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The Essentials: The 10 Best Michael Keaton Performances

The Essentials: The 10 Best Michael Keaton Performances

The oddly arched eyebrows. The slightly wolfish grin. The constant undercurrent of manic, twitchy volatility. It may not have been until his unavoidably, undeniably brilliant turn in “Birdman” (read our review here) that we really thought too much about trying to define what we so love about Michael Keaton, but now that it’s happened, we realize that whatever it is, it is exactly what we’ve been missing for the past few years.

Contrary to how it might feel, Keaton’s comeback has been in the works for a little while now. In fact, he makes a fascinating case study for the nature of the Hollywood career renaissance, owning that narrative this year kind of the way Matthew McConaughey did in 2013. What makes one actor, especially one getting on a bit (Keaton turned 63 in September), a fit subject for rediscovery and reestablishment in the Hollywood firmament, while others languish in bit parts and crusty old dean roles for the remainder of their working lives? Why does the fickle finger of fame swing back to point so definitively at one guy (almost always a guy, mind you) and not another? How do you get the timing right so that you’re not so off the radar that no one remembers you, and yet not so familiar that viewers don’t experience a kind of swoon of joy at your return, like an old friend who’s been away a while and must have some pretty great stories to tell us?

One of the reasons Keaton’s revitalization is so welcome, is that we never quite had our fill. He always had an air of holding something in reserve, even in his zaniest early-career highs. There was a sense that there was more to come here, a kind of ellipsis hanging off the end of every film. But until recently, that promise seemed to have fizzled out. You thought of Keaton (when you thought of him at all) and associated him with his famous ‘80s and ’90s roles, rather than immediately linking him to anything more recent. He was brought up as a compare-and-contrast Batman to Christian Bale’s grittier, broodier, Nolan-ier take, and every now and then might be buoyed up by a temporary burst of nostalgia following a late-night TV screening of “Beetlejuice” or “Gung Ho.” Certainly during his wilderness period in the early-to-mid ’00s (family films “Herbie: Fully Loaded” and “First Daughter,” lame horror “White Noise,” and the even lamer thriller “Quicksand” being among the more ignominious of his titles from that time) it felt like he had gone off the boil, out of style somehow. The vehicles he landed did not capitalize on his inherent weirdness, and he seemed to be content to take them on as paycheck gigs.

But following a solid but sadly underseen directorial debut with 2009’s “The Merry Gentleman,” things started to pick up. Already a Pixar alum from “Cars,” he voiced Ken in the smash hit “Toy Story 3,” and gave a brilliantly funny turn in 2010’s “The Other Guys” before netting a few more paycheck gigs, including a substantial supporting role in the much-better-than-it-has-any-right-to-be “Robocop” remake. All of this can now be seen as the extended throat clearing before “Birdman,” and the rest is history. Or at least it will be in a few years time and we look back on this period againas much as we know it’s dangerous to predict any sure thing in the notoriously fickle world of Hollywood, we’re going to go out on a limb and state firmly that we believe that, while that role may be the culmination of all Keaton’s untapped potential to date, it’s only the beginning. Certainly, having only just got him back again, we’re not going to let him go in a hurry.

And the future augurs well. The next firmed up role for Keaton is in Playlist favorite Thomas McCarthy’s Catholic Church sex abuse scandal drama “Spotlight,” which has all sorts of Oscar potential. To get you in the mood for “Birdman,” which you simply must see, we’ve assembled, in no particular order, ten of Michael Keaton’s best roles (and it wasn’t easy to stop at ten). We recommend going to see Iñárritu’s movie then checking out some of these againwe’ve just spent the last few days doing that and it’s been a blast.

Night Shift” (1982)
Keaton took a string of terrific comedy roles in the early ’80s, starting with this one, the sophomore feature from Ron Howard, starring his “Happy Days” co-star Henry Winkler alongside Keaton and a luminous Shelley Long. The film, which details a scheme hatched by a pair of morgue attendants to run hookers out of their place of work may seem in dubious taste, but it’s terribly sweet-natured underneath it all, and derives its heart from the touching friendship that develops between Keaton’s motormouth, braggadocio-spouting, ADD-type and Winkler’s meek, mild-mannered morgue clerk (and Winkler really is very good, for anyone who only knows him as The Fonz). It was an early marker for the type of role that Keaton would make his own over the next decadea little manic, a little unpredictable, though here he perhaps plays a little dumber than usual, if no less intense. It was a breakout of sorts for Howard (the script was by his future longtime collaborators Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, who also worked on “Happy Days,” and who would write the Keaton-starring “Multiplicity”), as well as Keaton, in only his second feature role. His first? A supporting part in Billy Crystal’s debut movie “Rabbit Test,” about the world’s first pregnant man, directed by Joan Rivers, currently sitting at a 2.9 IMDB rating and we cannot believe we haven’t watched it yet.

