Top Performances is a recurring feature in which we definitively handpick the very best performances from an iconic actor or actress.
It has been nearly 30 years since Christian Bale’s first turn on the silver screen, though you’d hardly recognize the boyish Benke from 1987 Swedish fantasy Mio in the Land of Faraway as the actor who would go on to play psychopathic killer Patrick Bateman in 2000’s American Psycho. If Mio wasn’t exactly a breakthrough for the young, Welsh-born actor, another film released later that year — Steven Spielberg’s coming-of-age war epic Empire of the Sun — cemented his status as a rising star.
Time has transformed Bale from a very good child actor (Newsies, anyone?) into an Oscar winner known for going to extreme lengths to prepare for his roles. This is the guy who lost more than 60 pounds for 2004’s The Machinist, then binged on ice cream for six months to beef up for his starring role in Batman Begins. Younger audiences might identify Bale first and foremost with the Caped Crusader, but he managed to fit some of the most impressive performances of his career between Christopher Nolan’s three Dark Knight films. His turns as a working-class illusionist in The Prestige and a one-legged Civil War vet in the throwback Western 3:10 to Yuma would be highlights of another actor’s career, but for Bale, they’re merely business as usual.
It would be wrong to say that Bale is enjoying a “moment” right now, because his moment hasn’t really stopped since American Psycho. But he is unquestionably a big-ticket actor who can stand out among an impressive ensemble (as he does as eccentric hedge fund manager Michael Burry in 2015’s The Big Short) or draw audiences to an experimental project like Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups.
In honor of Bale’s consistent excellence and talent for extreme makeovers, we’re counting down the actor’s top 10 performances. It’s painful — like, actually physically painful — that we weren’t able to find room on this list for Newsies, but Bale will always be the King of New York in our hearts. Speaking of films we might have excluded, you might disagree with some of our selections here. Feel free to say as much in the comments, but know that we only have one response for troublemakers in this business.
10. Jamie “Jim” Graham
Empire of the Sun (1987)
Bale wasn’t an acting novice when Steven Spielberg handpicked him at age 13 to star in the World War II drama Empire of the Sun. Born in Wales and raised in England, Bale had appeared in the made-for-television movie Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna as Anastasia’s doomed brother Alexei and later in the Swedish fantasy film Mio in the Land of Faraway with Christopher Lee before getting his big break. However, Bale’s role as Jim Graham remains one of the greatest performances by a child actor ever captured on film.
As an English boy who becomes separated from his wealthy parents in Shanghai and subsequently finds himself imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp, Bale shows the clear-eyed commitment to character that continues to set him apart from his peers. He earned widespread critical acclaim for his performance, including the first ever “Best Performance by a Juvenile Actor” from the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, but the sudden glut of attention reportedly began to take a toll on the young star. Bale has said that he considered quitting acting after this but was urged by Kenneth Branagh to take a small part in Branagh’s star-studded Henry V. So now we have Branagh to thank for something other than some glorious Shakespeare films, Professor Lockhart, and Thor: Christian Bale, adult actor. — Leah Pickett
09. Ben Wade
3:10 to Yuma (2007)
If nothing else, 3:10 to Yuma provides a glimpse into an alternate universe in which Christian Bale was born half a century earlier and rose to prominence during the Golden Age of the Western. The film — a remake of the 1957 original — is a remarkably traditional Western by today’s standards, especially considering that it came out the same year as There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men.
3:10 to Yuma doesn’t quite have the staying power of those other films, but Bale’s performance as the one-legged Civil War veteran-turned-rancher Dan Evans is worth the price of admission alone. His physical disability is a perfect manifestation of the wounds he carries within, and his desperate (though never unhinged) performance shows that he learned a thing or two from playing a Vietnam POW in Rescue Dawn. Crowe might have more fun here as the outlaw Ben Wade, but Bale serves as a necessary and fascinating foil. — Collin Brennan
08. Michael Burry
The Big Short (2015)
Christian Bale has certainly played more fantastical and physically demanding roles than that of hedge fund manager Michael Burry (he’s the freaking Batman, let’s remember), but he’s never stretched himself further outside his natural element. The naturally charming and charismatic actor transforms himself into a socially awkward financial genius for The Big Short, one who can’t tell a joke or even compliment another person without sounding a little off.
