OK. So I know I'm supposed to be shocked to discover that Christian Bale cussed out the director of photography on the set of "Terminator Salvation" last summer. (You can listen to his tirade on my blog, but be warned: The language is most certainly R-rated.)
But is it really a surprise that Hollywood actors -- even really gifted ones like Bale -- often act like bullies and idiots? After all, if you look back at the history of film, there is a long tradition of brilliant nut cases, from Marlon Brando and Peter Sellers and Rip Torn right through Nick Nolte and Don Johnson to Sean Penn, Joaquin Phoenix and Russell Crowe. Oh -- and did I forget Mickey Rourke? Oscars go for great acting, not necessarily for good behavior.
The difference, of course, is that nothing is private anymore. Bale's tantrum was no secret -- TMZ actually had a story about it last July, right after it happened. It simply took six months for the tape of the outburst to fall into the wrong hands, which, if I remember correctly, is actually longer than it took for Alec Baldwin's screaming phone call with his daughter or David O. Russell's freak-out on the set of "I [Heart] Huckabees" to surface on the Internet. It's hardly a dirty little secret anymore: In Hollywood, everyone looks the other way at bad behavior, as long as it's the behavior of someone powerful enough to get away with it, be it a top actor, a studio chief, an agent with a hot client or a powerful producer.
Not to single him out, but producer Scott Rudin hardly blinks anymore when someone recounts one of his outbursts. He's the best in his field, so dealing with his volatile temper is simply viewed as the cost of doing business. But to be fair to the movie business, the examples of bad behavior hardly end when you leave the force field of Joel Silver's office.
Whenever I'm around cynical old sportswriters, they are happy to trot out endless stories of equally awful behavior by various stars in their field, be it football, basketball or baseball, which has a murderer's row of rough customers, recent Mr. Nasty entries including the Dodgers' Jeff Kent (who treated every sportswriter he met like dirt), Manny Ramirez (who clobbered a clubhouse attendant in Boston last year) and Barry Bonds, who couldn't even be bothered to act like a nice guy when he had his own reality TV show. When it comes to setting off F-bombs, Christian Bale is a piker compared to the sainted Tommy Lasorda, who regularly regaled sportswriters with a colorful language all his own, whether it was after the oafish Dave Kingman slugged three home runs to beat the Dodgers or some sportswriter had the temerity to criticize Lasorda's dugout enthusiasm (you can listen to that invective rant on my blog as well).
The parallels are obvious -- if you are a star in any field of public endeavor, when you have to perform under pressure you often lose your cool. Obviously some people handle the pressure better than others -- the Web isn't full of tapes of Tom Hanks or Ron Howard blowing their stacks. Everyone has a different boiling point. Is it really inexcusable to have an on-set meltdown? Probably, but we're such voyeurs now that we never step back to look at the bigger frame: Did the DP on "Terminator" really mess up a take? Did Bale apologize afterward? Was everything back to normal five minutes later? We'll never know. Today we've been trained to simply enjoy the titillation of the moment.
As the late, great New Yorker writer George W.S. Trow once put it in a essay about our strange, transitory pop culture, we live within the context of no context. Christian Bale swears, and we can't wait to soak it up.
This article and others about movies and pop culture can be found on the Big Picture blog.