Soma (October 1998)

IDOL WORSHIP

Reports from the set of this month’s much anticipated Velvet Goldmine Claim that method-acting disciple Ewan MacGregor had a hard time relating to the heady epoch of early-’70s glam. He trolled the annals of rock history for factual research, combed over lyrics for veiled subtext, and religiously mimicked Iggy Pop Videos of the time. For his co-star Christian Bale, however, getting into the part was merely a matter of fabric choice.

“You can’t help but get into it when you’ve got on these odd little clothes, tight around the hips, these Shirts with wing collars,” he said. “It just happens. You can’t help but get the feeling of the era.”

Bale’s technique is in keeping with the mantra of the film: “a man’s life is his image.” In Goldmine, out in October, the young actor plays Arthur Stewart, a rock Journalist sifting through rhinestones, fuchsia eyeliner and feather boas to find the true colors of his idol – the coy, androgy-nous pop star Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers). At the height of his popularity, Slade suffered a questionably untimely death – even for the early ’70s – leaving behind his wife, Mandy (Toni Colette), his decadent mentor, Curt Wild (MacGregor), and his scores of obsessive devotees. Only years later does fan and glam-scene Outsider Arthur threaten to enlighten the masses to the truth behind Slade’s demise.

Bale himself is no stranger to mass adoration. Since his auspicious screen debut at age 12 in Steven Spielberg’s (second) WWII epic, Empire of the Sun, the rosy-cheeked Welshman has been blessed with the kind of international fanaticism not seen since the likes of David Cassidy. Roles in decidedly X-chromosome flicks like Little Women and Portrait of a Lady did little to quell the so-called Baleheads, and the advent of the Web has made him one the most home-paged, thumbnailed and Java-scripted teen dreamboats of our time. (“Is it true that Christian has nude scenes in his new films?” reads a typical Bale-site FAQ.) As Entertainment Weekly once proclaimed, “If the Internet is the ultimate democracy, then Christian has been elected its biggest star.” Bale chooses to be somewhat more demure about all the adoration: “It sort of just happened, and I’m kind of watching it, enjoying what’s going on.”

Further still, the actor went on to wonder if he was worthy of all the idolatry – another one of Goldmine’s themes. “I’ve always imagined that a few years on from wherever I am, I’m going to really know who I am and be someone who I’d really like, who I’d really look up to,” he said. “And then that time comes and you realize you’re not really there.”

If Bale hasn’t exactly become the most bankable box office name inHollywood, the underground hubbub suggests he’s fast on his way to becoming one. It’s the kind of attention usually heaped upon guys like MacGregor or Leo DiCaprio – that is, of course, since the iceberg hit. So it comes as no small irony, then, that the ever-petulant DiCaprio announced his interest this summer in the lead role of the film version of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, a part that had been promised to Bale for nearly a year. When the media frenzy subsided, DiCaprio’s will-he-or-won’t-he involvement with the film left its director Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol) up in the air, and what could have been a breakthrough role for Bale all but evaporated.

Still, Bale views the uncertain nature of the industry with an almost diplomatic aplomb. “Career-wise, I think with this business, things can seem just terrible at times. Nothing is happening, and then suddenly one little thing will happen and it will open a million doors and it all goes brilliantly, and then something else happens and you get knocked back and you think, ‘Christ, I’ll never work again,’ and then it’s great again,” he said. “You can never really plan it very well. I certainly enjoy being in that position. I think that’s something I did always like the idea of not really knowing what is going to be right around the corner. That’s how I was brought up.”

And without naming American Psycho specifically, Bale expressed his reservations at playing unsavory protagonists just for the sake of playing them. “I think it’s sort of a bit dodgy if you start saying, ‘I want to play somebody who’s got a bit of a dark edge to him,’ or whatever, because you should really be excited about the script, the whole film,” he said. “Those roles can be very limiting. You should keep your head on, broaden your horizons, keep your bowels open, you know?”

True to his word, Bale is keeping his proverbial guts open. Psycho or no Psycho, his plate is full of other challenging, unconventional fare, including next year’s rendering of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Michelle Pfeiffer, and the slice-of-life comedy Metroland, in which he again plays a young, married malcontent, dealing with life in the sexually liberated London of the 70s. Although Metroland and Goldmine share the same era and were shot back-to-back, the actor claims the two roles had nothing in common – and, once again, he justified his claim purely in terms of fashion.

“The characters were totally different,” Bale explained. “It’s going from Chris in the satin shirts and the corduroy flares in ’77, whereas Velvet Goldmine is skin-tight, with the makeup, earrings, blue hair, the whole thing. My mother found it hilarious when she saw stills [from Metroland], because when my dad got married to her he wore a corduroy suit with patches and a polo-neck much like the one I wore.”

Due out in January, Metroland, as directed by English screen veteran Philip Saville, is an about-face from the rigorous aesthetic of Todd Haynes’ Goldmine.

Where Goldmine toys with narrative and structure, Metroland embraces it, placing flashbacks in tidy little segments and affording the actors – notably, Emily Watson as Chris’s wife – room to improvise. “We were given reign to do sort of whatever, really, and the camera would follow us,” Bale explained. “Philip is really good at capturing that sort of thing.”

Both Metroland and Goldmine join films such as Boogie Nights, The Last Days of Disco and the soon-to-be-released The Blood Oranges in the growing movement by younger filmmakers to demythologize the decadence of their formative years, utilizing period dance tunes as the ironic counterpoint that drowns out all the suffering and addiction. But Goldmine is the first of the current crop to examine the earlier part of the decade, when drug experimentation had become downright de rigueur, leaving rock icons like David Bowie to open the last of the floodgates as campy, flamboyant, pansexual stage personae. The film plays like a grocery list of rock debauchery: hard drugs, bed-hopping, gender benders, and full-frontal stage dives through balls of fire. Bale, who wasn’t into anything kinkier than breastfeeding at the height of glam’s excess, claimed that he was able to get in touch with the period by finding parallels in today’s fads.

“Not having been around – yeah, in retrospect it was a really colorful, garish era,” he said. “But you can probably look back on some things, like all the rave stuff, a lot of ’90s stuff that will probably become a lot more colorful when you’re not actually in it from day to day.”

Precisely because of his tender age, though, the actor is reluctant to try and define an overall feel of the ’70s. But he says his recent movie gigs have given him a new perspective on all the hedonism.

“I think it’s like seriously drinking and doing really stupid things all night and then having a really terrible hangover and saying, ‘God, I’ll never do that again, what the hell was I doing?'” Bale says. “And then you sober up a bit and you say, ‘Wow, that was great fun, wasn’t it? I licked the right tit, you know?”‘

By Michael Hastings.