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.
(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
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.
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
Life". Critics and audiences weren't very kind to the film,
but Keaton gave a good performance as a terminally ill husband and
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.
(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
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
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
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