A blog about movies and filmmaking.

Two actors, four interesting roles…

In Actors on June 20, 2009 at 2:55 am

The past couple of days has seen me watch four movies – two from the past five years and two from the late 60’s and 70’s – two each starring the same actor; one role as a roguish hero and the others as questionable figures. The actors are Christian Bale and Richard Widmark.

Bale has been an interesting character since his first appearance as the 13 year old in Spielberg’s EMPIRE OF THE SUN, growing up into movies like AMERICAN PSYCHO and the new BATMAN franchise. Which coincidentally is one of the movies I’m going to talk about. Of course, there’s not much that hasn’t been said about this movie, as it totally overwhelmed the box office in 2008; and left me absolutely floored. Of course this is THE DARK KNIGHT. The latest in the franchise from Christopher Nolan’s refreshening of the Caped Crusader’s movie franchise. I saw the movie five times just in its opening weeks in the box office, and watched it a number of times when it was first released on DVD. But, just for lack of anything else interesting to watch, the other night I put it on and was once again dragged fully into Gotham City and watching the exploits of Batman, The Joker, Harvey “Two Face” Dent and Captain/Commissioner Gordon.

Over anything else there is just something in the way that Nolan creates movies that draw me in. I was partially obsessed with his original jump into the Batman mythos with BATMAN BEGINS but it was his 2006 movie,  that was apparently the break between these superhero movies that really drew me in – THE PRESTIGE (A movie that I also saw four or five times in the theater, and was my favorite movie of that year.) – also starring Bale.

But in THE DARK KNIGHT, we get another peek into the character of Bruce Wayne (Bale), as we see that he’s still learning and doesn’t completely know how to deal with the fact that this avenger he’s created hasn’t inspired good as much as copy-cats that wear bat masks with hockey pads; and masked criminals that “just want to watch the world burn”. It’s something that helps to make Bale’s Bruce Wayne more human, and fallible than any of the other actors that have taken on the mantle – other than possibly in the animated series from the mid nineties. The heart-breaking realization that we get when he’s hinging his entire future and desperation that Harvey Dent can take the legitimate place the Batman has created, so Wayne can have a life with his love Rachel – who has fallen for Dent.  We know that Wayne is lost to always be Batman, and the only person he has to keep him company is his aged butler Alfred. We also, once again get the pompous act – which as we all know, Batman is the real personality and Bruce Wayne the mask – of Wayne acting the part of spoiled trust-fund wunderkind; flying in late to his own party, stealing away with an entire Russian ballet troupe (as an alibi) and of course sleeping during his own business meeting. (Which presents him as the partying rich kid who doesn’t know when it’s bed time, but in fact is his time of respite for his night time activities.) It’s a fascinating role and performance; the transformation, and the much ballyhooed deep voice, of Batman is really my favorite interpretation and what I would imagine close to what this comic book hero would be in reality.

The flip side of this, and the role Bale took on directly before putting on the Batman suit for the first time was in the Brad Anderson (SESSION 9) directed suspense/thriller, THE MACHINIST (or EL MAQUINISTA in Spanish, as this was a Spanish-financed film). The role of Trevor Reznik, is a man who has not slept in a year and in that time has lost so much weight that he has essentially become a walking skeleton. A feat accomplished by Bale’s losing of around 60 pounds for the role. The man walks in a daze, works at his machine shop, possibly having visions in his mind-dulled, sleepless existence and encounters with a strange co-worker with toes for fingers and an airport waitress. Then there’s his steady hooker acquaintance, Stevie, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh.

If nothing else this movie is amazing to watch, just to see a man who is literally wasting away – both as a movie character, and the actor that has actually put himself  through this transformation to play the man. Of course, the weight-loss, and sleeplessness is part of the plot and again Bale shines – not just because of his pallid complexion – in a role that I have no problem believing is more truth than acting. I believe that he was so tired that he’d be falling asleep during filming and that his tiny frame would have troubles maintaining the action of running let alone carrying anything heavier than a book or cup of coffee.

The movie actually opens over black, with the grunting and struggling of Bale’s character attempting to wrap a dead body in a carpet. The man we see throughout, not able to experience the pleasure of sleeping with the prostitute, Stevie; showing that he’s astute in the rules and laws governing his workshop – and correcting his manager – and finally in the realizations of what is real and what is delusion, makes Trevor Reznick the questionable figure – not really bad, but having done some unheroic things.

