Few careers go from not being third billed in a poorly reviewed “Robocop” remake to leading two consecutive Best Picture winners. However, not many actors have a career that spans three decades like Michael Keaton does. If there’s one thing that Hollywood loves more than a movie star, it is a comeback story. No longer the has-been supporting star, Keaton headlines this week’s biopic “The Founder.”
Armed with a goofy grin and boundless enthusiasm, Keaton made a name for himself in the early ’80s in high concept comedies. In 1982, Keaton burst onto the scene in “Night Shift” as a lovable sidekick to Henry Winkler’s morgue attendant. This initial macabre turn set the tone for his career in the ’80s and won him Best Supporting Actor from Kansas City Film Critics. The next year, Keaton headlined the classic “Mr. Mom,” making him a household name. His comedy, however, always took a more off-kilter bent. He cultivated this niche over the next few films – “Johnny Dangerously,” “Gung Ho,” “Touch and Go” and “The Squeeze.”
Keaton reached the next echelon of fame once he began working with director Tim Burton. Perhaps the most defining role in his career came in 1988’s “Beetlejuice.” As the titular undead rapscallion, Keaton stole every moment he was on screen as a truly original creation. He pushed the boundaries of both the MPAA and the traditional role of an antagonist. Not to be content with showing just one facet of his talent, Keaton tried his hand at drama the same year. In “Clean and Sober,” Keaton plays a charismatic drug addict who checks himself into rehab to escape law troubles. He won the National Society of Film Critics prize for Best Actor for both performances.
That year, the Best Actor Oscar went to Dustin Hoffman for starring in the Best Picture-winning “Rain Man.” Many of the other nominees were for more standard dramatic fare (Gene Hackman for “Mississippi Burning,” Edward James Olmos for “Stand and Deliver” and Max von Sydow for “Pelle the Conqueror”). However, Tom Hanks was able to sneak in his first Oscar nomination for the charming comedy “Big.” Today, many would most likely seek to reward Keaton for his virtuoso Beetlejuice creation, à la Johnny Depp in “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Unfortunately, the performance was too “out there” for Oscar to embrace at the time.
Keaton’s collaboration with Burton led him to the coveted role of Batman. Before superheroes were the norm, this was a major get. The first film, “Batman,” pitted Keaton against Jack Nicholson’s Joker. Nicholson was rewarded with a Golden Globe nomination, while Keaton went home empty-handed. In fact, Nicholson was the headliner of the film. In 1992, Keaton donned on the cape yet again for “Batman Returns.” The gonzo sequel didn’t earn initial respect. Laced with a raunchy Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Danny DeVito leaning in to the gross nature of the Penguin, the film was too odd for most. While it was a hit, it didn’t do the same business as the first film. This was the last Batman film for Keaton and Burton.
Following Batman, Keaton retreated into supporting parts. Whether it be as Dogberry in Kenneth Branagh’s “Much Ado About Nothing” or stealing moments in Quentin Tarantino’s ensemble for “Jackie Brown,” Keaton seemed to be less concerned with being an A-list movie star. His starring roles were in solid films that couldn’t seem to light up the box office (“Speechless,” “Multiplicity” and “My Life”). It seemed he felt most comfortable in an ensemble, such as Ron Howard’s well-reviewed film “The Paper.” Unfortunately, with each passing year, his initial promise and fame started to wane. The stake in the coffin was the legendarily poor-reviewed children’s film “Jack Frost.” In just six years, Keaton had gone from Batman to a reincarnated snowman.
The millennium all but forgot Keaton. The solid January horror film “White Noise” did little to raise his profile. Disney kept him working, whether it be voice work on “Cars” and “Toy Story 3” or slogging his way through “Herbie: Fully Loaded.” With over a decade since his last strong role, many had counted him out.
The year 2014 didn’t look too great for him initially, with “Robocop” and “Need for Speed” both being costly bombs. Yet, Alejandro González Iñárritu resurrected his career by leaning in to his persona as a washed-up superhero actor. His role in “Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” catapulted him into the spotlight and brought the best reviews of his career. He picked up countless critics prizes, a SAG nomination and win for Ensemble, as well as Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice wins. Keaton was the initial favorite to win Best Actor at the Oscars. Yet, he lost in a close battle to Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.”
After this, many swore 2015 would bring him his Oscar. Thomas McCarthy’s ensemble drama “Spotlight” seemed like a great fit. The film delivered, eventually winning Best Picture in an upset over larger fare, such as “The Revenant.” However, the season was very muddled in Supporting Actor, as many couldn’t decide which person in the cast to shower with awards. Keaton picked up some critics wins, most notably from the New York Film Critics Circle. However, Mark Ruffalo picked up the steam and wound up cited by the Oscars for “Spotlight.” Still, Keaton was awarded his second consecutive SAG Award for Best Ensemble.
The third time is the charm, people say. Many, including myself, thought he would have the perfect narrative to win Best Actor for “The Founder.” However, the release date was delayed twice, until it settled on a qualifying run and January release. This has left him with no time to pick up precursors for this season. However, Keaton’s star still shines bright. On the horizon, he has the prime villain role in “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” In addition, Burton and him are going to return to his classic role of Betelgeuse for “Beetlejuice 2.” Other than these big budget plays, Keaton also has “American Assassin,” which focuses on counterterrorism agents. Could this topical film be his ticket to win, or will he need a few more years?
Top 5 Michael Keaton Performances:
“Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” as Riggan Thompson
“Beetlejuice” as Betelgeuse
“Spotlight” as Walter “Robbie” Robinson
“Batman Returns” as Batman/Bruce Wayne
“Jackie Brown” as Ray Nicolette