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Film

Mad man

Applauding Christian Bale, for living up to his actorly responsibilities

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Picture this moment on the set during the production of the movie Surfer, Dude: Matthew McConaughey, the film’s producer and star, is in the midst of an important soliloquy about the tao of shirtlessness or some equally weighty matter, and just when he is working hardest to express what it means to be a stoned, happy-go-lucky surf champion faced with the prospect of selling out to a greedy businessman, a crew member wanders into his eye line to fiddle with a light. “Dude,” McConaughey remarks, with gentle bemusement and a radiant, Christ-like smile. “I totally appreciate your desire to illuminate me in the most flattering manner. It’s beautiful. It moves me. But how about if you take a minute to get things how you want them, then, when the cameras start rolling, you just sit tight and let me work my magic without any diversionary tactics, all right?”

In fact, there’s no evidence that such an incident occurred. But the simple possibility that it might have occurred, given what we know of McConaughey’s admirably mellow countenance, shows why he has no business being a movie star. (He would, however, make the world’s coolest golden retriever, no doubt.) And the same goes for Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Matt Damon and, of course, Michael Cera. Pave over their stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, if they have them, and give a whole block of that sacred boulevard to Christian Bale! The hot-headed thespian may not get an Oscar for blowing his top on the set of Terminator: Salvation when an inconsiderate director of photography spoiled his concentration during a key scene, but that’s only because the Oscars celebrate the more trivial aspects of movie stardom, like acting.

If you’ve listened to the audio clip of Bale’s eruption then you know that Bale understands that a movie star’s job isn’t just about acting, but also about living the life to which everyone else aspires: Humping attractive strangers at will, wearing $300 cashmere socks while not bathing for weeks on end, reselling Malibu real estate at tremendous profits and, most importantly, expressing one’s displeasure, no matter how trivial or self-indulgent, in the most extravagant way possible.

For over four minutes, Bale curses at the bumbling amateur who destroyed —no, that’s too weak a word—who raped and then murdered his scene. Bale curses disgustedly. He curses sarcastically, rhetorically, didactically, threateningly. The clip is audio-only, but even so you can practically see the veins popping in Bale’s neck, the flecks of spit bursting forth from his mouth like tiny missiles. “No!” he screams, and you can feel his raw, righteous rage. “No!” he screams again, even louder, in his effort to show everybody in the room he’s more committed to this movie than they are.

Any boss can berate his underlings in similar fashion whenever he wants, of course, but not without the risk of sitting through an inconvenient meeting with Human Resources. Any computer owner can do this to a tech-support representative in Mumbai, but such exchanges lack immediacy, witnesses and the thrill of shutting down a costly army of production people. Only movie stars, and to a lesser extent, baseball managers, have the opportunity to vent their anger in the kind of showboating, in-your-face, above-the-law manner that we all wish we could engage in from time to time. Luckily, we get to live vicariously through them, and when one rises to the occasion as memorably as Bale did, we should applaud them, not condemn them for their bad behavior.

Indeed, even if Bale makes, say, three movies a year for the next 40 years, even if the director of photography on all his future films is required by contract to have his feet nailed to the floor before shooting begins, will he ever deliver a performance as real, as human, as resonant and relatable as those four minutes of hilariously self-aggrandizing chest-puffing? “Who do those spoiled rotten movie stars think they are?” we exclaim in the wake of outbursts like Bale’s, but the answer’s easy, of course—they’re us. Or more precisely, we wish we were them.

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