Historical Circuit: Batman (1989)

“30 Days of Batman” Continues….

Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), remains one of my favorite superhero films to hit the big screen.  Showcasing the many talents of director Tim Burton, when he was still innovative and fresh, while exhibiting two outstanding performances from Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson.  Being born in the mid-1980’s, I (and perhaps even YOU, the reader), had no idea the ordeal the film had gone through to make it to the big screen.

The first draft of the film was written in 1980 by Superman (1978) co-writer Tom Mankiewicz.  The film centered on not only Batman, but his crime-fighting sidekick Robin.  It would tell the story of the two’s origins into the dynamic duo.  The film was to be released in 1985, with a budget of $20 million with villains Joker and Penguin battling it out.  Producers at the time, Michael E. Uslan and Benjamin Melniker were fired which led to the film being “shelved” until further notice.  After the success of Tim Burton’s Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), the studio offered him the opportunity to helm the series.

Unsatisfied with the script, Burton and his then girlfriend, Julie Hickson, wrote a 30-page treatment of the film.  After shuffling through many writers to write off his treatment, the studio didn’t green light the film until Burton’s other success, Beetle Juice (1988) came to fruition.

The casting of Michael Keaton was one of the most condemned casting choices by comic book fans upon its announcement.  Over 50,000 protest letters were sent to Warner Bros. studios.  Considering actors like Jeff Bridges, Alec Baldwin, Daniel Day-Lewis, Dennis Quaid, and Harrison Ford were approached, Keaton was a rather smaller scale actor at the time.  Sean Young was originally cast as Vicky Vale until she broke her collar-bone during shooting.  Kim Basinger replaced her.  Michelle Pfeiffer, who was dating Keaton at the time was approached for the role but Keaton felt it would be “too awkward.”  We all know where we’ll see Pfeiffer again.  Robin Williams was considered for the role of the Joker, and as we know later the Riddler.  Jack Nicholson was awarded the role after negotiating top-billing and royalties on all merchandise.  After the massive box office, Nicholson took home $60 million, one of the top acting salaries attached to a film in history.

The film is one of the best adaptations of the comic book series thus far.  Burton, who effectively captures the eerie tone of story, examines some of his best directorial efforts of his career, before and after.  Keaton, still hands down my favorite Batman/Bruce Wayne put on screen, examines one of his finest acting portrayals.  Keaton’s tightened, spoken words are very reminiscent of Ennis del Mar in Brokeback Mountain (2005).  Before you crucify, look at the comparisons.  A seemingly unsure man holding a dark secret that could not only destroy himself, but everyone around him.  Words are fighting they’re way out with each verb and adjective.  While Keaton’s delivery is seemingly smooth, there’s always an inquiry or insecure manner in his behavior.  It’s until we see Keaton as Batman, or Ennis with Jack, that we see these two men come alive.

Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker was one of the most talked about and praised performances of the year.  Nicholson, who was nominated for a Golden Globe and BAFTA award, gave the Joker a psychotic and schizophrenic nature that was not only terrifying but one of the finest comedic turns of the year.   He shows some of his best timing and elevates a sub-standard script into an acting fortune.  Kim Basinger is sexy, capable, and wonderful in her role of Vicki, though shrieky and a tad annoying.

The real stars of Batman are the ENTIRE technical crew.  Academy Award winning art directors Anton Furst and Peter Young display the very best set decorations of the year and some of the decade.  Bob Ringwood’s costume design of the Bat-suit was a brilliant construction that not many have achieved since.  Paul Engelen, Lynda Armstrong, and Nick Dudman, the makeup crew were one of the questionable omissions from Oscar that year.  Nicholson has never looked more sinister.  Cinematographer Roger Pratt introduces action and high paced angles that paved the way for films in its future, giving the viewer a completely different perspective.

MVP was and still is Danny Elfman.  It’s his composing masterpiece and should be studied by future composers everywhere.  The opening sequence is one of the best orchestrated scores in film history.  If Oscar ever missed their opportunity to reward Elfman, this was it.

The film still stands well and proud against any other superhero movie today.  It is something special and still holds its power in repeated viewings.  A Batman-marathon is in order in preparation for The Dark Knight Rises.

Get ready!