The real-life Burry has Asperger’s Syndrome, a condition related to both his preternatural genius as well as his distinctive social manners. It can be difficult for an outsider to understand this condition — let alone inhabit it — but Bale took an interest in studying how Burry’s fascinating mind worked. His work stands out among the film’s impressive ensemble, and in a strange way, he comes to serve as the moral compass in a universe that lacks even the most basic morality. — Collin Brennan
07. Bruce Wayne/Batman
The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012)
While comic book fanboys initially gnashed their collective teeth upon hearing that Heath Ledger would be playing the Joker in The Dark Knight, the announcement that Christian Bale would be taking over the role of Caped Crusader in the first film of Christopher Nolan’s planned trilogy, Batman Begins, was decidedly uncontroversial. With his beaked features, deep-set eyes, and general sullenness, Bale was and is a natural fit for the broody Bruce Wayne: playboy billionaire, loner, crime fighter. But in terms of Bale’s physique at the time just before shooting Batman Begins, the role was a stretch — literally.
For Bale’s previous film, The Machinist, he had whittled his body down to an emaciated 110 pounds to play a paranoid insomniac. To fill out the Bat Suit just six months after filming on The Machinist wrapped, Bale had to immediately regain the 63 pounds he lost, plus another 40 pounds of pure muscle, so we would not only look the part, but also be physically fit enough to perform most of his own stunts. Yet his embodiment of Batman in Begins, The Dark Knight, and especially The Dark Knight Rises goes far deeper than musculature. Bale’s Batman is darker and grittier than his most oft-cinematized DC peer, the messianic Superman, but he’s still a gallant figure, a beacon, a hero. Bale didn’t just fit the suit; he expertly wove himself into the lore. He became Batman. And so when it was announced that Ben Affleck would be “Batfleck” in Zac Snyder’s upcoming Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the fanboys groaned anew, only this time to concur: He’s no Bale. —Leah Pickett
06. Alfred Borden
The Prestige (2006)
Without divulging too much, Bale’s portrayal of a charismatic London stage magician in the 19th century thriller The Prestige hinges on a twist. That the twist comes off as genuinely surprising can be credited both to Christopher Nolan’s elaborate direction and to the artful script he co-wrote with his brother Jonathan, but also to Bale, whose nimble, sleight-of-hand performance keeps the audience looking only at what he wants them to see.
Bale and Hugh Jackman play former stage partners turned bitter rivals, but it’s Bale’s steely, shark-eyed intensity that makes their scenes together pop. Compared to Jackman’s more subdued and aristocratic Robert Angier, Bale’s Alfred Borden, who is working-class and rough around the edges, has more to lose, and thus, more to gain. If a magician is able to fool his audience simply because they want to be fooled, as The Prestige ultimately posits, then Bale — in getting his audience to not only want to believe in Borden, but also root for him against their better judgment — is a consummate trickster indeed. —Leah Pickett
05. Dieter Dengler
Rescue Dawn (2007)
In this unflinching, Werner Herzog-directed drama, Bale takes on the real-life role of German-American pilot Lt. Dengler, who was shot down and captured by the Pathet Lao while attempting a covert US bombing mission over Laos during the Vietnam War. To realistically play a POW, Bale shed 55 pounds at the start of the shoot that he slowly gained back, but he was in good company — his co-stars Jeremy Davies and Steve Zahn, who also played POWs, lost 33 and 40 pounds, respectively, while Herzog lost almost 30 pounds in a show of solidarity with his dedicated cast. But the method work didn’t stop there. With the exception of the plane crash scene, in which he was briefly doubled by a stuntman, Bale performed all of his own stunts in the jungles of Thailand where the film was shot. Plus, to further lose himself in his character, Bale insisted upon eating real worms.
