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I don’t have many regrets in my life, and I’m thankful for that. But I have one enormous one, and if I could take it back, I would. However, like all regrets, it is indelible.
I was a young reporter for Entertainment Weekly, spending my days jockeying for space in cubicles left empty by vacationing assistants and hoping I could fly under the radar long enough to be noticed and get a promotion that would make my parents proud. Whenever I wasn’t fact-checking, I spent my time hunting for the clever story angles that were too big for the staff writers, who were handed the big movie star feature interviews the way raw fish is hand-fed to Shamu.
Trawling one day over the Usenet message boards — the Internet’s messy afterbirth, soon to be tidied up — I noticed a mostly unknown young British actor named Christian Bale had a disproportionately large number of message threads devoted to him. Mel Gibson, three; Chris O’Donnell, two. But Christian Bale had eight. I had discovered the first male Hollywood actor with a major online following.
There was a precedent to my interest. I had first seen Christian in 1987’s lesser-known Steven Speilberg movie Empire of the Sun, in which he played a young J.G. Ballard separated from his parents in China in World War Two. I saw it five times at the Galleria in Fort Lauderdale. (I was one of those kids who saw mostly serious movies and loved them). I memorized every moment, and even savored the several false climaxes that, I now recognize, plagued both it and The Color Purple. In my middle teens, not much older than he was, I had been moved by Bale’s mid-film monologue in which he realized with horror that he could no longer remember what his own mother looked like. Now I was entering adulthood as a peon, albeit powerfully placed at a national magazine where people quickly returned my calls without knowing I dined nightly on Kraft Macaroni and Cheese mixed with hot dog bits.
I decided to set myself apart in my adult life by writing an article about Christian Bale, who was setting himself apart in his. But he didn’t have a PR person. He only had a manager. I soon discovered the trouble when I telephoned it. I was told that Christian didn’t want to grant interviews. Not much has changed there. He was and is rightfully suspicious.
His management, it turned out, was his own father, David Bale, an ambitious paternal Svengali who had tenaciously shepherded Christian from child actor to young adult and had moved from Britain to Hollywood with his son to help him gain enough velocity to join the freeway of the Hollywood Industry. And in that first telephone conversation, David declined, on his son’s behalf, to give an interview.
But the call wound up lasting an hour anyway. David, who was a hulking 6′ 5″ and a powerfully charismatic bon vivant, had a superhuman ability to make friends. David must have sensed right away that he was talking to a greenhorn, maybe even a soft target. With him, everything was fervently felt, and he could turn a simple rebuff of a national magazine journalist into a meandering discussion about corporate domination, oil company malfeasance, green issues, and animal rights.
For months, David and I would chat during my downtime at the magazine. The man was so loquacious I sometimes wondered how he got things done. I think his life lost a little meaning if he wasn’t being instructive or supportive to someone. Fortunately, I needed his banter and his support. We had rangy discussions about Naomi Klein and apartheid and his negotiations with Charlton Heston and the Illuminati. Each time, David would ask after my family. He would talk carefully and proudly about his, including his daughter Louise. He hinted about the projects that Christian was nosing around (courting Terrence Malick or Mary Harron), or about the Hollywood phonies who made his job a minefield of empty promises, or his horror that a certain young actress he knew as a girl had taken up with a notorious Hollywood lothario. He viewed industry puffery through slitted eyes even as he mastered it. Working at an entertainment magazine, I could identify.
I now suspect he was testing me. He’d drop sizzling little nuggets of gossip, and when he didn’t see them surface the press, he knew I wasn’t like all the others and I gained his trust. It was like Dian Fossey with the gorillas (he was on the board of her fund). I was the gorilla.
His faith was well placed. I have never been a bloodthirsty journalist. In J-school, I would make fun of the “fire truck chasers” who would do anything to publish a story. I was never sleazy. I have never felt that conquest was half as rewarding as learning. For me, humanity was always paramount, even at Paramount, and David, at least to me, was humane beyond categorization. He was a reminder of the soulful shadow story going on beneath the brazen stories we read on the printed page.
I quickly began to see David as a sort of mentor for counterculture thought, or as a father figure at the end of the phone line. We suggested books to each other, and he took a frying pan to Hollywood fakery in gleeful, colorful diatribes that I admired as deeply transgressive for someone in the thick of the business. Our early industry talk melted away and we never talked about Christian anymore. I didn’t particularly care since there were so many more interesting things to talk about; the world was stuffed with injustices to rail against and he was a born raconteur.
