USA Weekend (May 27th – 29th, 2005)

GOTHAM’S NEW KNIGHT

New father Christian Bale is about to lose a lot more than sleep. His other big project – Batman – may end his life of anonymity.

Christian Bale has got everyone fooled.

Only Bale had the gravity (and, frankly, creepiness) the role required. Standing in the lobby of a posh beach front hotel in Santa Monica, Calif., the tall, well-sculpted actor looks scruffy at best, with a wild mustache and beard concealing his movie-star jawline. He seems uncomfortable, folding and unfolding his arms as if he has sneaked in on his lunch break and really doesn’t belong here. This, you ask yourself, is Batman?

The Welsh-born actor, 31, is teetering on the brink of serious stardom as his take on the Caped Crusader, “Batman Begins,” gets ready to open June 15. Everyone from die-hard devotees of the DC Comics series to followers of the flawed film franchise have pre-christened it the long-awaited One True Look at the Dark Knight. And although Bale may seem to lack the oomph, and certainly the star power, to pull off the iconic superhero, he may just be the perfect choice. After all, he’s made a real-life career of being the “Man Behind the Mask.”

The story begins 18 years ago, when a much softer-looking Bale flew a toy glider as the 13-year-old lead in Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun.” He hasn’t stopped working since, but just as reports tell of a young Bale ditching that film’s press tour inParis, the adult actor has managed to dodge the paparazzi, avoid the red carpet and reveal only scant details of his personal life. So, when he sits for a rare two-hour conversation, we push hard to peel away a layer of his self-protective shield – and find a humble, self-deprecating and sometimes morbidly funny guy underneath.

“Look, there are people who start off with stars in their eyes and just want to be famous,” Bale says emphatically, explaining his drop-and-run approach to the press. “That’s fine for them, but that’s not me. And those are not the people that I respect.”

As the “Batman” media blitz unfolds and hisHollywoodcurrency flies up the chart, Bale’s strategy is to emulate movie stars like Steve McQueen, a longtime favorite who, Bale says, never let details of his own life – such as his frequent womanizing and famous split from his wife, actress Ali MacGraw – eclipse his work. To wit: When Bale’s wife, Sibi Blazic, 35, a free lance movie producer, discovered she was pregnant last summer, the couple took pains to make sure nary a word about the imminent arrival appeared in the all-knowing showbiz media. They remained mum after the little girl was born in late March, until Bale agreed to get on the phone with us, gushing, “It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me!”

Before all this, Bale was best known as the obnoxious yuppie who soliloquized Huey Lewis & the News in all seriousness before butchering a stockbroker in 2000’s “American Psycho.” The movie was Bale’s biggest success, but instead of making him a star, it cemented his place as the go-to guy for lonely, off-kilter characters in creepy, often humorless movies. He followed it with an equally repugnant racist-bad-guy part in 2000’s “Shaft,” a stylized remake that proved his acting gravitas but probably didn’t win him any fans.

“He can be an intense guy,” says that film’s director, John Singleton. “And it’s almost like he’s always acting.” Singleton recalls running into Bale months ago in Los Angeles, and how, after speaking for just a few minutes, Bale threw him by switching suddenly from his natural-sounding, job-required American accent back to his native British one. “He’s got a duality to him. He’s been doing this since he was a kid, so he’s kind of in his own world that he created.”

Bale is often described as “intense.” But in person, he fleetingly reveals a sweet, boyish smile and an almost devilish laugh, suggesting he’s misunderstood. “I do find myself laughing an awful lot,” he says, “but I think I have a curious sense of humor, because often people aren’t laughing when I am. I never laugh at the punch line!”

Widely decried as a “surprise” choice to play Batman, Bale may well have the last laugh. Early buzz suggests the film will be one of summer’s biggest hits, with Bale suddenly elevated to highly bankable star. “I’ve never had much commercial success, and most people don’t know who I am,” he says with a shrug. We both know he likely won’t be saying those words, or living in his cherished anonymity, much longer.

