Is there a more controversial actor working today than Christian Bale? From his start as an impressive child actor (Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun) to his emergence as a bonafide movie star after taking on the iconic role of Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins, Bale has certainly had a whirlwind ride in Hollywood. He’s also had plenty of inner demons to shake, as Harrison Cheung and Nicola Pittam’s new biography, Christian Bale: The Inside Story of the Darkest Batman (BenBella Books, 312 pages, $15.95), details.
Cheung lived and worked with Bale and his father for nearly a decade, serving as the son’s publicist, marketer and personal assistant. A fan first and foremost, Cheung created a strong Internet presence for Bale, including starting an online fan community, known as the “Baleheads.” This was still in the early days of the Internet, and thanks to Cheung, Bale became one of the first actors to have a large, passionate following on the web. These were Bale’s pre-Batman days, when he was a struggling actor best known for his work in Steven Spielberg’s underappreciated, financially unsuccessful Empire of the Sun (1987) and Disney’s big-budget musical flop Newsies (1992). Despite Cheung’s hard work, Bale never paid him for his efforts, which, along with Bale’s volatile behavior, ultimately led to the end of their relationship, both personally and professionally.
The actor had an especially difficult relationship with his father, David. Along with older sister Louise, Bale and his father moved from England to Los Angeles in 1991 in order to capitalize on the young actor’s promising movie career. David is drawn in the book as a charismatic, garrulous man, always with a larger-than-life story to tell. Despite his convivial nature, though, David had some serious problems of his own. A failed businessman who devoted his life to furthering his son’s acting career, in the book he is seen as an encouraging yet overbearing father who constantly pressured Bale on his career decisions. Once in America he frequently embellished his background, telling people he had been a renowned pilot in the British Army, though there was little evidence to support his claim. Cheung recalls how he once confronted David on what exactly he did back in England; David responded that he had been a “confidence trickster” (i.e., a con man), although this point is never elaborated on. Bale’s relationship with his father ended when he discovered that David, who was his financial adviser, had been disastrously mismanaging his money.
Bale’s big break came when he was cast in Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000), an adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ highly controversial novel about a yuppie serial killer. Even those who didn’t like the movie had to praise Bale’s spot-on performance as the narcissistic, emotionless Patrick Bateman. Several years after making the movie, Bale admitted to Cheung that Bateman was the character with whom he identified most. Cheung writes: “The curious torment Bateman has with himself was very much Christian. I thought back to a line from the movie: ‘I have all the characteristics of a human being: blood, flesh, skin, hair; but not a single, clear, identifiable emotion.’” Though Bale is not drawn as a brooding loner exactly, he’s seen in the book as a focused, intense young actor who felt like an outsider in Hollywood and was eager to dive into a meaty role. Even from his early days as a child actor doing the publicity rounds for Empire of the Sun, it’s clear Bale hated doing interviews or putting himself in the spotlight. His cocky, at times aggressive personality seems to be a mask for possible underlying feelings of uncertainty and self-doubt.
After Cheung and Bale part ways, the book loses a bit of steam. The personal touch from the earlier chapters, when the two were closely working together, is missing. That’s a shame, since the latter part of the book is when Bale’s career really took off. The blockbuster success of Batman Begins made Bale a household name and transformed him into what he was most uncomfortable being: A celebrity.
Despite his success, Bale’s personal life took a hit in July 2008, when several controversial events came to light. This was the month when Bale was accused of assaulting his estranged mother and sister, though charges were never filed against him. During the same month, Bale was filming Terminator Salvation when he flew into an angry, foul-mouthed tirade directed at the movie’s cinematographer, who had walked onto the set during a scene. More than six months later, an audio tape of Bale’s rant was released and quickly became notorious, leading to much scrutiny in the press. Bale later issued a public apology, stating that his behavior had been “inexcusable.” This whirlwind month also saw the release of The Dark Knight, Bale’s most successful movie to date, which has become one of the highest-grossing films of all time.
I personally witnessed Bale firsthand during this dark period. Several days before the highly anticipated release of The Dark Knight, I attended a special discussion with the movie’s director, Christopher Nolan, and Bale. For almost the entirety of the hour-long interview, Nolan did all the talking. Bale kept his head down, eyes pointed at the floor for nearly the entire conversation. He never once attempted a smile, and when responding to a question, would quietly mumble an answer, his face still pointed to the ground. Though this was prior to the assault accusations and the Terminator Salvation incident, It was clear to us all that Bale was going through some serious issues in his personal life.
Fortunately, Bale rebounded with the release of David O. Russell’s The Fighter in 2010. The movie was a hit with both audiences and critics, who loved Bale’s vulnerable performance as the well-meaning, self-destructive coke addict brother of Mark Wahlberg’s title character (though “The Fighter” could certainly apply to Bale’s character as well). Bale ended up winning a slew of awards for the role, including his first Oscar, for Best Supporting Actor. While doing another massive press tour for the movie, Bale seemed much more relaxed and comfortable than he had in the past. And, most importantly, he seemed happy. Cheung and Pittam’s new biography isn’t exactly a revelatory glimpse into Bale’s personal life (though it does contain much interesting information for fans), but then again, the complicated, enigmatic Bale probably wouldn’t want it any other way.