Long before Tim Burton’s favourite go-to guy for portraying dark, fantastical and twisted characters was Johnny Depp, there was Beetlejuice. Released in 1988, Burton’s ghoulish interpretation of afterlife in stop motion has stood the test of time – largely because of its uniqueness and the titular character played by Michael Keaton. As a hyperactive, animated pervert, long dead, Keaton delivered one of his most famous performances.
At first glance, it is hard to recognise Keaton hidden beneath layers of makeup. But if you look hard enough, the typical Keatonisms are all there – the undercurrent of energy, bizarre mannerisms and on-point comedic timing. It’s easy to ignore Keaton’s contribution to a character that is so otherworldly, but there are subtleties that makes the role memorable.
Keaton was already an established actor by the late 1980s, mostly known for his work in comedies. It comes as no surprise that fan boys were outraged when DC Comics announced that Keaton was cast as the caped crusader in Burton’s take on the Batman universe. By surprising the general audience and comic book fans alike with his impressive performance, Keaton booked a place in the pantheon of actors who play larger than life characters with a grounded reality.
Burton’s Batman lies somewhere between the campy mess of Joel Schumacher’s Batman films and Christopher Nolan’s interpretation set in modern day politics. The movies Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) are primarily buoyed by Keaton’s effective portrayal. Instead of shying from using his comedic acting chops, Keaton put them to use by making Bruce Wayne edgy, fidgety and possessed by a nervous energy.
However, performances in superhero movies are often ignored by critics, and Keaton’s Batman suffered the same fate. It is a testament to his incredible range and talent that he could pull off a character that can so easily mar a good actor’s career (for instance, George Clooney).
In 2014, in a role that is almost an allegory to his career, Keaton played Riggan Thomson, an actor known for playing the superhero Birdman. Riggan is trying to break free from the mould in which superhero genre actors are slotted by directing and starring in his own play. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s satirical take on Hollywood is stylishly made under the illusion of one long take, peppered with a pulsating drumbeat laden score and an impressive ensemble cast. But the movie is primarily powered by Keaton’s towering performance.
In Birdman, Keaton shows off his full range. He rants, laughs, cries and even walks through Times Square in his underwear. There is one stunning scene in which Riggan confronts a critic. It’s a masterclass in acting that encapsulates the theme of the entire movie.
Keaton has never slotted himself in any genre, and still does the odd comic role between dramatic performances. One of my favourite Keaton roles is Captain Gene Mauch in Adam Mckay’s oddball action comedy The Other Guys (2010). Gene works two jobs – a police officer and salesman selling bathing products. Keaton’s brand of deadpan humour is one of the movie’s highlights. Up against seasoned comedians such as Will Ferrell, Keaton’s portrayal of Captain Gene is strictly under the radar. Forever quoting TLC songs and never realising it, Gene makes for a intriguing and often unintentionally funny character. Keaton infuses him with a simplicity that keeps the character from being a prop for comedy and makes him genuinely hilarious.
In the Best Picture Oscar Winner Spotlight (2015), Keaton plays a Pulitzer prize winning journalist. Once again, he leads an impressive ensemble. Mark Ruffalo gets most of the heavy dialogue and Rachel McAdams is the emotional core, but Keaton ties it up together wonderfully with his measured performance – deft, to the point and devoid of any jarring characteristics.
For someone who has been working for as long as Keaton has, he has often been underrated and under-appreciated. He hasn’t won many major awards, hasn’t been part of any real blockbuster movie, and hasn’t played any character with whom the general audience is familiar. However, in his long and impressive filmography, he has worked with Tim Burton, Ron Howard, Quentin Tarantino and Innaritu – directors with unique styles. It speaks volumes about Keaton’s natural ability to adapt to a character’s need and a director’s vision.
It’s hard to pin down Micheal Keaton with an identity. Tom Hanks is the proverbial American Hero. Who is Michael Keaton?
This lack of an identity is what makes Keaton unique. When Hanks voiced Woody in Toy Story 3 (2010), Keaton voiced Barbie’s smooth-talking boyfriend Ken. He even voiced the antagonist in Cars (2006) opposite Paul Newman’s Lightening McQueen.
Between Beetlejuice and the January 20 release The Founder, Keaton has played a plethora of characters evil and virtuous, funny and serious. The last few years have seen a major resurgence in his acting career. Apart from The Founder, he plays a villain in the upcoming Spider-man: Homecoming. We can expect one thing from every performance – a cocktail of frenzy and normal. Keaton may lack a Hollywood identity, but he surely does not lack a unique stamp.