Some actors look the same and play themselves, no matter what role they tackle. It’s hard not to look like Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts or Tom Cruise, so these actors usually play shades of the persona that audiences have come to expect from them.
Then, there are the chameleons: actors who can disappear into roles so much so that we are shocked by their physical transformations (and, occasionally, concerned by the way they tax their bodies). Christian Bale falls into that camp. The actor has morphed into multiple unexpected parts for different movies over the years. And these challenges have led to extraordinary movies.
Bale is back at it again with the new FORD V FERRARI, a true-life story of the engineers and drivers who competed on the international racing circuit as a point of national pride. But what roles stand out the most to you when we discuss Christian Bale transforming himself for a movie? To us, these are a few of his top performances.
The one that still shocks us to this day. In the 2004 drama THE MACHINIST, Bale plays a man haunted by a secret, who can’t stop his body from wasting away right before his very eyes. It’s a showy performance, because Bale lets his skeletal frame do a lot of the acting for him. But THE MACHINIST is never gimmicky, because when all is finally revealed, the extreme weight loss is part of the story, and the explanation hits home with a gut punch that you won’t forget any time soon.
If you put a picture of Christian Bale in THE MACHINIST next to Bale as former Vice President Dick Cheney, you can hardly believe that they are the same person. Instead of shedding pounds, Bale went the opposite route and gained weight to play Cheney. Where many would use prosthetics or a “fat suit” to play a character who weighed a significant amount more than them, Bale committed to reaching Cheney’s weight level. But it’s not just the bulk. It’s the demeanor and vocal cadence that brilliantly matched Cheney, buried Bale’s normal accent, and earned him an Oscar nomination.
Reign of Fire
To be fair, Bale’s co-star Matthew McConaughey goes through the bigger transformation in REIGN OF FIRE. I mean, look at that shaved head and those funky tattoos! But at this point in the actor’s career, Bale was still trying to establish himself as a character actor (having turned heads in both AMERICAN PSYCHO and VELVET GOLDMINE), so taking a turn as an action hero was a drastic shift. This would pre-date his most famous heroic role, Batman, which will be discussed further down on this list.
Again, Bale disappears completely into a role, this time to play the junkie disappointment brother Dicky Eklund who stood shoulder to shoulder with his brother, Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg). Bale looked sickly and pale as Dicky, a crack addict and convicted felon, but it’s that dedication to the physical transformation that catches you off guard and leaves you wanting to learn more about the characters that Bale plays. You know that Dicky has a huge heart, and you wonder what happened to him to make him fall that far from grace. THE FIGHTER captures a part of that journey, seen through Bale’s unique lens.
You can’t talk about Christian Bale transforming for the benefit of a role without singling out his bulk up to play the Caped Crusader of the DC universe, Batman. Bale and director Christopher Nolan redefined the industry’s idea of a comic-book adaptation, setting the stage for “dark and gritty,” but actually just bringing welcome doses of realism to superhero stories. And with BATMAN BEGINS, Christian Bale transformed into what many think is the best version of Batman we have ever seen on screen.
Bale’s latest role is that of Ken Miles, a gifted driver but a difficult (egotistical) colleague who was essential to Henry Ford’s efforts to top Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race. Miles is recruited by the legendary Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), but can the men figure out how to work together long enough to get across the finish line?
You can find out when FORD V FERRARI opens in theatres on November 15.