Batman” (1989) / ”Batman Returns” (1992)
A strong streak of contrarianism had us wanting to leave out Keaton’s turn as The Dark Knight in Tim Burton’s two films in favor of performances we cherish more and couldn’t find room for, like “Gung Ho” or “The Paper.” But sober heads prevailed, because as much as we may not be feeling Keaton’s Bruce Wayne as much as some other of his performances, it is one of the most essential roles for understanding his later career, and, possibly, for admiring him that much more. Having worked with Burton already on the terrific “Beetlejuice,” Keaton reportedly wasn’t surprised at being offered “Batman,” because he’d originally assumed it would be of a mood with the campy Adam West version, not the darker, less comedic take Burton imagined (how ironic that assessment seems in this post-“Dark Knight” world). In fact, his role here is one of the less overtly comedic of his career, and he feels somewhat squished into it and tamped down, in our humble opinion. Still, together the films made a gazillion dollars and largely defined the blockbuster market of the early ’90s, so there’s that. What’s more interesting is how he left the franchise, bowing out when Burton was dropped from the third film, and showing unerring taste by refusing a massive paycheck to return for Joel Schumacher’s “Batman Forever.” Not only that, but Keaton subsequently stayed away from blockbuster films, preferring to take smaller roles in ensembles like “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Jackie Brown,” or leads in comedies and light dramas like “My Life,” “Multiplicity,” and “Speechless.” Which means his profile may have slipped a bit, but his output remained diverse.

The Merry Gentleman” (2009)
Taking over the reins when original director (and the film’s writer) Ron Lazzeretti fell ill before filming began, Keaton’s directorial debut is a slow-paced, elegiac relationship thriller about a broken-down hitman (Keaton) forming a tentative friendship with a woman fleeing an abusive marriage (Kelly MacDonald). It’s very impressive in its intelligence and restraint, so it’s a shame that only about seven people ever actually saw it. Pulling off the notoriously difficult trick of directing himself his first time at bat, Keaton’s performance, as well as MacDonald’s, is a lovely, minor-key turn that could have been the polar opposite of the mania of some of his earlier roles, were it not for the fact that he needs that edge of potentially violent unpredictability to sell the closed-off character as well as he does. Luxuriously photographed by Chris Seager, and beautifully played all round, the film is an unassuming, but totally absorbing little fable, and certainly for us, it was the performance of Keaton’s that marked the beginning of his voyage back from “First Daughter” hell. Though “Postgrad” followed, so maybe he hadn’t quite finished atoning for those past life sins just yet.

The Dream Team” (1989)

A fun and surprisingly uncondescending mental illness comedy, “The Dream Team” is probably director Howard Zieff’s finest hour, depending on how passionately you advocate for “My Girl” or “Private Benjamin.” And it gives Keaton a classically Keaton role, the fundamentally good guy trapped by his own manic instincts. Here his uncontrollably violent outbursts have lost him his girl (Lorraine Bracco) and landed him in a mental institution. However a pioneering doctor brings his therapy group of four mismatched, variously afflicted patients on a field trip, gets conveniently knocked unconscious, and the guys have to put their differences and their psychoses aside to rescue him and to evade capture by the police. It’s the type of convoluted caper that could quickly become wearing were it not for the freshness of the playing and the chemistry (especially between Christopher Lloyd and Keaton) and Keaton has, in many ways, the hardest role. At all times he is supposed to be the most volatile and potentially dangerous of the bunch, yet he’s also the straight man, the leader/planner, and the one least prone to delusions. But he negotiates it well, bringing both pathos and that hair-trigger changeability that makes him so eternally watchable and surprising as an actor.