While Rescue Dawn was critically lauded upon its release, it was inexplicably snubbed for all major award nominations in 2007, including the Golden Globes and the Oscars. That Bale wasn’t at least nominated for his provocative performance is baffling; but considering that No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood were released in the same year, his competition was stiff. —Leah Pickett
04. Irving Rosenfeld
American Hustle (2013)
“I feel like we had a secret, just the two of us,” Bale’s character waxes romantic of Amy Adams’ in David O. Russell’s electric American Hustle. “Like that thing where you just wanna be with one person all the time. You feel like the two of you get something no else gets.” Their union is touching and beautiful and not just because of Russell’s incisive script or the duo’s seeping-off-the-screen chemistry. What it comes down to is the acting, which for both players is Oscar-caliber exquisite. Adams turns in a career-best performance as the bewitching and deeply damaged con artist Sydney Prosser while Bale is nearly unrecognizable as her partner in crime and in love: the portly, balding, and unhappily married Irving Rosenfeld.
Bale reportedly gained 43 pounds to play Irving, and at the 1970s pool party scene where Irving and Sydney meet, Bale’s pasty paunch is on full display to prove it. Bale could have worn a fat suit, perhaps, but it’s easy to see why he didn’t. To inhabit Irving, who acts and talks tough but on the inside is as soft and gooey as a Mallomar, packing on the pounds was how Bale got into character. Irving’s tacit insecurity is also what makes his relationship with Sydney more exigent and poignant than it would have been had his character been more conventionally attractive. One pivotal moment in a hotel room — of Sydney watching Irving perform his painstaking daily routine of arranging his comb-over just so, before offering to help pat it down — is twinged with a sadness so sweet it hurts. —Leah Pickett
03. Trevor Reznik
The Machinist (2004)
If The Machinist was not a movie but instead just a bunch of stills of Christian Bale posing in front of a mirror, it would still scare the living daylights out of most people. It took only four months for Bale to lose more than 60 pounds for his role in the psychological thriller — a physical transformation that pretty clearly crosses the line from “committed” to “dangerous.”
As he slips further and further into insomnia-induced paranoia, Bale’s Trevor Reznik (yes, the name was inspired by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor) recedes into himself until the lines between real and imaginary become blurred. The actor’s physical transformation might be initially dismissed as a gimmick, but it’s an important visual corollary to the deterioration of Reznik’s mental state. The Machinist might not be Bale’s best film — it’s a little too derivative of two psychological thrillers that immediately preceded it, Fight Club and Memento — but it’s certainly one of his most demanding and impressive performances. —Collin Brennan
02. Dicky Eklund
The Fighter (2010)
The human body is not meant to go from physically imposing to shriveled and shell-like within a matter of two years — especially when it’s already performed that feat once before. But just six years removed from dropping 60 pounds to play Trevor Reznik in The Machinist, Bale once again took physical transformation to its logical extreme in David O. Russell’s boxing drama, The Fighter.
Bale had to shed a ton of weight in order to play the welterweight boxer and longtime crack addict Dicky Eklund, but that was only the first step in his convincing transformation. He also had to inhabit the mind of the real-life Eklund, taking on the wiry boxer’s distinctive Boston accent and learning how to replicate his shifty, darting mannerisms. It’s a flashy role that lends itself to overacting, but Bale wasn’t interested in playing a caricature. He famously studied Eklund’s recorded conversations in order to flesh out the nuances of the role, and his dedication ultimately resulted in the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Watching his eyes dart back and forth as if he were still in the ring can be unnerving; it’s also a powerful reminder that Bale is at his best when he’s pushing against his limits. — Collin Brennan