By Jeff Labrecque
May 20, 2009 at 11:45 PM EDT

Will Smith won’t costar opposite Tom Cruise. Harrison Ford never shared the screen with Tom Hanks. It’s the unspoken law of the Hollywood jungle: The alpha-males constantly circle each other, defending their own box office turf, while keeping a constant eye on (and distance from) the competition.

Which makes Christian Bale such a refreshing exception. Batman might work alone, but Bale has no qualms about sharing top-billing. Witness: The Prestige with Hugh Jackman. 3:10 to Yuma with Russell Crowe. The Dark Knight with Heath Ledger, of course. In Terminator Salvation, his John Connor takes a back seat to Sam Worthington’s character’s odyssey. And in July’s Public Enemies and 2010’s The Fighter, he’ll partner with Johnny Depp and Mark Wahlberg, respectively.

Despite what that infamous on-set audio recording may have led you to believe, Bale’s professional resume bears no trace of an ego. He seems to have a preternatural understanding that the most interesting and challenging characters aren’t necessarily the flashiest. When he played a Nazi who betrays his friends in Swing Kids, he admitted to a reporter that he was drawn to play the weaker character. He was only 19 at the time. I’m not arguing that Bale is some highbrow contrarian — HE’S BATMAN! — but he’s earned a quality few actors twice his age ever attain: integrity. Essentially, he’s Robert Duvall in Robert Redford’s body.

Bale is gradually building a remarkable body of work, but I’m discouraged that his roles in films like Rescue Dawn and 3:10 to Yuma have been neglected by most prestigious awards. Do you think his daringly modest career choices represent a long-term strength or weakness? Have they hurt his career in any way? Can you think of other actors who are so indifferent about the unspoken laws of Hollywood Leading Men?

More on Christian Bale:
Christian Bale Talks ‘Terminator Salvation’