On the other side, we have Richard Widmark, who in the 1940’s became well-known for his performances of sinister villains in movies. Most noticeable about him was the blonde hair, the mischievious grin and a giggle that was what lead to his only oscar nomination (KISS OF DEATH). He lived and worked through what was the golden age of cinema and mostly got to work in the genre we now call “film noir”. It was only later in his career, when he was really allowed to break out of the mold of a villain and given parts more heroic. One such role was in an early movie directed by the legendary Don Siegel, MADIGAN.

Widmark got the title role – and even appeared in a later television series, despite it kind of ret-conning events in this movie – as the cop not afraid to bend the rules in order to serve (a kind of) justice. Between he and his partner (Harry Guardino), the Chief who is a good guy with some mud on him (played by James Whitmore), these were the beginnings of what would lead into the renegade cops of the 70’s and 80’s like DIRTY HARRY and Riggs and Murtaugh of the LETHAL WEAPON series.

In MADIGAN, Widmark’s character and his partner bust in to take in a heavy, they’d been sent to pick up, only to be caught off guard by a naked lady and both allow the bad guy to escape and to take their guns. This leads to them being given 72 hours to track the guy down before their heads roll. Madigan also has to deal with his wife, who is always seemingly stuck inside and was looking forward to the upcoming policemen’s ball. We see Madigan making the rounds, busting some heads and trying to avoid encounters with the Commissioner (played by Henry Fonda).

In the end, we see him lead the charge and make a sacrifice that our heroes usually are put in the position to make. In this instance leading to an acceptance for being a good cop and a surprising death. All of which makes this character one of Widmark’s more memorable heroic, if flawed, roles.

And finally, in more of a supporting role here (but one that lead me to look up Widmark’s other credits and inspired the correlation between these and Bale’s roles) is that of Tagge in Stanley Kramer’s 1977 suspense/thriller (see, how this is matching up?) THE DOMINO PRINCIPLE, starring Gene Hackman and also Candice Bergen, Mickey Rooney and Eli Wallach.

The story focuses on Roy Tucker (Hackman), a convict who had been imprisoned for murdering a friend of his, and the ex-husband of his current wife (Bergen). One day he’s told that he’s going on a work day, when instead he’s lead into an office, where Tagge is sitting and starts to question him. Soon, it’s revealed that Tagge’s arranged for Tucker to be let out of prison, with a lot of money and a house in a foreign country. The only drawback is that he’s going to have to do something for Tagge and his mysterious partners. What this winds up being is a political assassination, which has seemingly been setup for a long time, possibly even including the framing of the original murder that got Tucker in prison.

Widmark’s role here is mostly as sort of Tucker’s handler and the guy who presents himself as being on Tucker’s side – as long as things are going smoothly. Seeing as Widmark was around 63 when this movie came out, it’s reasonable that he’s not quite as involved with the action. But, with that grin and the way he presents himself, he’s still got an air of menace to him – and when standing opposite the six-plus feet of Gene Hackman, that’s a tall order to fill. We get tastes of both sides of Widmark throughout the movie. He’s calm and seems to be playing the good cop at times, and others he’s tricking and pulling the strings to get Tucker to do what needs done all the way to the end; which has some interesting twists for both Hackman and Widmark’s characters. The real tragedy of Widmark’s death in THE DOMINO PRINCIPLE is that even though he’s never fully been on Tucker’s side, it’s still Hackman’s reaction to seeing that Tagge is about to die that really lets us know how well, Widmark has played his mark. And then, the final moment of the movie is probably up there with THE CONVERSATION in us seeing how things aren’t going to work out that well for Hackman’s character.

The sort of funny divergence of directions that these two actor’s characters take are interesting. Widmark’s are sort of making a sacrifice for the greater good; while Bale’s are left having to deal with the situations they’ve put themselves in. (At the end of THE DARK KNIGHT, he’s become the fugitive and outlaw that the public had wrongly labeled him, in order to preserve the image of another and in THE MACHINIST, Trevor is ultimately taken to task and holds himself responsible for the actions that had lead to his current state.)

Ultimately though, both of these actor’s greatest skill is giving us characters that are flawed and not in a position to answer or solve all of their problems; sort of a big screen version of us. These are only two movies from both of their oeuvre of movies, and I look forward to making my way through more of Widmark’s movies of the past, and continuing to see what Bale does in the future.

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