As the old adage in Hollywood goes, “You’re only as good as
your last movie.”  It’s a sad, harsh
reality that plenty of actors are forced to contend with.  Some are deserving of what comes their way,
others not so much.  Because of this, I
frequently catch myself thinking about films that helped shape who I am- my
film likes and dislikes.  What quickly
follows is that feeling of nostalgia, of seeing a favorite actor or actress do
what they do best: impress the hell out of you.

“What ever happened too…” is a weekly column that focuses on
an actor or actress who has (or had) the talent to succeed in the industry, and
by all accounts should, but for one reason or another, simply disappeared from
the public and cinematic eye.

This week, I am wondering: what ever happened to… Michael
Keaton?

“You wanna get nuts? 
Come on, let’s get nuts!”  With
those immortal words, uttered in 1989’s Batman, my first real
moment of seeing something genuinely cool on screen came in the form of Bruce
Wayne confronting the Joker.  Sure,
acting opposite Jack Nicholson as the Joker would bruise any actor’s ego, but
Keaton definitely held his own.  And to
this day, Keaton’s performance impresses me more than Nicholson’s.  Blasphemy, I know.  Although, much like his career in general, it took me a while to
realize how great and memorable an actor Michael Keaton really was.

I use the word “was” very loosely, as he most definitely has
two or three great performances left in him and he still works from time to
time.  It’s just that, if he keeps
wasting his talent on films like White Noise, Jack Frost
and First Daughter, the next generation of filmgoers will never
experience the man who has quickly become one of the most underrated actors
working today.  This is a guy who’d much
rather stay in the background than be in the spotlight.  He is the epitome of “character actor” and
he wears that title proudly; just look at his eclectic list of
performances.  Sometimes he does his job
so well, he virtually disappears.  You,
as the viewer, only realize he was in the film after seeing his name during the
end credits.

Keaton is a quirky man, plain and simple.  He has that all-important “glint” in his
eye; you know, the one that could tug the heartstrings one moment, and then
strangle you the next.

If anything, I find him to be one of the unsung heroes of
comedy in the world of film.  Night
Shift
, Johnny Dangerously, Mr. Mom, Beetlejuice,
Multiplicity- this is a guy who prefers his characters to be
anything but normal (because, really, how boring is that?).  Only a great actor could truly cause the
uproar that happened back in 1988, when he was cast as Bruce Wayne/Batman.  Now, truth be told, I was far too young at
the time to comprehend the politics of film casting.  With that in mind, looking back, I can understand why the diehard
fans would cause such a stink; they
were afraid Keaton was going to take it in the direction of the Adam West
series.  Besides, up until that point in
time, the mainstream moviegoing audience was only familiar with his comedic
roles.  However, the more seasoned
filmgoer also saw Keaton in two wildly different performances, which all but
helped his casting as Bruce Wayne/Batman make that much more sense.

Pacific Heights and Clean and Sober.  If you haven’t seen or heard of either of
these films, change that immediately. 
Keaton tackles these two wildly different roles head on and gives them
much more heart, humanity and humility (very important) than to be expected.  In Pacific Heights, he
portrays a frightening psychopath.  In Clean
and Sober
, he is a recovering cocaine addict and alcoholic.  Watch Keaton’s eyes during these
performances, they elevate his acting to an almost sublime level.  I still think that Keaton would fit in
perfectly if he had acted during the silent film era.  His eyes and body language compliment one another, as well as the
character, without ever really using dialogue. 

His performance as Bruce Wayne and Batman in Batman
and Batman Returns was, without a doubt, a combination of all of
his performances up until that point in his career.  Wayne could be funny, scary, pathetic, vulnerable, intense,
unpredictable- basically, undoubtedly human. 
And even though today we are used to comic book films being treated with
respect, back in the 1980’s, that wasn’t always the case.  So to have someone like Keaton add all of
those different facets to such a widely known character without even trying, that was something unheard of. 
Kilmer and Clooney did admirable work with their portrayals of the same
character, but both appeared to pale in comparison to Keaton’s quirky humanity.

Which brings me to Christian Bale.  For some reason, ever since the release of Batman Begins,
there’s been an argument as to whether or not Keaton or Bale is the best
Batman.  What do I say to that?  Who gives a shit?  The films were made in two different times and with two different
purposes in mind.  Bale fits the
realistic approach that Nolan is aiming for, while Keaton fit the extreme
fantasy that’s become Burton’s modus operandi. 
End of argument, end of discussion.

Looking at the landscape of today’s modern movie world, it’s
a shame that Keaton isn’t out there, doing his thing and showing the new
generation how it’s done.  He
incorporates so many different qualities into his characters that it’s almost
uncanny.  What’s more, he achieves that
feat with such little effort.

Keaton’s last great on screen role was as Ray Nicolette in Jackie
Brown
.  Now that we’re on the
topic, let me just point out that Tarantino is commonly known as the filmmaker
with the Midas Touch; he casts a once prominent actor in one of his movies and,
almost immediately, their career is rejuvenated.  Just look at Michael Madsen, John Travolta, Robert Forster and David
Carradine.  It’s truly a sad state of
events that Keaton’s career didn’t benefit from being cast in the film.

What ever happened to Michael Keaton?  To put it simply, he inhabits the outskirts
of the film world.  We know he’s still
around (he even supplied his voice in Cars and was seen in Herbie
Fully Loaded
), but it’s not the same Keaton that we grew up with.  This isn’t the guy that asked the Joker if
he wanted to get nuts.  This isn’t the
guy that made the almighty Jack Nicholson shudder for a moment and think, “do I
really want to get nuts with this guy?” 
By the way, that “shudder” I just mentioned?  It’s forever captured on film. 
Go back and watch it.  It happens
just before the Joker holds a gun on Wayne in Vicky Vale’s apartment. 
It’s why the “pause” button was created; to see great actors like Nicholson think, but for a second, “maybe I am in over my head.”  It’s a great moment.

All kidding aside, Keaton is one of the best, a true
chameleon, and I think it’s time that he return to the silver
screen.  If, for nothing else, just to
see his crazy eyes intimidate an actor from this generation, who thinks they
are a master of their craft.  This is
a master of their craft.  Come on, Keaton.  Get out there and prove it to them.

 

Next week, I wonder: what ever happened to… Larry Drake?