Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me as many times as Christian Bale has and you are dealing with an actor of exceptional dedication and ability.
I use the “fool me” formulation because when you’ve watched transcendent performers over the course of long careers, actors like Bale, Daniel Day-Lewis and Meryl Streep, you can sometimes sense a “show me” attitude building.
It’s the feeling that next time we’ll catch them acting, next time we’ll see the artifice and the technique rather than being transported lock, stock and barrel into the psyche of the person they’ve created.
But with talents like these, shape-shifters to the core, it never happens, and it certainly doesn’t in Bale’s challenging performance as irascible race-car driver Ken Miles in “Ford v Ferrari.” That work gained him his eighth Screen Actors Guild nomination, though he was denied what would have been a well-deserved fifth Oscar nod.
Difficult, incendiary, uncompromisingly candid, Miles is by his own admission “not what you’d call a people person.” He’s also something of a car whisperer, a driving purist who knows instinctively where the problems with test cars are and is in a constant, Zen-like quest for “the perfect lap.”
Bale’s reputation for taking on difficult characters is legendary, as is how completely uncompromising he is in doing whatever it takes to inhabit the role. He even publicly thanked Satan for being the inspiration for his characterization of Dick Cheney in “Vice.”
It’s not for nothing that Joaquin Phoenix, no slouch in the uncompromising department, confessed on winning the Golden Globe for “Joker” that he was “still a little too intimidated” to reach out personally to Bale even though they share the same agent.
But though Bale’s work in “Ford v Ferrari” checks a number of his accustomed boxes, there are ways in which this role feels different and unexpected.
To better understand that, it’s worth taking a moment to revisit some of the implacable characters the actor has brought to life over the past decades, including Bruce Wayne/Batman in the Christopher Nolan trilogy, a tortured soul just this side of psychotic if ever there was one.
Bale’s only Oscar victory to date was for supporting actor in 2010’s “The Fighter,” where he played the addled, erratic Dicky Eklund, so completely and hopelessly a crackhead he regularly loses track of both the time and his car.
The actor was perhaps at his least recognizable as the paunchy, balding (but attempting to hide it) conman Irving Rosenfeld who teamed with Amy Adams’ equally amoral Sydney Prosser in the aptly named “American Hustle.”
As silent as Rosenfeld was voluble was Bale’s 19th century Captain Joseph Blocker, a savage U.S. Cavalry officer hollowed out by years of frontier violence. This was an underappreciated performance in Scott Cooper’s despairing and equally underappreciated 2017 western “Hostiles.”
One of the things that links Bale’s performance in “Ford v Ferrari” to his earlier works is the demanding physical transformation involved, including the learning of specific skills.
Because this film came directly after his hefty Dick Cheney transformation in “Vice,” Bale had to lose 70 pounds from his top weight ever to play Miles, a lean man with the angular look and piercing stare of a bird of prey. Asked by costar Matt Damon how he did it, Bale replied simply, “I didn’t eat.”
Though Bale is in a driver’s seat more often than he is actually driving, the actor still had to know what he was doing behind the wheel. To learn that skill, he spent six hours daily for almost a week under the tutelage of stunt driver Robert Nagle at the Bondurant High Performance Driving School in Arizona.
“It was very helpful,” the actor has explained, “having a genuine experience of what it is to be in an extremely fast car, centimeters from other extremely fast cars, and the reflexes that requires.”
If all this sounds like business as usual, one use of Bale’s time was not, and that was spending hours talking to Miles’ son Peter, now an adult but having had as a child an extremely warm and close relationship with his dad.
When you add in Miles’ bantering Bogart-Bacall connection with his wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe), “Ford v Ferrari” has allowed Bale to extend his range into a mastery of the kind of day-to-day emotions that have not always been front and center in his work.
But even in this film, Bale’s nonpareil ability to lose himself beyond our recognition in challenging roles is the main event.
A quote from Sydney Prosser, his character’s alter ego in “American Hustle,” sums it up: “My dream was to become anyone other than who I was.” No one does that better than Christian Bale.