With the release of the new Batman flick The Dark Knight in about 24 hours (trust me, I’ll be there at 12:01 a.m.), I brought out my Batman DVD collection and was watching bits and pieces of each one. Then I decided to throw on Tim Burton’s Batman, and watching Michael Keaton made me realize that I miss the guy a lot.
I really do. He was always that awkward yet charming individual who women liked and men wanted to hang out and have a beer with. But what went wrong? Where has he been? It’s not as if he hasn’t worked recently. He’s actually been in some movies, one of which did pretty decently at the box office.
Where to begin though? I guess the best place, as usual, is the beginning. Not when he was doing bit parts on sitcoms and one line readings in films. I’m speaking about his comedic beginning. So the best place to begin would be his star turn in Night Shift.
The year was 1982, I was a spry 2 years old and don’t remember much besides zweibeck cookies and apple juice cocktails. But I know when the years passed and I finally got to see this film, I appreciated what kind of comedy it was. A swinger comedy starring the Fonz and Keaton, directed by Richie Cunningham? A funny foray in the overnight mortuary business and to make ends meet they throw together their very own brothel and hilarity ensues. And with Keaton’s Billy Blazejowski, the laughs come at rapid fire. A film that desperately needs a special edition.
He followed it up with the feel good comedy Mr. Mom, another comedy where hilarity ensues once the wife goes to work and dad is left home to fend for himself. A film written by John Hughes, it’s not a great film, but proved Keaton’s star power and showed he could do a straight laced comedy.
He then jumped onto the 1930’s era comedy Johnny Dangerously. You can’t get better than the comedy duo of Michael Keaton and Joe Piscopo. And I’m not even being sarcastic there. Not only was it one of the first films with a PG-13 rating (Ahhh, Spielberg always innovating), but had some heart to it. If you don’t know what it was about, he played a good natured man who needs to work in a life of crime to pay for his mom’s expensive medical bills. A good mafia satire, not many people remember this film when I mention it to them. Maybe I need to speak to people who know movies a little bit more. Joe Piscopo, like in Dead Heat, steals every scene chewing line.
Then came another Ron Howard film, Gung Ho. I remember my dad hating the film for some reason, so I put off from watching it because I trusted my dad’s opinion. But then one day I caught it on HBO and sat down and watched it. And liked it quite a bit. A film delving into the whole Japanese work ethic and American laziness, I liked the dichotomy Howard brought to the movie and Keaton again brought a comedic flare to a film with some deep issues that people were going through in the 1980’s. It’s a film that my friend who is now a business professor uses as a template of what could happen.
His next star making turn was his first foray into Tim Burton’s mind, Beetlejuice. It’s a film I’ve watched hundreds of times and still find it hysterical. He’s so over the top and you could tell he’s loving every minute of it. Great cheesy stop motion special effects, a young and hot Winona Ryder, a young and ‘still can’t believe it’s him’ Alec Baldwin, 1940’s would be pinup Geena Davis (a future installment in I Miss series), a pre-child pornography and 200 pounds lighter Jeffrey Jones. It just works on all accounts. A twisted children’s movie with enough sexuality that parents didn’t mind bringing their kids to see it. But then again, did many of them get the film at all?
In the same year of 1988, he went dramatic and did Clean and Sober, showing he had the guts to play a coke addict and alcoholic who had no cares in the world until he meets a woman (the great Kathy Baker) and wants to help her and ultimately falls for her. Morgan Freeman as the drug counselor puts in some great work as well. I notice a trend with Michael Keaton movies. A lot of them get lumped in between great iconic roles he’s done, so people forget about the little gems he produced here and there.
He went right back to comedy with The Dream Team. A fun ‘fish out of water’ comedy about a group of guys who are in a sanitarium (led by Keaton with great comic performances from Christopher Lloyd and Peter Boyle) and find themselves lost in New York and framed for murder. One of those feel good about my home town movies. But hell, NYC at that time was full of psychos, pimps and murderers. Well, more so then now. They know how to hide it better.
