Masculinity and the Performance Style of Christian Bale

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For my Video Essay, I attempted to look at the acting style of one actor, Christian Bale, and how his performance provokes questions of the nature of masculinity in mainstream American Cinema. This video essay contains clips from seven films: American Hustle, Equilibrium, American Psycho, The Machinist, Reign of Fire, Batman Begins, and The Fighter.

I picked this particular actor because he seems to represent a middle ground between the hard masculinity 1980s and the resurgence of male emotion and objectification in post-millennial cinema. Through an analysis of Bale’s filmography, I have isolated three aspects of the actor’s appeal: male objectification, body transformation, and characterization. This video essay will explore these three components and the cinematic effect created by these elements when they are removed from the narratives of the film – namely, the tension inherent in American masculinity where the male protagonist is prone to emotional vulnerability while his body is still a site of spectacle for the viewer.

Men in American Cinema have long been defined by a tough and rugged individualism; a beacon of phallic power, epitomized by the star personas of Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne of Classic Hollywood (Wexman 132). Actors and their cinematic counterparts were shown to be dynamic, action-orientated, and heroic; their representations on screen served to reinforce the status quo of gender in American society (134). By the 1950s, the traditional notions of masculinity, within society and film, became fragmented, paving the way for more ambiguous personalities to emerge such as Marlon Brando and James Dean whose popularity hinged upon showing the more feminine side of men – showcasing male angst and the inner turmoil created by a patriarchal system (135).

However, with the rise of conservatism in the 1980s, cinema featured the return of the ‘tough man’ persona demonstrated by the careers of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger (Jeffords 73-35). Rather than relying on the narrative structure of the film, this new form of alpha masculine identity focused on the physical body of the actor; these hard bodies, as scholars have termed them, reinforced the image-obsessed culture of the 1980s and instilled within the viewer the notion that men had to be well toned and muscular in order to be considered desirable (Jeffords 73-75) – essentially placing upon men the same rigid standard of beauty that their female counterparts have endured for decades.

With the rise of androgynous male celebrities such as Robert Pattinson and Jamie Campbell Bower, whose rise to stardom was predicated on being the object of desire for a female audience (Booth), questions begin to surface as to whether masculinity is again shifting toward the display of male emotional vulnerability as it did in the 1950s. In looking at the career of Christian Bale, I believe, the answer is both yes and no – male protagonists in cinema must appeal to the hard masculinity of the Classic Studio and Reagan Era while also demonstrating the angst of contemporary cinema.

For this essay, I chose to focus on the performance style of Christian Bale because he has a physical presence; the actor’s fame hinges upon using turning his body into a site of spectacle as he regularly gains and drops weight for every role. The concept of my video essay changed repeated. The idea of my essay originated from reviewing the film, American Psycho; the sheer focus on Bale’s body completely stood out to me. While the idea of the body as a commodity is a prevalent theme within the film, I was surprised at how many of his films glorify his physical presence as I started looking at more of the actor’s work. I immediately thought about the hard bodies of the 1980s action movies and slowly the idea of my video essay started to emerge.

I planned to focus my video essay on just the actor’s physical body, cross-cutting from different scenes of the body, be it well-muscled or anorexic and putting them together out of order. I intended to take clips from several films, using the video editing to zoom in on a hand, a foot, the torso and so forth; these clips would be magnified so that actor’s face would not be shown and would only be revealed at the end of the video. I wanted the actor’s identity to be withheld until the very end of the essay because identity was not the focus of my essay. I simply wanted the viewer to become caught up in the excess of displaying the male form, hoping that questions of what constitutes a masculine identity would arise within the viewer’s mind.

As I cut the footage, however, I realized that there are very few close-ups of the actor in the all of the films I used for the essay; without the benefit of close-up angles, using the video pan/ crop effect to zoom in on the different parts of Bale’s body only ruined the quality of the clips. I realized that I needed to find another strategy for this essay, and so my process for creating the video essay changed even though the premise of looking at masculinity stayed the same. Instead, I decided to look at the overall appeal of the actor – isolating the aforementioned common elements found in his films.

