Boy hero, bad boy, bigot, bonkers, bony, buff, bent and now Batman. Bale’s film roles defy typecasting, and the films themselves are eclectic, often sitting just on the edge of the mainstream. While Bale has become somewhat of a queer icon due to his buff physique and his role as the closeted gay character Arthur in Todd Haynes’s The Velvet Goldmine (1998), the queer potential of his films is often more oblique.
A film like Little Women (1994), an early Bale vehicle, might not seem queer until you note that the book it is based on was voted one of the 100 best gay and lesbian novels of all time. The book’s author Louisa May Alcott never married and many suspect she repressed her own lesbianism to conform with the expectations of her time. Her semi-autobiographical heroine, Jo March, is a tomboy who at one point wishes she was a man so she could marry one of her sisters, and who regularly dresses up as male characters as part of her childhood role play. Bale’s role in the film as Laurie, the childhood friend of the March sisters, involves him shrugging off his father’s restrictions, joining in the girls’ play-acting, and eventually becoming part of their family by marrying Jo’s sister Amy. But his marriage to Amy seems arbitrary -“ he would have married any of the sisters in order to be part of their female-dominated household.
American Psycho (2000) was adapted from the controversial novelist Bret Easton Ellis’ second novel. The film includes a number of homosexual references, but one stands out. Bale plays the psychotic Patrick Bateman who, upset by the superiority of his colleague Luis’s shiny new business card, follows him to the bathroom and reaches out black leather gloved hands to strangle him. The colleague, rather than being shocked, mistakes this as an erotic gesture and kisses Bateman’s hand. Bateman cannot comprehend this reaction and flees the bathroom after furiously washing his still gloved hands. The gay man survives. Bateman’s reaction could suggest a self-disgust masking his own repressed homosexual desires.
When he has sex with various women throughout the film he is performing heterosexuality, taping himself and posing in the mirror, somehow emotionally disconnected from the experience. Ellis’s novel and Mary Harron’s film critique a society where everything is surface, and Bale’s game-show-host delivery conveys a resentment simmering below the fa?e of perfection.
With Bale’s performance in American Psycho we are put in an uncomfortable situation where we sympathise with his character, but are equally horrified by his character’s actions. In Shaft (2000), Bale again plays an unlikeable character, and this time we are not asked to sympathise with his murderous racist persona but to dislike him intensely. In a remake of the original blaxploitation film, Bale’s performance as the film’s pampered and politically protected villain again asks us to question conservative attitudes, to fight bigotry. Although this is a film with race as its central theme, its progressive stance suggests an ongoing need to battle bigotry in all forms.
Questioning the status quo, battling dominant social and cultural forces is also a theme explored by Equilibrium (2002). Although perhaps too derivative for its own good, Equilibrium is an interesting blend of dystopian narratives such as George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. This is a world in which all books and other cultural forms are banned, and society is regulated by a drug which suppresses emotion, thus maintaining the productivity of the populace and eliminating conflict. True to the tradition of the genre, the futuristic setting is a critique of contemporary society. Equilibrium‘s world is a society where conformity is all-important, where even basic sexual desire is repressed. Bale’s character eventually breaks free from these confines, awakened by love for a woman, and brings down the government and its dictator. Although Bale’s character falls for the woman, the suggestion here is that desire is natural, that emotions cannot be controlled and that culture should be free and diverse.
Todd Haynes’s 1998 film The Velvet Goldmine revisits the glam rock era of the 1970s. Starring Bale as reporter Arthur Stuart, the film is ostensibly about the excessiveness of glam rock culture but, through the device of a brooch passed from generation to generation, it draws parallels between the work and life of Oscar Wilde and the music and performance of 1970s music idols such as David Bowie and Iggy Pop mixed with hints of Kurt Cobain and 90s grunge. Bale’s character as a young boy sees his glam idols as role models and their music and physical appearance as expressions of his own homosexual desire. He masturbates over record covers and in one scene points desperately at the television screen on which his idols are being interviewed and tells his parents excitedly, That’s me, that is! Later, as a grown man, he denies he ever was a fan of glam rock, a denial that parallels his own now seemingly closeted homosexuality.
Batman Begins, while not as camp as the previous Batman films and the notorious TV series, still retains elements that parallel queer life; secret (closeted) identities, a love of rubber and spandex and a nocturnal lifestyle.
He may not be gay, but there are many good reasons for the queer community to admire not just Bale’s body but also his impressive body of work. Let’s just hope that with his new mega-star profile, Bale continues to explore roles that play on the edge of the mainstream.