Although he has appeared in some hugely successful movies, Michael Keaton has perhaps never really achieved the acclaim he deserves. Born Michael Douglas in 1951, he began his career in showbusiness as a stand-up comedian, before getting his big break in television with a role in the seventies show “All’s Fair”. However, before he could join the actor’s union, Douglas had to change his name. As he explained in an interview years later with the British talk show host Michael Parkinson: “Yeah, I had to change my name because there were two other actors registered at Equity with that name. One of them is doing quite well from what I understand, the other is making cheap porn movies… like Basic Instinct.” So, since he was a fan of the actress Diane Keaton, Michael Douglas became Michael Keaton.
Throughout the late seventies and early eighties Keaton appeared in various TV shows, including the failed sitcom “Working Stiffs”, co-starring James Belushi. He made his big screen debut in the 1982 Ron Howard film “Night Shift”. Although he was second billed after Henry Winkler, Keaton was the breakout star of the film and he effortlessly stole every scene he was in as Bill Blazejowski.He followed it up with a starring role in the family comedy “Mr. Mom” (1983) which proved to be an even bigger success. However, his next film, the gangster spoof “Johnny Dangerously” (1984) wasn’t a hit, although it has attained a minor cult following over the years.The mid-eighties were not kind to Keaton, as he appeared in a series of financial and critical misfires. The Ron Howard film “Gung Ho” (1986) did ok, at least financially, but “Touch and Go” (1986) and “The Squeeze” (1987) are both best forgotten. Ironically, just when it seemed his fame was waning, along came a bizarre little film that no one expected to be a hit which finally made Keaton a blockbuster star.
“Beetlejuice” (1988) was the second feature film by Tim Burton following “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” and marked the beginning of a fruitful partnership between the director and Keaton. However, he was apparently not the first choice for the role of the crazed, bio-exorcist Betelgeuse (to use the correct spelling). Burton seriously considered casting Sammy Davis Jr. in the role, until the studio vetoed it. Keaton came in and improvised much of his role, changing the tone of the film from a morbid ghost story to a surreal comedy. Although Winona Ryder as Lydia and Burton both made their names with the film, Keaton was the undeniable star with a comic tour de force that was equal parts scary, disgusting and hilarious. The impact of his role (which led to a cartoon series) was all the more remarkable considering he was only on set for two weeks during the production and his total screen time in the film was less than 20 minutes. The runaway success of the film led to almost immediate talk of a sequel, but it never materialised.
The same year Keaton appeared in a very different role in the drug rehab drama “Clean and Sober”. His powerful performance won rave reviews, even though few people saw the film. The National Society of Film Critics awarded Keaton best actor for his work in both “Clean and Sober” and “Beetlejuice”. His next role, in “The Dream Team” (1989), saw Keaton back on more familiar territory in a comedic film about four escaped mental patients.
1989 was also the year of the Bat, as Keaton assumed the role of one the most famous comic book heroes in history. He re-teamed with Burton for a role that couldn’t have been more different from Betelgeuse, in the event movie “Batman”. The film had been rumoured to start production at various times over the previous ten years, ever since the success of “Superman” in 1978. However, when it was finally greenlit by Warner Bros. and given to Burton to direct, no one expected his choice of actor to play the lead role would be so controversial. When it was announced that Keaton would be playing the Dark Knight, many comic books fans were outraged at the thought of the slightly built, comedic actor in the role. Fearing a return to the campy Adam West TV show, they sent thousands of letters of protest to Warner Bros. Fortunately, Burton and the producers stuck with their unconventional choice. The choice of Jack Nicholson to play The Joker met with far more acceptance – in fact, it was almost too perfect.
In an attempt to deflect some of the criticisms from comic book purists, Warner Bros. released an early trailer showcasing the film’s dark, gothic look and Keaton’s moody performance in an intimidating armoured suit. The trailer managed to please most, if not all, of the die-hard Bat fans. By the time the film was released the hype had reached deafening levels. The film broke opening weekend box office records and went on to become the most successful film in Warner Bros. history, at least until The Matrix and Harry Potter franchises appeared. The merchandising blitz around the film generated even more millions. Amidst all the hype, the film itself was seen as almost an afterthought by some. It generally received favourable reviews, especially for Nicholson’s flamboyant performance, but Keaton’s work was somewhat overlooked. This is a shame, as his dual performance as Batman and Bruce Wayne is arguably the most subtle and nuanced acting seen in a comic book movie. However, despite being overshadowed by Nicholson in some people’s eyes, Keaton still proved that he had what it took to play the Dark Knight, so his participation in a sequel was never in doubt.