Of course in the year of 1989, Bob Kane’s supposed* bouncing baby boy was finally made into a true to life big budget summer film. Batman was unleashed to all of us comic book nerds and we fell in love with it the moment we laid eyes on it. But the road there wasn’t too easy. The same comic book fans who cheered for this darker take on the Dark Knight were earlier ripping apart the notion that ‘the guy who played Beetlejuice’ was to play Bruce Wayne. Michael Keaton felt the pressure and proved them wrong with a good portrayl of the dual identity. Even though I always thought he was a better Batman and a half way decent Bruce Wayne. I always felt he was a bit too awkward in the millionaire role. Tim Burton brought his own quirkyness and made the film his own. Jack Nicholson was a good Joker, a ultra violent Cesar Romero protege, which isn’t a knock on the performance. I’m a fan of the original series, no matter how many Bams, Biffs and Pows there were. A fun romp was this version of Batman, but we all knew there could be more. Someday.
A duo of subpar films came next (Pacific Heights and One Good Cop) which are more or less delegated for a late night cable watching, but nothing more. We all knew we were waiting for the next installment of the Batman franchise. Batman Returns came to theaters in the summer of 1992. Myself being a more spry 12 year old, I rushed to the theater to see Keaton again play the caped crusader. When I left the theater, I don’t know how I felt. I liked it like a lot of people did, but how long was Batman even in the film? 30 minutes? That’s how it felt. I still wonder if anyone ever took a tally on how much screen time the hero has in that film. You could also tell Tim Burton had much more of a stranglehold on the story, with some good (Catwoman/ her suit/ Michelle Pfeiffer in general) and some mediocre (Danny Devito wasn’t bad, but this freakish penguin monster of a man? Eh, not a fan of that. Or of the Penguin in general). But still, an enjoyable mess of a film, with Christopher Walken’s worst hair style in the history of filmdom. And that’s including Joe Dirt.
I think I was one of only 7 people in the world who saw My Life in theaters. And I wish it was 6 people, because that was a bad film. A young Nicole Kidman looking less like the infamous Cat Lady and more like the beautiful irish lass we all loved at one point. But he bounced back with another Ron Howard helmed film, The Paper. I really enjoyed that film. A great script. A really great cast (I can’t help but love all films with Robert Duvall**). And some tight direction. A film that I didn’t think I’d actually keep watching 15 years later, but Keaton always surprises.
Next he made a cute film called Speechless. He paired once again with his Beetlejuice costar Geena Davis and it was the matchup of a lifetime. I speak about Batman vs. Superman, Keaton vs. Reeve. As a kid, I think I was the only 14 year old who made that connection when seeing that film in theaters. I was a bored kid, can’t you tell? We then go into Harold Ramis trying to regain his comedy bug with the sci fi comedic yarn Multiplicity. I watched it.
That is all.
His next 3 films were not only enjoyable, but two of which I still cherish today. Jackie Brown, Desperate Measures and Out of Sight. Jackie Brown and Out of Sight he played the same great character of Ray Nicolette, a great little twist to both films. Both done by directors I still love today (Tarantino and Soderbergh). I still say Jackie Brown is Tarantino’s red headed stepson when they promote any new movie by him. They always pan over that film and I still don’t know why. It was a progression in his repertoire, like Death Proof, so maybe people didn’t get it. I always forget that the mass movie public aren’t too bright. And Out of Sight was the first time I saw George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez as stars in the making. Only one deserves it still.
But what happened after those two great character pieces by Keaton? He did a family film with a badly CGI snowman (Jack Frost), a decent sports movie (A Shot at Glory), a terrible straight to DVD action film (Quicksand), some shit I’ll never watch (First Daughter and Herbie: Fully Loaded), a crappy horror film (White Noise), a decent but little seen dark comedy (Game 6) and Pixar’s second worst film*** (Cars).
Where did he go? What can he do to bring back the glory of his once shining career? A lot of people (myself included) say that after Batman, he hit a snag in his career. He still had a few choice and brilliant roles, but he wasn’t matching box office gold like he once was, so the starring roles got to be fewer and far between. Hollywood is sometimes a bitch, and he’s felt the wrath. But I have more faith in him to bring the goods again. He just needs a little resurgence. A role that only he could play.
Any great filmmakers out there need a good character actor? Hey Ron Howard and Tim Burton… you worked with the guy multiple times. Bring him back to greatness. Come to think about it, what great movies have you guys done in the last 10 years? Hmm, on second thought Michael, find some new fresh blood. A director who will appreciate you and a script that will give you back your groove.****
*Bill Finger: RIP
** Well, not every film. Kicking and Screaming comes to mind. Ewww.
*** A Bug’s Life being my least favorite.
**** Unlike Stella.