I fucking LOVE Michael Keaton. Here’s a guy, a cinematic energy who has been buzzing around cinema since the early 80s, occasionally poking his head above water but generally just amusing himself with a string of fascinating roles and kinetic, passionate performances.
I’m struck by how unappreciated Michael Keaton really is. He’s basically famous for being the proto-Johnny Depp. For the briefest moment in cinema history, he was Tim Burton’s muse and fronted two of his most significant films. In Beetlejuice, he let rip and created one of the most charistmatic figures of modern cult cinema. That film still defies categorisation in so many ways and his performance, both central to the film but also very much the troublesome agitator rather than a main character is unrivaled in sheer glee, sleaze, glibness and energy. His second Burton collaboration was Batman in which he offered a far more restrained performance and one which, despite being iconic and perfectly professional, probably wasn’t terribly well suited to him as an actor.
This is what never sat well with me. By having played Batman – arguably the biggest blockbuster studio movie of all time, you would assume that Keaton would have become a Blockbuster star. But he never did. After the inevitable Batman sequel, he seemed to step immediately back into his safety zone of strong character-lead performances in unflashy films. I want to suggest you check out a few of his lesser-known offerings.
GUNG HO (1986)
By this point, Keaton has established himself as a dependable comic actor, he’d worked with director Ron Howard as the comic relief in Fonz-lead-mortuary-sex-comedy Night Shift and had played lead in a couple of smaller comedies Mr Mom and Johnny Dangerously. Gung Ho represents his first real performance. It’s a nifty little time capsule of a movie preserving the moment in America where globalisation became reality. Set in a small midwestern town whose entire economy is built around the automotive industry, it tells the story of a factory foreman fighting to smooth the transition of a Japanese corporation taking over the business. It plays on and explores the incalcitrant arrogance of the American blue collar worker and the merciless efficiency of the Japanese white collar executive. Nominally the film is regarded as a comedy but I’ve never really seen that. The film is unafraid to get quite dark, is staunchly critical of both sides of the conflict and presents, in Keaton, a deeply flawed hero. A liar who is usually more concerned with furthering his own situation and being perceived as a hero than he is really solving problems. A very human hero. A very human film.
CLEAN AND SOBER (1988)
Clean and Sober is a muted but completely compelling film which, once again, deals with a central character of highly questionable character. Keaton’s Daryl is a drug addict so deeply fucked up that he checks himself into a rehab program to hide from the police, ironically unaware that he is even an addict. His anger and jaundice with the world prevent him from taking the notion of help seriously until he’s some way along the process. Keaton’s energy is furious and captivating and the only reason we don’t completely hate him is because his performance is deeply honest and he displays his damage for us to see, even if the character is at first incapable. The film is an uneasy redemption story, supported by a strong cast of character actors including M. Emmet Walsh and Morgan Freeman in quiet, deferential brilliance. It’s a visually stark piece, I don’t think there is any sunlight in the whole film. It feels muddy and squalid but never self-conciously so. It can be a tough watch but the quality of performance is always fascinating. It’s one of those films that couldn’t happen now. Every performance in modern equivalents feels geared towards Oscar glory rather than meditative honesty.
MY LIFE (1993)
I will never understand how My Life is not just not a better-known film, but also not regarded as a classic. It’s one of my very favourite films. It is unique and nuanced. Written and directed by Bruce Joel Rubin, it concludes what I have always considered his unrecognised trilogy of death. He also wrote Ghost – a film about the grieving process and Jacob’s Ladder – a film about the physical moment of death. My Life is his musing on the very process of dying. When you think about how many characters have died in cinema history, it’s striking how few decent films there are about the process of dying itself. This film starts with Keaton’s character – an unfairly young entertainment agent called Bob Jones – being diagnosed with terminal cancer. At the same time, his wife played by Nicole Kidman is revealed to be pregnant, a brilliant device which allows Keaton’s emotionally closed character to reveal so much in the videos he makes for his unborn child. The film sounds, and is frustratingly marketed, in a mawkish sentimental way but is a deeply intelligent, unflinching and genuinely charming piece of work. Keaton nails the role and offers one of my favourite film performances ever, we see every side of this character. The selfish, angry man, the sweet, nostalgic soul. We follow his whole journey as he mends bridges, becomes crippled by fear and eventually accepts and embraces his destiny. It is, ultimately a very life-affirming piece of cinema but, like the best things, it makes you work. It’s an exhausting film to watch but you feel all the better for having stuck with it.
THE LAST TIME (2006) and THE MERRY GENTLEMAN (2008)
Keaton seems to have drifted away from his career in recent years. He went through a spate of playing smaller supporting roles as fathers in teen movies, popped back up briefly in the lead of the excellent horror film White Noise and has subsequently vanished into an ether of DTV movies and voicing animations. The Last Time is a bold idea failed by an inexperienced writer/director. Keaton plays a nasty piece of work, a cutthroat cocky salesman who is unliked by all and espouses a subdued nihilism to his own life. He is paired up with naive Brendan Fraser to save the sales team of a company that is fast disappearing down the toilet. The reason I mention the film, which I wouldn’t particularly recommend, is how interesting it is to see Keaton still keen to explore these fundamentally unlikable yet charismatic characters. He has aged well, which is perhaps a little frustrating as I feel he has some wonderfully cantakerous old codger roles awaiting him. The Merry Gentleman is interesting in that it his debut as a director. Unfortunately, like so many films directed by actors, it eschews storytelling chops for overly indulgent, long and fairly boring scenes of acting. That said, he takes on a far more toned down role than he usually might. A quiet hitman looking for a little salvation. There are some great moments in this film and I might be generous but I feel the problems lie more in the screenplay and editing than in Keaton’s directorial eye.
I get excited about Michael Keaton, there is no other actor like him. He has carved out this brilliant identifiable but infinitely adaptable screen persona. He plays characters who are touched by darkness, have a certain moral ambiguity and self-interest yet are incredibly charismatic. He brings with him a manic energy – sometimes anger, sometimes enthusiasm – which explodes with honesty and depth. I might be pushing it here, but to me, Keaton somewhat sums up America. There is a vile detestable fundamental to it, an arrogance and uninformed self-righteousness but that gets coloured by this irresistible chaotic energy, reluctant decency, enthusiasm and warmth.
So yeah, watch more fucking Michael Keaton films!
What do you reckon? What do you make of him? What films have I overlooked?