The more footage I edited, the more I realized that Christian Bale performance style is neither a Bogart nor a Brando, but rather a figure that stuck straight in the middle – relying on physicality and characterization. His roles objectify his body and, thus, reinforce a rigid standard of masculinity. Yet, the characters he plays are often caught in some type of emotional turmoil. Frequently, his films are punctuated with characters that detached from humanity – struggling with psychosis, addiction, rage and so forth. Thus, the climax of his characters’ arch is represented in emotional breakdowns as the character comes to grips with his own disillusionment with the world.

The knowledge effect of this video essay is fairly straightforward. The video essay is divided into three parts, three main arcs that highlight the actor’s strengths in performance: objectification, transformation, and characterization as demonstrated by the text titles that separate each section of the essay.  The first section ties the actor’s performance style to that 1980s; it show’s how the camera lingers on the actor’s body, fueling female desire and male egotism. All of these scenes focus on his bare chest or reveal the actor working out – turning his body into a pure symbol of phallic power. The second section highlights the actor’s ability to transform his body completely; each scene follows the actor’s filmography in chronological order beginning with American Psycho (2000) to The Machinist (2004) to Batman Begins (2005) to The Fighter (2010) and finally ending with American Hustle (2013).

This progression of film roles emphasizes the body as spectacle phenomena; indeed, one the main selling points Bale’s movies is watching how he will disappear within his characters, shedding skins like a chameleon. The third section focuses on characterization; this was the most difficult section to string together as finding the right moments to show the actor’s talent is near impossible task, given that I was working within a small time frame. I chose to focus on the emotional moments of the character; thus, this section allows the actor’s face to be more visible and does not focus on his body at all – just how his face contorts into pain so that the audience can feel his suffering.

The experimental affect of this video essay, at least the affect that I was hoping to capture, does not necessarily relate to the actor; merely this essay is meant to provoke questions regarding how contemporary American Cinema constructs masculinity. I wanted the audience to linger on certain moments which highlight this tension between external perfection and internal conflict. I hoped that using the same actor would demonstrate this tension more clearly. How should masculinity be represented in cinema? Does this tension between hard bodies and, what I would call, soft feelings place an unfair burden on male performers? If so does that mean that society has placed an unfair burden on men, in general? This essay is not meant to answer the questions, just merely meant to expose them as they were exposed to me while I made this video. In critiquing the essay, I believe that the first section is the strongest.

Watching the camera glide excessively over the male body, a body that is constantly in motion seems to reach out to me more than the other sections; using the video editing software to create my own close-ups gives the section more texture. It is as though my eyes can touch the sweat that stains his skin, a sensation that is more heightened by the extension of the clips which allows every motion to be slowed down – becoming fully immersive.  The weakest section, in my opinion, is the middle section: the transformation of the body. Though this section, decently portrays shock value that the same man goes from looking like a well-built machine to a sickly shell of an individual, I worry that shock is the only affect that is created in this section. It feels out of step with the other two sections which stand in direct opposition – body vs face.

In looking toward the future, I do not think that the video essay is for me. Though I did enjoy exercise, I’m not sure I gained much from creating the video essay. I have often used video editing software to create fandom paratexts and that mentality is not easily broken. I constantly had to remove myself from that mindset, reminding myself that the clips did not have to tell a story nor did they have to look as though they came from the same source i.e. one film instead of several.

In fact, in one of my earlier versions, I used a film effect to add a pixelation to the entire video and it simply ruined the whole project, forcing me to recut all of my footage for a second time. Another issue, I had was the music. I could not decide what I wanted to use for background sound. I tried many samples from and nothing seems to fit; everything was either too loud or set the wrong mood. I’m still not sure how well the score holds up in the finished product. If I ever do another video essay, I think I will go the more information route rather than trying to go halfway between explanatory and poetic.

Works Cited

Booth, Paul. Digital Fandom: New Media Studies. Peter Lang Publishing: New York, 2010.Amazon Digital Edition.
Jeffords, Susan. Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Regan Era. New Jersey: RutgersUniversity Press, 1993. Print.
Wexman, Virginia Wright.  “Masculinity in Crisis: Method acting in Hollywood.” Movie Acting: The Film Reader. Ed. Pamela Robertson Wojcik. Routledge: New York, 2004. Print.


  1. Katy

    I know one of the ways that myself and fellow film bloggers talk about Christian is through the physical transformations he makes. He envelops himself into his characters, both their bodies and emotions. Cool video and essay!


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