The Good, the Bad & the Badass: Michael Keaton
Last week, we took a look at the career of Nicolas Cage, one of the most prolific actors in Hollywood, who's starred in at least one movie a year for the last twenty years. This week's actor is kind of his opposite, in that after achieving massive success, he consciously stepped away from the limelight, only to reemerge this year for what might prove to be a highly intriguing comeback.
This week, we were all excited to see the trailer for BIRDMAN. The timing couldn't have been better. This week marks the 25th anniversary of Tim Burton's BATMAN, and many of us have been wondering what star Michael Keaton has been up to. Now, he hasn't really been MIA. He's shown up here and there, most notably in a funny part in THE OTHER GUYS, the recent ROBOCOP reboot, and a voice part in TOY STORY 3 (as Ken of “Ken & Barbie”). But considering how big he was throughout the eighties and most of the nineties, he's been pretty low key.
If you've read interviews with Keaton, you'll know this is mostly by choice. You can't blame the guy. He made a fortune as Batman, didn't like the parts he was being offered, so he just took off and did his own thing, coming back here and there (one of his best post-nineties roles was the HBO telefilm LIVE FROM BAGHDAD). With BIRDMAN, Keaton's back in a tailor-made lead, with him playing a former movie star trying to re-ignite his career after years of typecasting after having played a famous superhero. Sound familiar?
Even before he was Batman, Keaton was a star, albeit mostly known for his wise-ass persona in comedies. Ron Howard's NIGHT SHIFT made his career, and he played variations on that smart-ass part throughout the decade in movies like GUNG HO, MR. MOM, THE DREAM TEAM (a childhood favourite of mine) and BEETLEJUICE before radically shifting gears by signing on to play the caped crusader.
When Keaton signed on to play Batman, fans were up-in-arms, thinking this meant the film would be another Adam West-style camp comedy. Warner Bros had to release a teaser trailer early just to prove they were taking the material seriously, and from the time they showed Keaton growling, “I'm Batman”, people shut-up. Keaton is bloody brilliant in the part. Compared to today's superheroes, Keaton is extremely down-to-earth. He plays Bruce Wayne with a borderline personality disorder. He's totally ill-at-ease with his (ultra-sexy) love interest, Kim Basinger (as Vicki Vale), and far from the studly superman played by Christian Bale in the Christopher Nolan trilogy. I'm not saying one performance is better than the other, but they're radically different, and Keaton is super-underrated. That said, I feel he's much better as Batman in the first film as opposed to BATMAN RETURNS. To me it feels like no one but Michelle Pfeiffer (and possibly Danny DeVito) was really bringing their A-game to RETURNS, from Burton down through Keaton. Still, the first BATMAN – terrific.
What's weird is how Keaton was never really able to go back to comedy after BATMAN. He tried a few times, most notably with the late Harold Ramis' MULTIPLICITY, but the moment had passed. Playing multiple roles (clones) it's a bit of a dated performance, with him playing one clone as borderline retarded, another as cartoonishly fey, and so on. It didn't really work in 1996, and it doesn't really work now.
Before playing BATMAN, Keaton tried to shift gears by starring as a hardcore cocaine-addict in CLEAN & SOBER. Now a fairly obscure film, this is really a brilliant performance. Keaton perfectly captures that whole coke-fueled “eighties-yuppie-entitlement” thing and isn't afraid to play his character as a selfish, often unlikable jerk. That probably doomed this to die a quick death at the box office, but one can't help but feel his acting in this has been criminally under-looked. To me, his performance as an addict here is about on part with last week's subject, Nicolas Cage, in LEAVING LAS VEGAS. If you can find this, you should give it a look. The dramas MY LIFE & ONE GOOD COP are also well-worth a look.
Whenever I mention Michael Keaton as Batman to friends, they always shoot back the “you wanna get nuts??? C'mon – let's get NUTS!” line at me. What a friggin' amazing scene, where Keaton finds himself face-to-face with Jack Nicholson's Joker – totally unarmed and unable to control his rage upon seeing the man that (as we learn later) murdered his parents. Watching this scene makes me wish someone would do Frank Miller's “The Dark Knight Returns” with Keaton in the title part.
Alejandro Iñárritu's BIRDMAN is due to open this fall after (one presumes) a run through the fall festival circuit. I'm starting to think Keaton may find himself up for an Oscar.
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