Jackie Brown” (1997) / “Out of Sight” (1998)

Keaton plays Ray Nicolette in both these films, and while both are of very different sensibilities (Quentin Tarantino vs. Steven Soderbergh ), somehow the little nod of consanguinity between the two Elmore Leonard adaptations works well. And that’s possibly because it’s specifically Keaton in the role (and also admittedly his part in “Out of Sight” is only cameo-level), and his twitchy take on Nicolette suits the smooth sax-blast of Soderbergh’s film almost as well as it does the janglier, showier Tarantino picture. Laudably, Tarantino insisted that Miramax not charge Universal for the character rights to allow him to appear in “Out of Sight,” thus allowing this rare example of universe-building across the work of two different auteur filmmakers. For his part, Keaton seems to have a great time in the role, making it his own particularly in the more substantial screen time of “Jackie Brown,” where he again gets to play tic-ish, unpredictable, and yet fundamentally decent, on the side of good if not exactly the law he nominally serves. Which means that in scenes like the one below, Keaton plays the character as both bad cop and good cop simultaneously (and is still matched beat for beat by Pam Grier).

Pacific Heights” (1990)

So yes, a lot of this list is fuelled by nostalgia, and we’re prepared to attract some ire over the inclusion of this disposable John Schlesinger pic over some other dearly-held titles (“Gung Ho“). Then again, what’s the point of doing this job if we can’t occasionally unilaterally impose our will on lists like this? It’s perhaps the whitest movie ever made, a thriller dealing with every middle-class yuppie’s worst nightmare: a lousy tenant for their exquisite 19th century San Francisco home. But dammit, we have a great deal of residual affection for “Pacific Heights,” and wanted to feature, in among the comedies, the other thing that Michael Keaton’s wired presence has always made him good for: psycho roles. If Keaton is characterized by a kind of split personality whereby incipient violence, even insanity is what fuels his humor, then the flip side of that is when he’s asked to go full psycho, he’s got a lot of gas in the tank. And full psycho he duly goes here, playing a sociopathic con man who ends up living in Melanie Griffith and Matthew Modine’s (told you it was white) house and turning their dream home into a hellish nightmare, before Griffiths’ character tracks him down and exacts revenge. As off-the-leash as he goes here, Keaton, while not restrained exactly, certainly understands how to hold back some of his mania to increase the menace. And nobody sits in front of a staticky TV playing with cockroaches and razorblades like Keaton. Nobody.


Johnny Dangerously” (1984)

It wasn’t so long ago that we rediscovered this vastly undersung Amy Heckerling film for another feature on sophomore movies, but we’re happy to get the opportunity to talk it up again. A knockabout send-up starring Keaton as a hapless good guy turned accidental gangster, it’s right up there with the best of Mel Brooks for an affectionate period spoof, and even features what is surely the best turn by ’80s nearly-man Joe Piscopo as a lunkish, suspicious henchman with daddy issues (who can park in the disabled spot because “I am disabled. I’m psychotic”). The gags come thick and fast (especially from an amazing Maureen Stapleton as Johnny’s mammy) and Keaton mines every one. While many miss, a higher proportion land directly on target. It’s also the first time we really saw him play a kind of romantic lead, albeit comedicallyhere he woos Marilu Henner’s showgirl, wins the day, teaches a valuable moral lesson to a young urchin who may have been considering a life of crime, and does it all with twinkly charm and note-perfect comic reactions. And yes, he knows his “surname is an adverb.” If there’s one unjustly buried gem in all of Keaton’s back catalogue (and there isn’t just one, there are many) “Johnny Dangerously” is possibly the one most worth digging around to find.


The Other Guys” (2010)
The Merry Gentleman” being such an atypically downbeat, melancholic role for Keaton, the first time we really remember thinking “Hey, Michael Keaton, where ya been?” was when he blindsided us with this glorious turn in Adam McKay’s underrated Will Ferrell/Mark Wahlberg cop comedy. The film may have gifted us the “Tuna vs Lion” bit as its most famous sketch, but its best and most original character has to be Keaton’s TLC-quoting police captain, who moonlights at a second job at Bed, Bath, and Beyond. Already just a hilarious one-line high concept (Keaton himself remarked that if that gag was the only one he got to play, he’d still have signed on) it’s the kind of wonky humanity he brings to the role that makes it even more ludicrously enjoyable. Of course, Keaton started off in stand-up before getting his early TV roles, and if there’s one thing he innately knows in all of his best roles, up to and including “Birdman,” it’s the lyrics to every single TLC hit. Oh shit, no, waittiming. I meant timing.

