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Online Buzz for Christian Bale

‘Baleheads’ flock to cyberspace to spread the word about the ”Little Women” actor

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If the Internet is the ultimate democracy, Christian Bale has been elected its biggest star.

Don’t believe it? Log on and learn: On America Online, correspondence about him is filling a 12th Movie Talk folder, while Mel Gibson scores three and Chris O’Donnell two. On CompuServe, Bale dominates eight files. In March, the Usenet newsgroup alt.movies.christian-bale launched, though postings about him pop up on nine others. And the home page of the Christian Bale Fan Club (www.interlog.com/cbale) reported more than 76,000 hits one week in August, while fellow boys celebre Will Smith and Ethan Hawke don’t even have official sites. In short, Baleheads have become an online phenomenon.

Even if you don’t know Christian Bale by name, chances are you’d recognize him on screen. Although the modest 22-year-old actor grew up in Britain and Portugal, his is the old tale of Hollywood fortune: Cast at 10 in The Nerd in London’s West End, he jumped to the NBC miniseries Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna, starring Amy Irving — at the time Mrs. Steven Spielberg — and by 13 he landed one of the most auspicious screen debuts in memory, as a young World War II prisoner in Spielberg’s 1987 Empire of the Sun. After Kenneth Branagh tapped him for Henry V, Bale scored meaty roles with Charlton Heston (Treasure Island), Disney (Newsies and Pocahontas), and Winona Ryder (Little Women).

Unlike the young Hollywood of the gossip pages, Bale eschews the glam Viper Room scene. Instead, he shares a Southern California home with one of three sisters, Louise, 24, and his father/manager, David (his parents are divorced; his mother lives in England).

And in that Hollywood-bucking European tradition, Bale won’t hire a PR flack. ”I have a fear of being boring,” the actor says. ”The more high-profile I get, the less I can surprise people anymore. I’ve managed it very well. Nobody has a clue who I am, so it’s worked.”

This modesty — plus the tease of inaccessibility — is just part of what endears him to Baleheads. And the CBFC isn’t just wired, it’s electric. ”When we saw the range of Christian’s talents and how little coverage he’s been getting, we, as a fan network, saw the gap between hype and reality,” says Harrison Cheung, 30, who, as the leader of the Toronto-based CBFC, devotes much of his free time to building buzz in cyberspace, where speech is cheap and loud.

Last year, fans (who, Cheung says, skew toward students) canvassed newsgroups and raised more than $1,000 to ”adopt” a baby gorilla, named Nahimana, with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, one of Bale’s favorite charities. The fans have since morphed into his de facto publicist, hounding magazines, including this one, to score him press — and sniffing for projects. So far, the CBFC has bombarded executive producer Kate Capshaw (who’s now Mrs. Spielberg) with pleas to cast Bale in DreamWorks’ The Love Letter and mounted similar charges on the authors and producers of Snow Falling on Cedars and The Secret History — with yet-to-be-determined success. Have the Baleheads stumbled upon the future of fandom? ”It isn’t something fan clubs commonly do,” admits Linda Kay, president of the National Association of Fan Clubs. Most casting agents pooh-pooh this kind of effort (says one: ”Does it matter? I’d say a resounding no”), but it’s not like Hollywood to ignore a groundswell. Besides, someone’s noticing: When The Secret Agent, in which Bale plays a mentally handicapped young man, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September, Fox/Searchlight made sure Cheung was among the invitees.