Yet despite his unabashed earnestness, I could never fully suppress the worry that Christian’s online following was a cleverly faked public relations orchestration designed to catch someone’s attention. Years later, it came out that the president of Christian’s fan club, Harrison Cheung, inflated much of the Web adoration and later became his hanger-on and de facto personal assistant. (This year, validating Christian’s inherent mistrust, he wrote an unpleasant tell-all, Christian Bale: The Inside Story of the Darkest Batman. I have not read it.) Maybe David was much more controlling with his son’s career than he was with our friendship. But I was alert to it.
Finally, in the fall of 1996, the gates finally opened and I was granted an interview with Christian. We talked about his career goals and his bemusement about his fans as he listened to Donovan records in his bedroom. It was fine but I’m sure he hated it, and I hated being the symbol of everything he was suspicious of. The interview was the fulfillment of a contract of who we both had somewhat reluctantly signed up to be.
When the resulting two-page spread, “Christian Coalition,” was published on October 11, 1996, David snapped up boxfuls of issues to distribute to studio heads. He understood the Hollywood game: that everyone in the business was impressionable and buzz was as bankable as a high Q rating. He used it to pitch Christian for bigger roles, and sure enough, soon other publications were picking up on my story. They haven’t really stopped.
To this day, Christian is called a cult figure on the Internet, something that isn’t really true anymore, because one day I was idly nosing around online, hungry for something to give me my own start. I thought of the story, I lobbied my editors, and I sought the sources. Bale was dubbed “The King of the World Wide Web” because I wanted to talk to the actor I had admired at my multiplex. Human connection is such a wispy thing.
After my story came out, David didn’t drop me the way I feared he might. We remained close. I visited him at the family’s Manhattan Beach home. Now he was the gorilla and I was Dian Fossey, because now that I had outlived my journalistic usefulness and helped put Christian on the short casting lists, I waited for him to drift away. Instead, he bonded tighter and industry talk nearly vanished from our discussions. He remained my friend and built on my trust in him, asking after my mother and coaching me on the choices I was making in my life in New York. I had proved myself more than a prying cannibal of an entertainment reporter, and he continued to prove himself a discreet and willing mentor despite the fact the original objective of our meeting had been consummated.
David, perhaps too much of a dreamer, believed that movies were necessary. Or so he said. I always wondered how he could justify devoting himself to an industry that was so abjectly mercenary when he himself believed in the greater good, in taking care of the poorest of us, in toppling the tyrannical elite. But that was it: People needed dreams, he said, and films returned us to our humanity. They gave us something noble to gaze upon. His vocal idealism likely shaped Christian’s choice in high-art roles, which are never mindless and pandering. I sometimes suspected a personality as persuasive as David Bale’s could be better used as a modern-day Ralph Nader or Rachel Carson, but for reasons of his own, including some health issues and his flair for the fanciful, he was content to remain in his beach house outside L.A. and pour his energies into boosting his son up the million-dollar Hollywood ladder.
In early 1998, feeling burned out from my bottom-rung role at EW, I decided to take a long break and backpack around the world for an undetermined length of time that wound up being nearly two years. I surprised myself by feeling the urgent need to obtain David’s blessing. Would quitting my job be a mistake? Would I not be destroying my prospects?
“You have to do it” he told me. Cheerleading promising young people had become his forte. “It will transform your life. You will be doing something that few Americans ever do.” He told me to I had to seize this chance to live. He not only gave his blessing, but he smoothed the way with numbers and names. He gave me contact information of friends in his native South Africa, he sent me the number of his daughter in London, he insisted I stay in his favorite hotels in Lucca and Wenceslas Square although I could only afford hostels.
I went, but I didn’t call any of David’s contacts during those two years. Somehow I didn’t believe that the connection could be authentic. My connection with his family had started when I was a mere audience member on the wrong side of a movie screen. My service to him had been rendered in the pages of EW. Despite everything, I didn’t trust that I entirely deserved his outpouring of friendship. I remained, in a sense, as guarded as his son was with the press.
Looking back, I see now, my insularity was a warning that I was going to make a terrible mistake in accepting love as it was offered to me.
