Sarah Sands: Heaven help us if Christian Bale ever has to land a plane

Sunday 08 February 2009 01:00

Tonight, the British film industry will pay its respects to Kate Winslet for immersing herself so deeply in her parts that finishing her roles was, according to the actress, like "escaping from a serious car accident". If she should hyperventilate a bit, it is only an excess of empathy for her character.

Christian Bale's request to his director of photography, which began "I want you off the fucking set, you prick..." and ended very many expletives later, has been explained by some plucky defenders as a form of hyper-professionalism, in which the concentration required by the actor was so immense that the flow of artistic energy spilt over because of the interruption.

The Today programme, however, contrasted the audio clip of Bale and his director of photography with the exchange between Chesley Sullenberger and air-traffic controllers, as the pilot reported that birds had taken out his engines and he was trying to turn round. Sullenberger was asked if could get the plane back to LaGuardia and then to a runway in New Jersey. Each time he replied in a low, calm, matinee-idol voice. "We are unable... We may end up in the Hudson." Then, slightly terse: "We can't do it. We're gonna be in the Hudson."

Sullenberger's professionalism was being tested even as sorely as Bale's, but he expressed it differently. Furthermore, he had an Airbus full of passengers who would die if he misjudged it. Bale's loss of concentration might, at worst, mean hanging about in his trailer for a few minutes.

"You don't understand what it is working with actors," screams Bale, and one thanks the heavens for the shared ignorance. The director of cinematography answers with polite dignity: "I was looking at the light. I'm sorry." Bale roars: "Are you professional?"

It is disturbing to hear a highly paid tyrant lash out at someone just because he can. One crew member tries to reason with Bale, which only inflames him. Was there no one able to kick the loathsome Bale off the set?

It is particularly cringe-making to hear his accent slip from Hollywood brat to provincial Brit. Here is the nail in our self-image. America is now producing the David Niven heroes; we are exporting hysterical egotists.

I like actors. I married one. But the nagging prejudice that there is something unmanly about the trade is supported by Bale. Jeremy Irons once said: "Actors often behave like children and so we're taken for children. I want to be grown-up." You know what he means. The difference between Bale and Sullenberger is not just that between villain and hero, but between boy and man. Steven Berkoff spoke last week of the contrast between acting and directing. Directors need to be highly attuned to their environment and to other people. Actors are inward looking. In the extreme, this can lead to psychosis.

In case this sounds like professional superiority, I should add that journalists, too, can be pretty ghastly. Giles Coren's leaked memo to a subeditor, raging at him for inserting an error in his copy, has shades of Bale about it. My sympathy is always with the subs or the techies or the suits, rather than performers. Suits – and I speak as one – can be dull, but they are rarely insufferably conceited. "I was looking at the light," said the director of photography, a simple statement of fact, rather than narcissistic self-dramatisation. Not as manly as: "We can't do it. We're gonna be in the Hudson." But much better than: "I'm going to kick your fucking ass."

Sarah Sands is editor in chief of British 'Reader's Digest'

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