Wednesday, October 22, 2014

In Character: Michael Keaton

If I was compelled to make a list of my favorite actors of all time, Michael Keaton would rank high among them. There’s something about him – an everyman quality, a subtle intensity, a pitch black sense of humor – that I’ve always loved. He’s had roles in all types of films, from the classic to the dreadful, and no matter the material, he consistently delivers notable performances. As he currently rides high from his towering work in Birdman, I thought it be fun to take a look back at the best roles of one of our finest actors.

Five Six Essential Roles
Night Shift (1982)
Bill “Blaze” Blazejowski
Keaton’s first prominent film role was as the hilarious morgue worker-turned-pimp,
Bill “Blaze” Blazejowski. Chuck Lumley (Henry Winkler) chooses to carry out his duties as a night shift worker at a New York City morgue in his typically solemn way. But his new colleague, Blaze, is here to have fun. He’s loud, goofy, and, as it turns out, a perfectly adept entrepreneur. Shortly after coming on at the morgue, Blaze has the idea to turn the morgue into a make-shift brothel. He runs the idea by the business savvy Chuck, and hilarity quickly ensues.

Blaze asserted Keaton as a comedic force, but upon rewatching the film for this post, I found myself oddly taken with Keaton’s quiet moments in the film. Blaze’s monologue about his father, for instance, is a signature scene of Keaton’s career. Blaze will always be known for his silliness, but there’s a lot more going on here than surface farce.

Mr. Mom (1983)
Jack Butler
After Jack gets laid off, he becomes a stay-at-home dad while his wife’s career in advertising flourishes. It’s a simple concept executed smartly in Mr. Mom. I appreciate this film for a number of reasons, Keaton’s hysterical turn, chiefly, but also because the movie has a lot of interesting things to say about the husband/wife and father/mother dynamic. This is a role reversal we’ve seen plenty of times on film – men “forced” to take the mother role, the wife role, the caretaker role. But seldom are those performances as accomplished as Keaton’s work here. Plus, rarely has Keaton’s comedic timing been so insanely on point.  

“Yeah, 220, 221. Whatever it takes.”

Need I say more?

Beetlejuice (1988)
Beetlejuice was one of my favorite movies as a kid; something I watched on repeat, constantly in awe of its macabre world. I was so transfixed by the character at the center of the film, a filthy and crude madman named Beetlejuice. It wasn’t until years later that I realized Beetlejuice isn’t even in the film that much. The movie is 92 minutes long, and the title character appears in less than 18 of them. Yet there’s no denying that the movie is Michael Keaton’s. He completely lost himself in this character – the animated mannerisms, the caked-on make-up and a voice that words can’t even describe. There is no end to the appreciation I have for Keaton’s work in this film.

Clean and Sober (1988)
Daryl Poynter
It’s kind of remarkable that Keaton delivered arguably his best comedy role and one of his great dramatic performances in the same year. Daryl is a successful businessman with a nasty dependency on cocaine. After he gets into trouble embezzling thousands from his company, and supplying blow to a woman who overdoses, Daryl decides to admit himself to a drug rehabilitation facility. He doesn’t enter treatment for help (his denial is still far too strong), but to simply lay low for a while. Eventually, Daryl gives in to the program, but he soon realizes that his problems are far from over.

Clean and Sober is one of my favorite films about addiction. It’s an honest portrayal of a dreadful disease; a film void of hyperbolic sentiment and manipulative turmoil. Keaton made Daryl exist. You may not like him, but you won’t exactly hate him. Either way, you won’t deny that the man feels real.

Batman (1989)
Bruce Wayne
While Christian Bale gets my vote as the best Batman, Michael Keaton will always be my favorite Bruce Wayne. He inhabited the persona of an aloof billionaire with such effortlessness. This is why my favorite scene in Tim Burton’s Batman has always been the initial interaction between Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) and Bruce Wayne. The moment occurs during a casino charity night Bruce his hosting at his mansion. Vicki walks off with her colleague, Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl), and they soon stumble on a large room with life-sized war uniforms on display. Vicki and Knox playfully mock the extravagance of the items, completely unaware that Bruce is standing right behind them. Bruce finally chimes in: “Oh, sorry, Bruce Wayne,” Keaton eases out with perfect confidence. I love the way Bruce gives Vicki his full, intense and undivided attention, laughing off Knox whenever he chimes in. And watch how Keaton so drastically changes his entire body language whenever a new butler walks into the room. It’s priceless.

