Michael Keaton is an actor for whom I have the utmost respect and admiration. After all, this is the man who brought the first truly believable cinematic iteration of the Dark Knight to life in 1989’s Batman; a moment in time I’ll surely never forget. Tim Burton’s film was a cultural phenomenon, helping thrust comic book movies squarely into mainstream consciousness, whilst simultaneously cementing the character’s place as a popular culture icon.
Although probably best known for his role in Batman, Keaton’s performing career began on stage with a brief stint as a stand-up comedian. This early endeavour was ultimately unsuccessful, but it would furnish the young actor (then known by his birth name Michael Douglas) with the tools he would use to cultivate the humorous, sometimes frighteningly intense on-screen persona he has since become known for.
Aside from a noteworthy cameo in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, Keaton spent almost two decades out of the limelight before his career was reinvigorated in 2014, with appearances in the Robocop remake and video game adaptation Need for Speed. His impressive upward trajectory continued with an acclaimed performance in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman (for which he received an Oscar nomination), in addition to starring roles in Spotlight, The Founder, and Spider-Man: Homecoming. Quite simply, Keaton has re-established himself as a credible box office draw; a point exemplified by the excitement surrounding his proposed return to the cape and cowl in Andy Muschetti’s Flash movie, and the rumoured Batman Beyond series.
2022 is still some way off, though, so I decided to dig through the archives for some of my favourite Michael Keaton performances. Although some films on this list might not be considered classics, for me, they represent roles that not only helped shape the actor’s career, but serve to highlight the undoubted breadth of his acting talent.
Night Shift (1982)
Night Shift centres on weak-willed former stockbroker Chuck Lumley, whose life is turned upside down when he’s forced to take the undesirable graveyard shift at the morgue. Chuck’s desire for an easy life is complicated further when he’s saddled with a new co-worker; a highly strung wannabe entrepreneur named Bill Blazejowski. Against his better judgement, Chuck is persuaded to utilise his business acumen and help a group of prostitutes make the most from their earnings, while the morgue becomes their base of operations.
This screw-ball comedy from director Ron Howard was Keaton’s breakthrough role, marking the beginning of a relationship that would spawn four more films. This is the actor at his most raw and energetic; perhaps not surprising given the film represents his first tentative steps in Hollywood. Bill Blazejowski is a vexatious walking, talking stream of consciousness living life at the speed of thought, but Keaton imbues him with a sense of pathos, fun, and an innate likeability.
Hunt Stevenson carries the hopes and dreams of an entire town on his shoulders as he makes his way to Tokyo, Japan. His job is to persuade the executives of Assan Motors to locate their new American operation in his hometown of Hadleyville. Negotiations go well, but tensions soon arise as two ostensibly disparate cultures clash head-on. The Japanese workers value the company above all else, in stark contrast to the American worker’s pursuit of a comfortable work/life balance. It is up to Hunt and his opposite number Kazihiro to overcome their cultural and philosophical differences before the head of Assan pulls the plug.
Ron Howard and Michael Keaton collaborate once again for this ‘clash of cultures’ comedy, which sadly hasn’t aged particularly well in respect to its use of outdated Asian stereotypes. Keaton, though, is once more the stand-out performer, striking a fine balance of comedy and melodrama as charismatic everyman Hunt Stevenson. The character is likeable and charismatic, exuding an earnest authenticity and infectious energy, which at this point in Keaton’s career, is steadily becoming a trademark peculiarity of his characters.
Whilst renovating their beautiful New England farmhouse, Barbara and Adam Maitland are tragically killed when their car plunges into the local river. The couple soon come to realise they’ve actually passed into the afterlife, and are trapped in a state of limbo within the confines of their home. To make matters worse, a wealthy big city family have moved in, and begin transforming the couple’s dream home into a live-in modern art installation. The Maitland’s attempts to frighten the intruders away prove unsuccessful, so they turn to a ‘bio-exorcist’ named Betelgeuse for help.
