It’s often impossible to separate an actor’s on-screen presence from his or her off-screen personality, especially in a world where tabloids are perpetually spreading new, always questionable celebrity gossip. In looking at the seemingly storied career of Christian Bale, known for starring in both big blockbusters and smaller indie fare, I can’t really hope to separate Bale’s performances from his public persona — or at least his persona as it relates to a few particularly alarming instances. Bale was once and often still is hyped as one of the greatest actors of whatever generation he belongs to, but today, thanks to a combination of trends from his on-screen and off-screen life, many, myself included, don’t like Christian Bale anymore.
1. He made Batman boring
Christian Bale himself admitted he “didn’t quite nail” the role of Batman in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, and I’d have to agree. Save for the thematically strong but uneven Batman Begins, the trilogy’s highest highs all come from the schemes concocted by his villains and Nolan’s heady themes. Bale played Bruce Wayne with just enough vapid sleaze in his public scenes, but was strangely unknowable and mopey during his more private scenes with Alfred.
The Dark Knight Rises was a definite low-point for the portrayal, both for his melodramatic portrayal of Wayne as a hermit in the beginning and the wooden delivery of many of his lines as Batman, many of which aren’t that well-written in the first place (“So that’s what that feels like”). It doesn’t help that he always hid behind a notoriously absurd voice after dawning the cowl either.
2. Dangerous method acting
Method acting works for some actors, and doesn’t work for others. Christian Bale has been known as a method actor ever since he spent months tanning and toning his physique to prepare for his role as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. His devotion to the craft at the expense of his body began with The Machinist, when Bale dropped down to 121 pounds to play a working class insomniac appearing visibly malnourished. He gained it all back soon after to play Batman in 2005, lost most of it to star in Rescue Dawn, gained it again for The Dark Knight, then lost it again to play skinny has-been boxer Dicky Eklund in The Fighter. That sort of rapid weight gain and loss is just plain dangerous, and just makes Bale seem scary in his intensity.
3. The Big Short
Here’s proof that method acting doesn’t always pay off: Christian Bale is his typical method self throughout director Adam McKay’s meta-true-story Wall Street satire The Big Short, adopting a whole bunch of facial and vocal tics to portray oddball hedge fund manager Michael Burry. The performance isn’t bad, but it’s never exactly interesting either, and in the context of the film, it’s downright distracting. For his performance even more than his disconnected storyline, Bale seems to exist in another movie from the rest of the film’s fiscally cynical frat bro comedy.
4. He’s better at choosing movies that being in them
Bale has been in a lot of great movies, ably shifting between prestige indie fair and big blockbusters that both earn critical praise, but he so rarely seems to make much of an impression beyond whatever physical alterations he’s gone through for the sake of the role. I think it’s because Bale’s intensity and emotional distance make him seem shallow and clinical.
5. He can’t be emotional
That same shallowness and surface level of artificiality are qualities that lend themselves to virtually all the roles Bale has been truly great in — serial killer Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, Batman’s playboy altar ego, con man Dicky in The Fighter — while making him completely wrong for openhearted, truly emotional roles — the tortured Bruce Wayne, the emotionally awakened agent of repressive fascism in Equilibrium, young POW Dieter Dengler in Rescue Dawn. I don’t think he’s ever convincingly come off as romantic or tender.
6. Knight of Cups
Bale had a bad 2015. Other than The Big Short, he made time to star in critical darling Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups, a film so abstract and desperately poetic it ought to test the patience of even the most ardent fans of the filmmaker’s voiceover-heavy later works (like The Tree of Life). Bale is nothing but a prop in the overly stylized, almost self-parodying film, suggesting he can’t even choose his movies as well these days.
7. His freakout on the set of Terminator: Salvation
Pretty intense, right? The video shows Bale unleashing a stream of obscenities and wild accusations at a few meek crew members simply trying to do their job and calm the talent without stepping on his toes. To be fair, Bale apologized for his behavior after the video leaked online and promptly went viral, but like I said, it’s hard to separate such an abusive rant from one’s image of a public figure.
8. Terminator Salvation
Speaking of which, Terminator Salvation was a disposable piece of over-serious, confusing sci-fi trash, like every Terminator sequel not subtitled Judgement Day. And Bale doesn’t do much in the role of the grown up John Conner, meaning the definitive portrayal of the character still goes to that annoying little jerk that is Edward Furlong in Terminator 2.
9. Exodus: Gods and Kings
Exodus: Gods and Kings is a painfully boring slog that doesn’t recapture the epic scope or the humanist heart of the old school biblical epics it emulates, and even Bale as Moses gets lost in the overindulgence. Together with the artillery-heavy yet brainless Terminator Salvation, this faceless swords-and-sandals flick just goes to show that Bale is guilty of the same blockbuster drudgery for which we judge most Hollywood actors.
10. He’s just not that likable
But that’s OK. Christian Bale isn’t a warm guy, but he’s turned in some truly worthwhile performances along with plenty of merely passable ones. For all his apparent pretensions, he’s not the best actor, but he’s far from the worst. He’s intense and cold rather than accessible, and due to his extreme weight gain and recorded meltdown, it’s hard not to see him as just a little bit unstable.
With all that said, I’m more than willing to be proven wrong. If Christian Bale turns in a beautifully emotional portrayal, I’ll be the first to admit I was wrong. But for now — eh, I just don’t like him.