David’s advice was correct. When I returned from my trip, I was qualified to become a travel writer, and a new mentor, Arthur Frommer, took me under his wing. In no small way, David Bale gave me the courage to be the person I have been for the past 14 years. He probably wouldn’t like the pomposity of that credit, though, believing so strongly that I was smart and self-sufficient, so let’s revise that to say his support helped me believe I could do my own thing and still flourish.
Weeks after I returned from my trip, David was in New York City, and we had coffee and a long talk at the French Roast in Greenwich Village. I remember the afternoon distinctly because Stephen Dorff, who at the time was one of Christian’s main industry rivals, was sitting unaware on the other side of the room, and we never acknowledged him.
David, eager and alive as always, couldn’t stop fidgeting. He told me that he was going on a first date that night, and that he needed my advice.
“I need to hire a car,” he explained. “And I don’t know how to do that in New York.”
“Why can’t you get a taxi for her?” I asked. I thought he was probably just being too L.A.
“I can’t get a cab. Not for her,” he said. “You see, she’s the most fantastic, most incredible woman I’ve ever met. She’s sexy and brilliant and I’m a schoolboy around her.”
“I can’t get a taxi for this woman. Not for her. It has to be a car, with a driver.”
I loved the idea of my friend David getting laid. I loved seeing him destroyed by a crush. I wanted to help. But I wasn’t much evolved from that Mac and Cheese greenhorn he trusted a few years before. “Well, who is it?”
“I’m nervous as hell. And women do not make me nervous.”
“All right. David! Don’t be nervous. You’re great! Who is it?”
“It’s Gloria Steinem.”
In the movie version of this moment, I freeze in place with my café au lait held aloft and I swallow hard.
To me, this was as outlandish as someone going on a date with the moon. But apparently, the two of them had met at a party in L.A., if memory serves, for The Ark Trust (which David helped build and is now a part of the Humane Society), and David was smitten. He had set his sights on ONE OF THE MOST LEGENDARY WOMEN OF OUR AGE.
I am horrified to say that I suggested he hire Carmel Car Service for Gloria Steinem, as if he was just catching a flight at LaGuardia. “Don’t be nervous. She takes shits, just like you!” I said. I assume, which is to say I fantasize, that his choice in a crappy car service, foisted upon him by me, seduced Gloria Steinem with its brutal normalness. But I know David’s charisma was more potent than my proletarian choices.
Reader, he married her. Not husband-and-wife married, which I agree is patriarchal, but partner-married. My friend was the only man in the world who proved worthy of Gloria. Fucking. Steinem.
After that, he lived much of the time in New York, but by that time I was so busy traveling for Arthur Frommer at Budget Travel magazine that I didn’t get to talk to him much.
One night in 2002, I was staying in the Hotel Ibis on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh when my cell phone rang. It was David.
“Why don’t you come to dinner with Gloria and I?” he said. “It will just be a few of us and we’d love to have you.”
You have already guessed my response. Here comes my biggest regret. I constantly relive it.
I didn’t trust my place. My mind’s eye saw the screen of Empire of the Sun in a Fort Lauderdale multiplex and refused to integrate the reality of his friendship in my life. I didn’t believe the connection could be as real as me having dinner with Gloria Steinem and David. I caved to unworthiness. I made excuses. I said I wasn’t sure I could come.
I claimed I was too busy doing some bullshit that I can’t remember now. I hedged. I thought the invitation would come again after my self-esteem had steeled itself and I could imagine myself worthy of Gloria Steinem’s company.
But it didn’t. Soon afterward, David got sick: brain lymphoma. He died the next year.
I missed my chance. I missed my chance to support him. I missed the chance to bridge the profound value of his mentorship with my adult life. I missed the chance to tell him just what he had done for me.
I missed the chance to become friends with Gloria Steinem, someone who appreciated him as I did. I was important to him, and she was important to him, and he wanted us to meet. And I hid.
I missed so much. Most of all, I miss my friend. I let him down. He never did that to me.
As with most regrets, my cowardly decision is steeped in shame and in some pretty heavy metaphysical symbolism about how I view my position in this world. Feeling worthy is a mighty difficult challenge. I’m beginning to feel it demands pharmaceuticals before it can be fully achieved.
I’m glad that I don’t have many regrets, because the one I have is pretty solid. That I hid from a friend, that I thought myself unworthy, that I avoided the chance to befriend a legend… This regret is big enough to be the only one I ever have.
David Bale, imperfect as he was, gave me many things that I never properly thanked him for. His support helped me define my life. But his biggest lesson was not to hide when I am invited to live.
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