This scene embodies who Bruce Wayne is. Sharp and witty, a little entitled, mostly uncomfortable. Of course, Keaton was superb when he donned the Batman suit as well, but there was a specificity to his work as Bruce Wayne that I’ve always been drawn to.

Jackie Brown (1997)/Out of Sight (1998)
Ray Nicolette
It may not seem like a big deal that Michael Keaton appears as the same character in both Jackie Brown and Out of Sight, but let me put it into context. Aside from both being based on books by Elmore Leonard, these films have nothing in common. They were developed by different people, helmed by different directors, financed and distributed by different studios/production companies, and are not a part of any franchise. It’s actually quite groundbreaking that Keaton even appeared in both films and, of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s damn good in them too.

It’s difficult to decide which Ray I like better: the hard-on cop who adjusts his package in interrogation rooms in Jackie Brown, or the kucklehead who shows up to his girlfriend’s house wearing an “FBI tee-shirt in Out of Sight. I suppose the edge has to go to Jackie Brown, only because Keaton is given more to do. But either way, I’m so thankful Miramax and Universal agreed to put egos aside and allow such a talented actor to break cinematic ground.

The Best of the Best
Birdman (2014)
Riggan Thomson
Riggan Thomson is the one. For my money, this is simply inarguable. When I sat in Birdman last week, watching and marveling at its technical proficiency, I kept hoping that Keaton wouldn’t stray. That he wouldn’t push too far, making Riggan a caricature, or hold too much back, making him obsolete. Through some means of miraculous transformation, Keaton manages to keep Riggan perfectly balanced. He’s an absurd man with wild delusions, but a continually compelling figure. I hadn’t the slightest clue where Riggan Thomson was taking me, but I couldn’t wait to discover more of his journey.

Birdman couldn’t have been an easy film to make. Alejandro González Iñárritu is a notoriously demanding director, and the film’s unique shooting style would’ve been deeply challenging to navigate through. Despite this, Keaton gave himself over to the material, and Iñárritu’s vision, and delivered a tour-de-force performance that will remain one of his crowning achievements. I’m hesitant to reveal more, as Birdman has not received a wide release yet, but when and if this film comes your way, my advice is that you see it immediately. It’s still a little early to call, but I can’t imagine another male actor turning out a better lead performance this year. Keaton’s still got it, and if Birdman is any indication, he certainly isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

Other Notable Roles
in The Other Guys
Johnny Dangerously (1984)
Gung Ho (1986)
Touch and Go (1986)
The Squeeze (1987)
The Dream Team (1989)
Pacific Heights (1990)
One Good Cop (1991)
Batman Returns (1992)
Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
My Life (1993)
The Paper (1994)
Speechless (1994)
Multiplicity (1996)
Inviting the Abbotts (1997)
Desperate Measures (1998)
Jack Frost (1998)
Live from Baghdad (2003)
First Daughter (2004)
White Noise (2005)
Game 6 (2005)
The Merry Gentleman (2008)
Toy Story 3 (2010)
The Other Guys (2010)
30 Rock (2011)
RoboCop (2014)
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  1. Great post!! I guess I never really thought about how little screen time he had in Beetlejuice, but you're right to say it's obviously his movie! Looking forward to Birdman! #KeatonComeback

    1. Thanks Courtney! It's crazy how little he's actually in Beetlejuice. Dude OWNS that flick. Really hoping he nabs his first Oscar nom this year.

  2. And just as I was getting ready to watch Beetlejuice for the first time! Fantastic. I don't think I've seen many of his films, but that's an error I'm glad to fix.

    1. Man, to go back and watch Beetlejuice for the first time... whatta film. A staple of my childhood. Enjoy!

  3. Michael Keaton is just... one of those guys where even if you put him in an awful movie like Jack Frost. He can't suck. There's something about him that is just extremely fucking cool. Whether it's in comedy or in drama.

    Beetlejuice is my favorite performance from him as it's also my favorite Tim Burton film. I can watch that film forever and never get tired of it. I think it was one of the first movies I saw where I heard the word "fuck" and I think myself and a few of my classmates in elementary school got in trouble for quoting that movie including that line... NICE FUCKIN' MODEL!!!

    I adore the hell out of him in Night Shift,Mr. Mom, Gung Ho, and Johnny Dangerously as they were those films I grew up watching. Even a film like Clean and Sobert is a film that showcases him at his best.

    I think credit should go to the late Marion Dougherty for having Michael Keaton play Batman. I agree with you that Christian Bale is the better Batman and Keaton is the better Bruce Wayne. If anyone was to tell you back in 1989 that Keaton was to play Batman, you wouldn't think it would work. In fact, he delivered and I also loved him in the sequel which was just as good.

