping his younger brother Mickey Ward (Mark Walberg) train for an upcoming fight. Instead, he’s in an almost totally bare drug den of an apartment, smoking crack and reliving his big fight. He runs maniacally around the room, shadowboxing a druggie friend, delivering a play-by-play. He gets a huge reaction from his desperate-living friends, who hoot and laugh at Dicky’s pantomime. It would be easy for a less-talented actor to overplay this kind of scene. I mean, playing convincing drug addicts is tough to do. It’s more than just a matter of acting like you’re fucked up or feeling kinda funny. Bale somehow combines the sadness, the jubilation and the sickness of someone who’s blitzed-out high, all at once, and in the same movements.
I first saw Christian Bale in American Psycho. It was the spring of 2000 and I was almost through with my second semester of college, after having taken a year and some months off to drink myself stupid and take a lot of acid. I was in a strange place mentally. I knew I didn’t want to retreat into the desperation of my past and the only option seemed to be to take an entirely opposite path—to try to embrace the straight world that I had tried to mentally escape from just a few months before. In other words, I was trying to follow the rules of the game. During that time, I went to the movies a lot, as I do whenever I’m having a period of mind-weariness.
American Psycho was a revelation. Directed and written by Mary Harron and adapted from the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, the movie seemed to confirm every terrible thought I had about the straight world when I was doing all my boozing and tripping. It was a place that deadened souls, that turned people into automatons. Worst of all, it was built on a foundation of violence. That was what I thought at the time and eleven years hasn’t changed that view much.
I found out just recently, when I watched one of the DVD extras, that Leonardo DiCaprio was the original choice for Patrick Bateman, the nihilist main character of the movie. I get chills when I think of him in the lead. Not because I think he’s a bad actor. He isn’t. But I just can’t imagine him as Bateman, standing in front of his mirror in his luxury apartment, saying in voice-over, “I simply am not there.” There’s such a terrifying assuredness in the way Bale delivers the line, spoken so matter-of-factly that it’s absolutely frightening. Let me put it this way: when I was sixteen or so, a Christian guy that I knew told a mutual friend that when he looked into my eyes he didn’t see a soul. But when I saw Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman, and took a good look at him, I saw in his eyes what my Christian friend must have thought he saw in mine: a completely soulless, hollow person. Could DiCaprio pull that off? Maybe, but something in me doubts it.
I remember Johnny Depp saying somewhere that his characters have a way of popping up in his everyday life, in the way that he talks and such. I suspect it might be the same with Bale. As a piece of evidence, I’d like to recall one of those weird gossipy tidbits that Bale’s been involved with. Everyone remembers that Youtube clip, right? Bale is yelling at Terminator Salvation DP Shane Hurbut for walking onto the set during shooting. Just tearing the guy to pieces. It’s easy to call Bale a dick for this outburst, which he definitely deserves, yet I think it also says a lot about him as an actor that he puts so much effort and concentration into even an action role where he is essentially fighting robots.
A week or so ago, I found in a used bookstore a long out of print book by Roger Ebert called, Two Weeks in the Midday Sun: A Cannes Notebook. Coincidentally, I found in it the following quote:
There are possibly two kinds of actors: those who draw attention to themselves, and those who draw it toward their characters. The first kind of actor becomes a star, and probably enjoys that role; they have always sought the attention and enjoyed the eyes of other people upon them. The second kind of actor is not really doing the same thing. Their approach to a role is not to find themselves in it, but to lose themselves in it, to make some kind of blind leap into the existence of another person.
Right. There’s that. Roger Ebert knows what he’s talking about, having watched about a zillion and a half films in his life. Can we agree, then, that Bale is definitely this “second kind of actor?” Because if he isn’t, I haven’t the slightest idea who is.