“Christian’s not really an actor who has been on track to be a big star or action hero,” says Jack Mathews, film critic forNew York’s “Daily News.” “He’s obviously earned his street cred as a serious dramatic actor. So I think it’s OK for him to do something commercial. Remember, Brando was in ‘Superman.'”

In contrast to the four other films (since 1989) based on the 66-year-old comic series, “Batman Begins” promises to spend more time inside brooding billionaire Bruce Wayne’s head than aboard the brand-new, souped-up Batmobile. Although a cadre of bigger-name stars his age could have pulled off the superhero – Matt Damon and Colin Farrell come to mind – only Bale had the gravity, depth and, well, creepiness that British director Christopher Nolan wanted for his Bruce Wayne.

“You meet Christian and you look into his eyes,” says Nolan, whose low-budget “Memento” was a cult hit in 2001, “and you realize he can convey an extreme sense of purpose, and an imposing presence.” Amazing, considering he met Bale soon after the actor had lost 63 pounds and become a human skeleton for his last movie, 2004’s little-seen “The Machinist.” After just four months in training, Bale achieved Batman-caliber pecs and biceps. Co-star Michael Caine, who plays Bruce Wayne’s butler, Alfred Pennyworth, says he knew the actor was tough enough when he saw him do push-ups – “lots of them, and very, very fast.” Bale’s physique was not lost on co-star Katie Holmes, either, in a scene where he had to carry her. “He’s taller than me and very muscular,” says Holmes, who plays the object of Wayne’s lifelong unrequited love. “I’m not a petite little actress – I’m 5-foot-9 – so I made him sweat a little. I was like, ‘I love this!’ “

In crafting this Batman, Bale says, he ditched the campier screen incarnations, from Adam West’s ’60s TV series through George Clooney’s 1997 bomb “Batman & Robin.” Bale’s character is more tortured, and the movie probes his violent and painful past (see “The Real Beginning,” below).

Bale’s childhood might have been more tame, but it was anything but dull. Along with three older sisters, he was reared by a former circus dancer, Jane, and an animal activist, David, who filled their English country home with cats, dogs, rabbits, foxes and people who needed help. Some 20 years after they divorced, his father married feminist icon Gloria Steinem in 2000, and died three years later of brain lymphoma at 62. It’s clear Bale was deeply affected. But when talk turns to his dad and stepmom, who is still a part of his life, the actor quickly slips back behind the mask.

“They both had incredible accomplishments,” he says, adding wryly, “I don’t want to bring them down to my level.”

By Frappa Stout

THE REAL BEGINNING

The Batman known and loved today has a long, twisted history, from 1939, when he was introduced in DC Comics, to “Batman Begins,” opening June 15. But details of his past — his childhood and what lies behind his evil-avenging ways – have been scattered at best. “Batman Begins” gives more detail than any comic book, TV show or movie ever has about Bruce Wayne’s road to superhero-dom.

Here’s a look at how the original backstory from the comics compares with what we learn in the new movie:

In Batman #47 (1948), we discover that it was Bruce Wayne’s witnessing his parents’ death as a boy that sparked his evolution. On seeing a photo of a criminal, Batman flashes back to a mugging in which his father was shot and his mother’s heart stopped from the shock. Batman then confronts the killer, who makes the fatal mistake of telling other criminals he “created” Batman. Early in “Begins,” Bruce watches both parents get shot to death, and cops nab the mugger.

In Frank Miller’s iconic comic “Batman: Year One, Part 1” (#404, 1986), Wayne’s inspiration flies through the window in the form of a bat entering Wayne Manor. In the new movie, Wayne explores a cavern under the mansion, where a swarm of the menacing creatures awakens his inner bat.

In Batman #232 (1971), terrorist Ra’s al Ghul fails to lure Batman to the dark side. In “Begins,” a tortured Bruce Wayne goes to the Himalayas, where Liam Neeson, second in command to al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), trains him in martial arts. When Wayne learns of al Ghul’s evil plot to destroy Gotham City, he resolves to become Batman to thwart it.

By Evan Frank.