When we look into the dark pools of intensity that are Christian Bale’s eyes, do we see a star reflected in them?
A star, that is, in the old-fashioned way we used to understand the term. You know, with that X-factor twinkle we saw — or thought we saw — in the baby blues of Paul Newman, the amber gaze of Greta Garbo or the mischievous expression of Clark Gable.
Technically speaking, Bale is a star, given his impressive box-office returns as the star of “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight,” and the huge anticipation for “Terminator Salvation,” in which he plays the crucial John Connor role in the already successful franchise.
And although Bale has always maintained he’s an actor not a star, he must feel he has a certain star privilege, judging by his rabid rant at the director of photography who made the mistake of being in his line of vision when he was doing a particularly emotional take.
Let’s be real. Bale is a hard working dude with decent box-office numbers but without much star quality. (If you factor in the six movies in which he was pretty much the main attraction — both “Batman” movies, as well as “American Psycho,” “The Machinist,” “The Prestige” and “Rescue Dawn” — his overall average weekend draw is $37.9 million.)
By star quality, I don’t mean glossy magazine-ready pizzaz. I mean that inner cool that the likes of Brando and Dean had. If we see a glint in Bale’s eyes at all, it’s his determination and resolution to be charismatic. He seems to be working it rather than effortlessly exuding it.
And if we stare even harder we’ll find something more ominous — our own sense of entitlement. If anyone’s the star, the reflection says, it’s us.
The algebra between star and audience used to have a clear hierarchy, up until about the 1980s. There was the sense that stars were mini-gods and audiences were mortals. For the moviegoers who — in the 1940s — flocked to theaters several times a week, it amounted to a spiritual encounter to watch the Greta Garbos and Bette Davises, the Clark Gables and Humphrey Bogarts.
Although the ‘50s and ‘60s saw a decline in moviegoing, as television took over, stars still enjoyed their luminosity. That currency lasted deep into the ‘80s, as we watched Tom Cruise flying “Top Gun,” Harrison Ford chasing IRA terrorists and Arnold Schwarzenegger declaring “Ah’ll be bek.”
But something changed, right around the time we became independent contractors of our own entertainment. As personal technology became our spiritual lodestar — the PC’s, video games, iPods and iPhones — we lost our innocent reverence.
Stars became the equivalent of a little girls’ dolls — they sat silently and obediently in the closet until we were ready to watch them on our own time. Suddenly, the audience was the stronger force in the algebra. The stars were no longer entitled to tower above us, take our breath away. They had to reflect our blog-templative lives. Suck up to our attention spans.
They had to be in their teens or early twenties. They couldn’t be grownups any more. They had to have our gadgets and technology. They had to take photos with their cellphones. They had to IM and LOL, just like us.
The new star of movies was now the audience. And it was the stars who were privileged to have our attention.
Which brings us back to Bale, our celeb of the moment. He’s fool’s gold. He’s Ivan Lendl rather than John McEnroe. And he’ll impress us only to the extent that he reflects us. Movie stars have gone the way of rotary phones and printed newspapers.
Yes, there are flickerings of stardom here and there. George Clooney and Amy Adams intermittently have that twinkle — the kind that implies they come from another place beyond the physical. But for the most part, stars don’t transport us. They’re like the nerdy kid who asks if he can come up to our virtual tree house.
I’d like to think if Clark Gable or Greta Garbo returned from the grave and saw that overcrowded tree house, they’d keep on walking.