    Of course, let's not forget The Other Guys which I think is the beginning of his renaissance where it's a small role but he truly stole the film from everyone. From the fact that he's a police captain also managing a Bed, Bath, and Beyond and unknowingly quotes TLC.

    This just has me excited for Birdman already.

    1. Love this comment. I remember that Beetlejuice was one of the first times I heard "fuck" in a movie as well. So funny, because we wouldn't hear that in a PG rated film today.

      I'm sure he seemed like a very odd choice for Batman at the time, but that is some goddamn perfect casting there. And holy shit, he's so damn funny in The Other Guys. The man can steal a flick like the best of them.

  4. I can't help but always think of Beetlejuice (or Batman) when I think of Michael Keaton. Although I didn't realize Beetlejuice appeared that little in the film. The film was released the year I was born, so I grew up watching it and loving it. I'll have to give it another spin and pay deeper attention now! :)

    1. Such a classic, I absolutely love Beetlejuice. Keaton is such a damn maniac in that film. I may have to give it a rewatch soon as well!

  5. Really glad to see some love for Night Shift. Great pick with that one. Sadly, I have never seen Beetlejuice. It's one of those I keep meaning to, but never do. I'll have to fix that. I have seen both Jackie Brown and Out of Sight, but it never dawned on me that he was playing the same character. Wow. Thanks for teaching me something, there. He certainly was tremendous as Bruce Wayne. I love the way you break down his initial meeting with Vicki Vale. I still need to see Birdman. Hopefully, soon.

    1. Nice man, always glad to shed light on something! Writing this post reminded me how much I like Night Shift. Keaton was so young and such a nut. Really hope Birdman makes it your way scene. He's remarkable in it.

  6. I'm not a huge Keaton fan, nor am I anti-Keaton. Of course, he was great in Batman, and I really love the ode to The Other Guys, as he was easily the best part of that film! The line about Bed Bath and Beyond and his son exploring his bisexuality was absolutely great!

    Birdman needs to hurry my way...

    1. Honestly, he was the only thing I liked about The Other Guys. He made the film worth it for me. What a riot. Hope you have a chance to see Birdman soon!

  7. Keaton is one of my personal favorites as well. Such an underrated actor. I used to watch every movie he released in the 80's and 90's. Great list and i agree with all of them. I would have probably put Multiplicity on the list over Mr. Mom though. Both are really funny and underrated movies, but i just love all the different characters he get's to play in Multiplicity.

    1. Nice man, so glad you like his work as well. I haven't seen Multiplicity in a long time, but I remember getting a little tired of gimmick. Still, I agree, it's always fun to watch Keaton play. I think it's on Netflix, so maybe I'll put it on some night soon.

    2. "She touched my Pepee Steve".

    3. Then the paddle ball in the mouth. Haha.

  8. I have never really been a fan of Keaton's, outside of his inspired Beetlejuice, but I cannot WAIT for Birdman, like at all. It looks ridiculously amazing, and Keaton looks stupendous. Great post, and now I want to explore the works of his I've missed or actively avoided.

    1. I dunno man, there's just something about him. He's easily one of my all-time favorites. And to see him deliver career-best work in Birdman is so gratifying. Hope you have a chance to scope it out soon.

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    1. haha thanks man! Love that damn honking scene. Beetlejuice is such a classic.

  10. I love Keaton in "The Other Guys" but he is great, also, in an episode of Frasier where he plays Lillith's brother; a con-artist from Frasier's past who, in the present, presents himself - from a wheelchair - as a changed man...

    1. You know, I've never seen an episode of Frasier. One of those iconic '90s sitcoms that I missed. But I would love to track down Keaton's episode.

  11. Woah. I forgot he appeared as Ray Nicolette in two films. Love that Batman and Beetlejuice made the cut as well. I still need to see Clean and Sober, and I can't wait to see his performance in Birdman.

    1. One of my all time favorite actors, this guy. What he does in Birdman is so epic.

  12. Haha, glad to see a mention for The Other Guys. Definitely the highlight of that film.

    1. Hell yeah, for sure. That Bed, Bath and Beyond bit is hysterical.

  13. Loved this post too! Keaton is so odd all on his own - he's great! Beetlejuice is his defining role for me - that and now Birdman. I also loved his role in The Other Guys just pure brilliance.

    1. He's soo good. Have you seen the outtakes from The Other Guys? It kills me everytime. Keaton's stuff starts at 11:53. So, so funny.