OH! YOU PRETTY THINGS – VELVET GOLDMINE’S OUTSIDER-LOOKING-IN
Christian Bale’s sympathetic performance as Arthur Stuart grounds Velvet Goldmine when it embarks on bathetic flights of fancy. The film’s pivotal moment comes when closeted gay teen Arthur sees Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) fellating the guitar played by Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor) – a la David Bowie fellating Mick Ronson’s in glam’s most iconic photo – and imagines yelling at his parents, “That’s reel That’s me? A decade on, Arthur has become a reporter – a dour, lonely man – who Is assigned to find out what happened to his fallen idol; he’s director Todd Haynes’s onscreen surrogate, the outsider perpetually looking in, and Bale nails him.
At twenty-four, Bale is an old pro – a veteran of World War II (Empire of the Sun), Agincourt (Henry V), Winona Ryder’s embraces (Little Women), and Henry James’s elitism (The Portrait of a Lady). This ruminative Brit can next be seen opposite Emily Watson in Metroland (another ’70s saga) and, now that Leonardo DiCaprio has thought better of it, may yet reclaim the role of the serial killer in American Psycho.
GRAHAM FULLER: Did you Identify with Arthur?
CHRISTIAN BALE: I haven’t shagged any rock stars and I’ve never had Arthur’s hero-worship thing, but I do think he’s the character in the film most people can relate to even if they haven’t had those experiences. A lot of people have said to me, “I felt like Arthur did” – you know, those teenage years of feeling completely isolated and creating your own little world in your bedroom.
GF: Did you go through that even though you were a child star?
CB: I went through it because I was in movies. When I was doing films like Empire of the Sun I was getting the kind of attention most teenagers never get. But back at home in Boumemouth [Dorset, England] everybody suddenly knew who I was and I’d get into fights with strangers who’d come up to me and say, “Are you that bloody actor?” or I’d find out girls were saying they were dating me, so I spent most of the time trying to be Mr. Invisible. I became almost a recluse between fourteen and fifteen.
GF: You play Arthur at two different ages. How did you reconcile the boy with the man?
CB: I played it as two different characters. The only consistent thing about Arthur is he’s a loner even when he’s in the thick of the pop world in London. I don’t have any message to give about him except that it was upsetting for me when I did my last shot and had to go and take the clothes off. I know it’s a pretentious actor thing to say, but it did feel like I was saying goodbye to a friend I’d never see again.
GF: Why did Arthur climb back into his shell?
CB: Having experienced something so liberating and feeling let down when it ended, he reverted to that feeling of being alone in his bedroom, and he became cynical. That’s why it’s such a big thing for him to go back and investigate the era when he’d had the best time in his life – it shows him what he’s lacking now.
GF: As Arthur searches for Brian, the film leads him back to Curt, with whom he’d had a brief sexual Idyll. Does Curt recognize him?
CB: Yes. It’s a huge moment for Arthur, who thinks he might have been an idiot for believing in everything glam rock meant to him. Curt doesn’t tell him he remembers him, but by passing on to Arthur the brooch that has come down to him from Oscar Wilde via Brian, Curt’s saying, “Yes, I remember you, and no, you weren’t an idiot. It was a fantastic time and we’re all missing what it gave us.”
GF: Did Velvet Goldmine get your acting juices flowing?
CB: Very much so. I felt I’d dried up for a couple of years and wasn’t interested in what I was doing. I was desperately struggling to be interested, but it wasn’t happening. There wasn’t even a question of that when I did Empire of the Sun because at thirteen you feel you’ve got nothing to lose. I know some emotion went out of my work, but I think I’ve managed to get it back on a couple of recent films and Velvet Goldmine is one of them. That’s because I could risk making a complete fool of myself in front of the people I was working with, which is always when you give your best performances. You might say to yourself, What are you doing? But you just can’t stop yourself doing it, and walking that line is the best feeling you can get as an actor.
By Graham Fuller.