By turning the dial all the way to ‘psycho mode’, Keaton created one of the most memorable and iconic characters of ’80s cinema, in this wonderfully outlandish Gothic fantasy from director Tim Burton. Betelgeuse is an obnoxious, wild-eyed lunatic and Keaton sustains an unrelenting level of energy throughout the film. His gleefully acerbic delivery is bolstered by an almost rabid physicality, and it’s clear the actor drew heavily on his stand-up comedy background for this film, perhaps more so than in any role previous.
Gotham City’s criminals are running scared, and the underworld is rife with whispers of a supernatural vigilante. Journalist Alexander Knox struggles to convince his peers of the mysterious ‘Bat-Man’s existence, but finds an unlikely ally in the shape of photojournalist, Vicki Vale, who seeks to capture the notorious “Bat-Creature” on camera. Meanwhile, the Mayor’s office seeks assurance from D.A. Harvey Dent that the city’s 200th Anniversary celebrations will go ahead as planned. Unfortunately, criminality in Gotham has a new and terrifying face; one bearing a twisted rictus grin.
Keaton’s second collaboration with Tim Burton saw him don the famous cape and cowl amid howls of derision from many fans. Several concerns were raised at his casting; most notably regarding his background as an actor who’d played primarily comedic roles, but also in respect to his physicality, and even his hairline. Burton staunchly defended the casting, and Keaton went on to prove his doubters wrong in a career-defining performance, making him a household name in the process. The character’s duality is a key component for any actor to grasp, an aspect Keaton innately understood, and throughout he is able to effortlessly shift from a convincing and threatening Batman, to a witty, charming, and haunted Bruce Wayne. It’s an iconic performance that still resonates with fans to this day, and for many, he remains the definitive on-screen Batman.
Pacific Heights (1990)
Newly-weds Drake and Patty are finally able to purchase their dream home in the sought-after district of Pacific Heights, and with renovation costs to consider, the couple sublet apartments to make ends meet. One of their new tenants, however, is dangerous and sadistic grifter, who begins an orchestrated campaign of anti-social incidents, intimidation, and violence, forcing the young couple to take the law into their own hands.
This tense home invasion thriller from John Schlesinger features solid, nuanced performances by stars Matthew Modine and Melanie Griffiths, but it’s Keaton’s magnetic performance as manipulative, high-functioning sociopath Carter Hayes that steals the show. Similar to his work in Batman, this performance once again highlights the actor’s ability to comfortably house opposing personae within one character, and it was interesting to see him finally take on a purely villainous role. Carter Hayes’ artfully crafted façade is a seductive mix of charm and cultured sophistication, barely concealing the violent, avaricious predator lurking beneath the surface.
Desperate Measures (1998)
Officer Frank Conner’s son suffers from a rare medical condition, requiring a bone morrow transplant if he is to survive. Left with no other option, Conner hacks into the FBI database to find a suitable match. The only viable candidate is a violent psychopath on death row, named Peter McCabe, who reluctantly agrees to undergo the procedure. McCabe’s motives soon become clear, however, using the hospital visit as an opportunity to escape, and forcing Connor to choose between his duty as a police officer, and protecting his son’s potential saviour.
Although hamstrung by a nonsensical and hyperbolic plot, Desperate Measures is a reasonably enjoyable ‘cat-and-mouse’ thriller from director Barbet Schroeder. Sandwiched between two relative heavyweights of the time in Andy Garcia and Brian Cox, Keaton’s portrayal of mass-murdering psychopath Peter McCabe is the film’s saving grace. His tenure as Batman was blighted by complaints over his lack of muscle mass, but here he shows what might have been by adding a welcome physical dimension to his character. He combines the physicality with a convincing southern accent and a steely thousand-yard stare to cultivate a plausible, Lecter-esque performance that’s certainly worth checking out, if only for Keaton’s work alone.
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