Ford v Ferrari (or Le Mans ‘66 if you’re in the UK) opened in theaters last week to strong critical acclaim after making a solid impact on the Fall festival circuit. The story of one of motor racing’s most indelible rivalries and the engineering marvels required by Ford to take on the might of Enzo Ferrari is a highly enjoyable and often thrilling drama that looks set to be the new favorite movie of every dad on the planet (that’s a compliment, I swear.) In a film full of gripping car chases and old-school action movie razzle-dazzle, what remains the most striking about Ford v Ferrari is its use of good old-fashioned star power. Matt Damon and Christian Bale have seldom been more charming or likable in their roles as engineer Carroll Shelby and driver Ken Miles, the odd couple who love and hate each other in equal parts and work in tandem towards a shared dream of ambition and revolution. The pairing reminded me a lot of Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, another instance of two major A-List stars working together to combine their full-on movie-star charisma in a way we seldom see in the age of franchises and hot-button IPs. Sometimes, you just need a real celebrity in a role (it’s no surprise that the first names approached for the Ford v Ferrari project were Pitt and Tom Cruise.)
As someone who has typically respected Christian Bale’s work but rarely warmed to him as an on-screen presence, I found myself wholly won over by his performance as Ken Miles. As the hot-headed driver who craves speed and has no time for bureaucracy, he gets to be a proper lad, Brummie accent and all. Little is known about Miles himself and there’s very little filmed footage of him, so Bale had the freedom to fully flesh out this enigmatic figure without having to worry about pleasing the audience’s preconceptions of who this man was or how they knew he acted. As a result, it may be my favorite Bale performance since Bruce Wayne or Patrick Bateman.
When we think of Christian Bale as an actor, the first thing that usually comes to mind is his penchant for physical transformation. His name is typically the first to come up when we consider massive weight gain or loss for a role, and in many ways, it’s become his trademark. For American Psycho, he spent months training and exercising to achieve the perfect physique of Patrick Bateman as described in the novel. He infamously dropped down to 121 pounds (55kg) for The Machinist by going on an intense crash diet of apples and coffee, right before winning the role of Batman and having to gain the muscular body of Bruce Wayne in six months. He gained a total of 100lb in that period, but then lost 30 of that when Christopher Nolan said he’d gotten too big. The 30lb weight loss for The Fighter helped bring him to Oscar glory, while the 43lb gained for American Hustle landed him another nomination. The slouch he affected for the role, which helped shorten his height by three inches, resulted in a herniated disc. And then, of course, there was the role of Dick Cheney in Vice, and the weight gain for that was extreme, even by Bale’s standards: 40lb of pure fat, which the film delights in showing the audience at every opportunity. Ironically, Bale had previously dropped out of playing the role of Enzo Ferrari in an as-yet-unmade film by Michael Mann over fears the required weight gain would be detrimental to his health. Bale has now said he’s done with the extreme weight loss and gain see-saw.
It’s almost a cliché now to talk about bodily transformations and acting, as well as its intersections with perceived glory and awards bait. When we see an actor or actress do something to radically change their body or face, we tend to think they’re on the hunt for an Oscar. Just look at the borderline-insulting cycle that surrounded Charlize Theron when she put on weight and wore prosthetics to play Aileen Wuornos in Monster, or the shock of Joaquin Phoenix’s strange twisted form in Joker, the result of a 55lb weight loss. For a lot of people, both inside Hollywood and out, the true force of acting comes in those moments of obvious difficulty. These transformations are designed less to be looked at and more to be gawked over. They invite shock and awe as well as a hefty dose of encouraging disgust in viewers. We want to be bowled over by someone doing something we could never do, by seeing a familiar face totally morph into that of another to the point where we no longer recognize them. It’s one of the reasons biopic performances tend to fare well with Oscar voters and the public at large: Not only do we get a full-body transformation but we have something to directly compare it to in order for us to judge whether the performance is ‘good’ or not.
Bale’s major transformations have often included biopic roles but not exclusively so. He is an actor who has made bank both on being recognizably himself and through those transformations, from Batman to Dick Cheney. Other actors do this, of course, but they haven’t made their name so effectively on it as Bale has. We expect him to do this for every role now, regardless of how small or simple the undertaking is. People seem almost disappointed when he walks a red carpet looking like himself, but that’s also a crucial part of the cycle: You need to be able to remind audiences, critics, and awards voters alike that the transformation is only temporary because that shows true commitment to the craft. Not only that, but we want to be reminded of their original beauty. Nothing says commitment like making yourself ‘fat and ugly’ for the job but make sure you don’t stay like that because then there’s no place for you in Hollywood, no matter how talented you are.
It would be wrong to say Bale didn’t undergo a transformation of sorts to play Ken Miles in Ford v Ferrari. He took on the role after Vice so he clearly dropped a lot of weight in time for shooting. He is lean but not distractingly so. This is the body of a man who keeps himself lithe enough to race in cars where lightness is key. He has a thick Birmingham accent and walks with the cockiness of a guy who wins all the time. It seems unusually simple, deceptively so, but it’s also the first Bale performance in a long time where he shows how effective an on-screen presence he is through sheer movie-star charm alone. You never forget that you’re watching Christian Bale, which is a stark difference from his usual output, but therein lies its force. Sometimes, you need an undisputed A-List celebrity to get the job done, and at a time when such figures seem few and far between, it’s greatly appreciated from Bale. ‘Normal’ is a bullsh*t term but this may be as mundane as Bale gets and it’s no less thrilling to watch. If nothing else, it’s nice not to have to constantly worry about this man’s metabolism.
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