Mark Harris on Christian Bale's rant, Joaquin's bizarre ''Late Show'' appearance, and why the public loves a good celebrity train wreck

By Mark Harris
Updated February 20, 2009 at 05:00 AM EST

Celeb meltdowns

Remember the ’90s? That serene and dignified period in the history of celebrity meltdowns during which actors knew how to keep their misdeeds relatively private? Granted, occasionally somebody would slip up and offer a ride to a tranny hooker, or break into a neighbor’s house during a drug-addled psychosis to take a nap, or stagger around a stranger’s yard babbling about aliens. But back then, actors had class. Their misadventures generally weren’t recorded for posterity, except for a sheepish-looking mug shot. That made their subsequent repentance interviews go much more smoothly. It’s easier to overcome an embarrassing headline than to have to compete with your actual bad self on tape for eternity.

Which brings me to Christian Bale and Joaquin Phoenix, two guys who, in the last couple of weeks, have entertained us in all the wrong ways. Bale was caught in an audio clip vomiting fury and contempt all over a director of photography who distracted him during filming of a scene in the upcoming Terminator Salvation. The audio got instant traction, its viral success having less to do with Bale’s epic cursing than with his hideous/hilarious inability to find the brakes. Thus, for millions of listeners, ”Wow, he’s angry!” (minor embarrassment) turned into ”Wow, he’s crazy!” (major mess).

Bale is smart enough to understand that, after having starred in the second-biggest movie of all time, it’s unwise to turn yourself into the Internet’s newest icon of demented entitlement, especially at a moment when the public is feeling savage about anyone it suspects is overpaid. So Bale did what celebrities do: He said he was sorry. In a call to the L.A. radio station KROQ, he apologized for his bad words, for his bad temper, and for behaving like a massive tool. The problem is, the first sound bite hasn’t gone away. It survives in various forms of cyber-infamy, from techno rant to Family Guy gag (that was fast!). As a piece of entertainment, ”I’m sorry” can’t compete. As one poster on KROQ’s website succinctly wrote, ”Kinda liked the rant better.”

Of course people liked the rant better — because, unlike so much of what they hear from celebrities, it was real. There’s no truth as fascinating as truth revealed inadvertently, especially in an industry that often turns dishonesty into a commodity. We hunt for it everywhere. Why do you think awards shows invented those five-way ”And the winner is…” nominee shots except to satisfy our sadistic desire to see a flicker of honesty on the faces of four people hearing bad news? It’s no accident that TV’s newest hit is Lie to Me, a shrewdly gimmicky crime drama in which a cynical genius (Tim Roth) provides lessons in how to spot liars by examining facial micro-expressions — pursed lips, downcast eyes, raised brows, bared teeth — illustrated with shots of everyone from George W. Bush to Kato Kaelin caught saying something they didn’t believe.

If I possessed such acute decoding skills, I might have been able to understand Joaquin Phoenix’s Feb. 11 appearance on Late Show With David Letterman. During what had to be the most excruciatingly uncomfortable five minutes of television since Sarah Palin met Katie Couric, Phoenix — ostensibly there to promote his new movie Two Lovers and his new hip-hop, um, ”career” — came off as a cross between Bob Dylan in Don’t Look Back and Phil Spector at his murder trial. He was sullen, uncommunicative, fidgety, contemptuous, and concealed behind sunglasses and an itchy mask of facial hair thick enough to clog a sewer.

After clips of Phoenix hit the Internet, the debate immediately centered on one issue: Was it a hoax? Could he have possibly been serious? Was it some kind of bizarre performance piece? Was Letterman in on it? Was it part of a documentary being made by Casey Affleck, who is wasting his time following Phoenix around with a camera? Or were we watching another talented actor fall down a very deep rabbit hole? Is he an actual nutcase, or did he just play one on TV?

Ask Tim Roth — I have no idea. But when all of the questions people are asking about you include the words ”train wreck,” it’d be wise to let the next phase of your personal journey play out somewhere — anywhere — off screen. Because whether the camera lies or not, the evidence never goes away.