Saturday night we were looking for a movie to watch from our DVD collection, and decided on Beetlejuice. It had been years since we’d seen it, and who doesn’t appreciate a little Harry Belafonte music now and then? But of course, the main draw was Michael Keaton. In my opinion, he is one of the most underrated actors of his generation.
I first became aware of Michael Keaton when Mr. Mom came out in 1983. He’s the perfect Jack Butler: charming but awkward, a little goofy with a bit of a competitive streak, a good father, and a loyal friend. Actually, he kind of reminds me a little bit of myself, a comparison I made when I was suddenly out of work and a stay-at-home father. I often call myself Clark Griswold, but I’m probably equal parts Jack Butler, as well. I mean, didn’t I just write about spilling the produce in the grocery store? I’ve also been similarly embarrassed while buying maxi pads. Here’s my favorite scene in the movie, one of the funniest two minutes and 48 seconds in comedy ever.
How can you not love Michael Keaton after watching that? He’s kind of dropped off the radar in recent years, and that’s a damn shame. The world needs more Keaton! The good news? A long-awaited sequel to Beetlejuice is in development. Here are 5 of his most compelling performances other than Mr. Mom:
- Beetlejuice. One of the most original, chaotic, hyper, and funny movies of the 1980s. Most of the cast, Keaton included, initially turned down their roles before reconsidering. Keaton absolutely kills it (pun intended) as the title character, a perverted and devious freelance “bio-exorcist” with his own agenda. We don’t know whether to love him or loathe him, and we certainly can’t trust him, but we want him onscreen for every possible minute. The film catapulted Keaton onto the A list of actors, and paved the way for his controversial casting in the next film on my list. Fun fact: director Tim Burton originally wanted Sammy Davis, Jr. (yes, that Sammy Davis Jr., of Rat Pack fame) to play Beetlejuice. Try as I might, I just can’t see that.
- Batman/Batman Returns. When Michael Keaton was cast as Batman, thousands of fans wrote letters to Warner Bros. to complain. They thought Keaton was wrong for the role, because he didn’t look like Batman (suave, handsome, muscular) and he was a comedic actor. Honestly, I thought the same thing when I first heard the news. But Tim Burton was convinced Keaton could conjure up the dark obsessiveness of the character, and he was right. Keaton was perfect as Bruce Wayne/Batman, turning in a dramatic performance in two films that perfectly captured the essence of the Dark Knight. When Burton was dropped for the third film, Keaton turned down $15 million to reprise the role, and let’s face it, Val Kilmer’s portrayal left much to be desired. The series was never the same (until Christopher Nolan rescued the franchise in 2005). No offense to Christian Bale, but I still think Keaton was the best Batman ever.
- Night Shift. Few people I know have seen this early comedy, one of Ron Howard’s first directing gigs, starring Michael Keaton and Henry Winkler. But it’s worth seeking out if you have not. Released in 1982, it features Keaton as Bill “Blaze” Blazejowski, a fast-talking entrepreneur working the night shift in a morgue alongside Winkler’s character, the nerdy and mild-mannered Chuck. The two end up turning the morgue into a front for a successful prostitution ring. This is the type of film that could easily cross the line, but does not. It proves that death can be both funny and sexy. Bonus points for the killer early 80s soundtrack, featuring Quarterflash, Rod Stewart, The Pointer Sisters, and Talk Talk, among others.
- Pacific Heights. The truth is, this is not a great film. It’s a formulaic thriller with an over-the-top premise, similar in tone to The Hand That Rocks The Cradle and other films in the “yuppie horror” genre. But it proved that Keaton had the acting chops to take on the role of a true villain in a film that at least aspires to be serious in tone. As Carter Hayes he is truly despicable, an obsessive stalker and schemer who will stop at nothing to reclaim the San Francisco apartment he believes is rightfully his. Cheesy? A little. But it’s fun to see Keaton in a different type of role.
- The Other Guys. This film may star Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg, but it’s Keaton who steals the movie as Captain Gene Mauch, the pair’s boss, who works a second job at Bed, Bath & Beyond to pay for his son’s tuition at NYU (“so he can explore his bisexuality and become a DJ”). His deadpan delivery coupled with an unwitting penchant for quoting TLC songs make every scene of his, well, arresting (pun intended). This was also Keaton’s first major film role in years, and his appearance was like a breath of fresh air. When he’s addressing the staff at BB&B: “First things first: the new bath mats are here. Second thing: there’s a serial rapist in Crown Heights… sorry, that’s from my other job, ignore that. No, wait, don’t ignore it, especially if you live in Crown Heights. Walk in pairs.” Vintage Keaton.
There you go. 5 reasons why Michael Keaton (who was actually born Michael Douglas, but changed his name to Keaton (a tribute to actor Buster Keaton) to avoid confusion with the other Michael Douglas) is da man.
Who’s your favorite actor/actress? Is he/she underrated, too?