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Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Performances: Christian Bale in The Fighter

It has been said by some critics that audiences like acting they can see, which is why we tend to respond to characters who suffer from disabilities or addictions that take a physical toll, and actors whose roles require accents. I don't necessarily disagree with that concept (we all know Oscar bait when we see it, right?), but I do disagree with the related idea that an actor who takes on such a role is taking shortcuts. As Christian Bale's performance as crack addict Dickie Ecklund in The Fighter demonstrates, those supposed acting crutches can be simply one of the building blocks for a character and not the thing that defines it.

Dickie is a screw up. There's really no denying it, though his family still thinks that he hung the moon, particularly his mother. He's sustained himself on former glory, still existing in the moment when he beat Sugar Ray in the ring, and walks through his neighborhood as if he owns it; he's the king and everyone else is his subject. This delusion of grandeur/total disconnect from reality is like a shield that protects him from having to see the truth. As long as he doesn't look past the sheild, he doesn't have to admit that he's thrown everything away, that he's wasted his potential, that he's amounting to nothing.

But, every once in a while, he's forced to look beyond the shield. When his family shows up to retrieve him from the crack house he's known to frequent, for example, he attempts to run away. His panic is less the result of his worry that his family will know what he's been up to, but that seeing him in this environment will finally force them to confront him with that knowledge. Later still, he sees himself for what he is when the documentary - supposedly about his "comeback" - airs and he freaks out, confronted with the way people outside of his family view him. Bale's performance conveys not just a simple struggle with drugs, but the complex psychological effects of his character's addiction. Dickie is at once a character who is hard to pin down, his behavior dependent on the amount of time that has passed since his last fix, and terribly predictable. When he walks out the door with a certain kind of swagger, you know where he's going to end up.

Bale gets a lot of big, dramatic moments to play throughout The Fighter and he plays those very effectively, but he also gets quieter moments that make just as deep an impression. The scene in which he swallows what pride he has left and goes to see Charlene (Amy Adams) to bury the hatchet is one of the best in the film and it displays a side of Dickie that we haven't yet been privy to. There's a great little moment during this scene when Charlene questions Dickie about what he's got all over his arm and he responds offhandedly that it's icing. No further explanation, just a simple statement as if the rest of the story should be obvious. There are times during The Fighter when you could argue that Bale's performance is mannered (though I would disagree), but there are also moments like that one where the performance feels so natural, so authentic that you aren't looking at an actor, but a fully fleshed character.


Vanessa said...

I don't know if playing a role like this is a shortcut to an Oscar...it sure can't hurt but you still have to be really good to be able to pull it off!
Looking forward to this film!

Norma Desmond said...

An actor definitely has to be good in order to pull it off. Bale is very, very good as this character.