However, before a sequel appeared Keaton took on roles in two smaller films – “Pacific Heights” (1990) and “One Good Cop” (1991). The former was Keaton’s first outright villainous role and he gave a powerful performance as a psychotic tenant who makes life hell for his landlord couple. “One Good Cop”, on the other hand, saw Keaton back in a heroic role, but the film was mostly ignored by audiences.
“Batman Returns” (1992) was one of the most eagerly awaited sequels ever, and it was almost certain to disappoint some of its audience. Keaton and Burton were back on board, and the director was given far more freedom to create his personal vision of the Caped Crusader. It could be argued that Keaton had an even smaller role in this film, as there were three villains fighting for screen time. However, the film quite cleverly used the villains (The Penguin, Catwoman and businessman Max Shreck) to explore different aspects of Bruce Wayne’s psyche. Keaton also managed to add more humour to his role, while still maintaining the Dark Knight’s mystique. His relationship with Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) also had far more spark than his romance with Vicki Vale in the first movie. This was helped by the fact that Keaton and Pfeiffer had actually dated some years previously.
The film broke opening weekend records on its release, but was not as successful in the long term as the first film. Many blamed the film’s dark, twisted tone for turning off the family audience. However, despite the backlash, Keaton still received mostly praise for his performance, and many expected him to return to the role a third time, with or without Burton.
Keaton’s next role couldn’t have been more different, as he appeared in the Shakespeare comedy “Much Ado About Nothing” (1993). Kenneth Branagh cast him in the small but amusing role of Constable Dogberry, and Keaton ran with it. The same year Keaton appeared in the sentimental drama “My Life”. Critics and audiences weren’t very kind to the film, but Keaton gave a good performance as a terminally ill husband and father.
The next year he appeared in Ron Howard’s “The Paper”. Keaton led an all star cast in a film about a day in the life of a newspaper office that deftly mixed comedy and drama. The film was a modest success. “Speechless” (1994) saw Keaton appear again alongside his “Beetlejuice” co-star Geena Davis in a comedy about political speechwriters for opposing candidates who fall in love.
1995 was most notable for a film that Keaton did not appear in. He was offered the chance to return to the role of the Dark Knight (along with a hefty paycheck) in Joel Schumacher’s “Batman Forever”. Perhaps sensing that he would once again be fighting for screentime with big name villains, and without the artistic vision of the first two films to make up for it, Keaton wisely turned the film down. This allowed the producers to cast a younger, “sexier” actor in the role, Val Kilmer. The film turned out to be marginally more successful than it’s predecessor at the box office, but was arguably a failure in every other department. Kilmer in particularly did not compare favourably with Keaton in the role – his Batman was too light and his Bruce Wayne too dark. However, it still seemed for or a while that the Batman franchise would carry on successfully without the original dream team of Keaton, Burton and composer Danny Elfman. That was until the massive failure of “Batman & Robin” (which was as different from Burton’s films as neon is from gothic) put the final nail in the coffin.
Meanwhile, “Multiplicity” (1996) saw Keaton star in a sci-fi comedy from “Groundhog Day” director Harold Ramis. While it didn’t repeat the success of that Bill Murray film, Keaton gave a highly entertaining performance as a man who clones himself several times, managing to portray each clone as a separate personality.
In 1997 Keaton appeared among the talented ensemble cast of “Jackie Brown”, the eagerly awaited third film from Quentin Tarantino. His part as ATF agent Ray Nicolette was more of a supporting role than most of his other films, but Keaton was amusing in a low-key manner.
Proving again that he was one of the few leading men who could switch between heroic and villainous roles with ease, Keaton returned to the dark side in “Desperate Measures” (1998). The film was a routine thriller, but Keaton was charismatic and menacing in the role of a psychotic killer needed alive by a cop for a lifesaving operation for his son. The same year Keaton had a brief, uncredited role in “Out of Sight”, again playing Ray Nicolette. Although it was also based on a novel by Elmore Leonard, it wasn’t a direct sequel to “Jackie Brown”, which made it a rare example of the same actor playing the same role in two films that weren’t part of the same franchise.
Finally that year, Keaton starred in the fantastical family comedy “Jack Frost” about a man who is reincarnated as a snowman. The film was not a success, and perhaps led to Keaton appearing less and less frequently on screens in recent years. However, he did join the long list of Burton actors who have done voices on “The Simpsons”, by guest starring in the 2001 episode “Pokey Mom” as an artistic prisoner.
His only other role of note since then was in the critically acclaimed TV movie “Live From Baghdad” (2002). Keaton and another Burton regular, Helena Bonham Carter, were both nominated for Golden Globe Awards for their powerful performances in this film, which took place during the first Gulf War.
His next role is in the upcoming “First Daughter” (2004) where he plays the president of the United States. While it’s doubtful Keaton will ever star in anything as high profile as the Batman films again, it would be a shame if this extremely versatile actor fades from our screens.
Arran McDermott 2003