Mr Mom” (1983)

So yes, we did wonder how much our affection for this sitcom-premised, John Hughes-scripted, early Keaton movie could withstand a viewing by 2014 eyes, and how much its gender politics would stick in our craw. But happily, it’s surprisingly breezy even now, and the conclusion, which see’s Keaton onscreen wife Teri Garr suggest a part-time week to the employer begging her to come back, may not be exactly progressive, but certainly doesn’t hint that she should be ditching her career altogether. In fact, Keaton’s considerable off-kilter charm gives what’s a pretty bland premise (husband gets fired, wife goes back to work, hubby must learn how to do housework and look after the kids) some memorable moments, like his reaction when dragged to a male stripper show by his newfound circle of housewife friends (they play poker for coupons), or the slobbish phase he goes through where he uses the iron to toast his kid’s sandwich and gets addicted to daytime soaps. A prime example of Keaton’s charisma (and Garr’s too) carrying a notionally bland comedy across the threshold that elevates it from inoffensive to actively likable.

Beetlejuice” (1988)
There’s a terrific story that Keaton told on Letterman about having met, during the filming of the Times Square scene in “Birdman,” a guy with an amazingly detailed tattoo of the character Beetlejuice on his arm. The kicker is that while Keaton spent a while admiring the body art, the guy had no idea who he was… he didn’t recognise him from his own arm. But it’s telling too, because Keaton’s most iconic role (and also, until recently anyway, reportedly his favorite) is also the one in which he’s least recognizable, buried under thick pancake makeup and half the time played by stop-motion creatures straight from Tim Burton’s brain back when Tim Burton’s brain contained charmingly ghoulish stop-motion creatures and not dead-eyed CG thingummies for Johnny Depp to gurn at. It also may be his most definingly physical role, with Keaton playing the titular bio-exorcist as though he’s an animated puppet, even when he’s not. As disgusting and way OTT as the character is, Keaton gets to invest him with all manner of light and dark, from morally ambivalent trickster to downright malevolent demon, and occasionally even forlorn and pitiful outsider. It’s a terrific role in a film that, while creaky to look at now, still has more wit and invention in its cronky practical effects than about 85% of the slick fantasies we’d been served up afterwards.

So many Keaton movies, so little time. The first and most egregious of our exclusions is probably Kenneth Branagh‘s “Much Ado About Nothing,” in which Keaton’s Dogberry is kind of unforgettable. But it’s also kind of incomprehensible, and to our minds Keaton’s performance is so jittery and over the top that we actually can’t hear the Shakespearean gags all that well (sacrilegiously, perhaps, we’ll take Nathan Fillion‘s Dogberry in Joss Whedon‘s version any day). “Gung Ho” has some very vocal support in the Playlist ranks, as you may have noted from frequent references to it mae above, while “Clean and Sober,” an early dramatic role for Keaton, also deserves a mention. The schmaltzy “My Life” is a little too treacly for our liking, but again, Keaton’s presence makes it almost bearable, while “Multiplicity” also had some votes, mainly from the “if you love Keaton, you gotta love 4 Keatons” school of thought. We should also shout out TV movie “Live from Baghdad” which is, until next February at least (fingers crossed) the only performance for which Keaton was ever nominated for a major awardhe got a Golden Globe nod for his serious role as a CNN reporter caught up in the ethics of reporting on the Gulf War. We’re sure you have your favorites that we’ve missed out on too, feel free to shout them out in the comments.

And because we’ve had such a good time revisiting many of these films, here a few bonus fun facts that you used to know about Michael Keaton but had forgotten:

  • He was originally cast as Jack in “Lost” but bowed out when the character was expanded to being a series regular. The role went to Matthew Fox instead.
  • He dated Courtney Cox from 1989 to 1995.
  • His real name is Michael Douglas. (He reportedly chose Keaton as a tip of the hat to Buster). Which makes him one of the only famous actors we can think of whose real name is also that of a famous actor other than Stewart Granger whose birth name was James Stewart.

Thanks for reading. Now go see “Birdman.”

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