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Six definitive films: The ultimate beginner’s guide to Michael Keaton

@Russellisation

“Work hard, don’t quit, be appreciative, be thankful, be grateful, be respectful, also to never whine ever, never complain, and, always, for crying out loud, keep a sense of humour.” – Michael Keaton

An actor going through a contemporary metamorphosis, Michael Keaton has experienced a tumultuous career marked by impressive cinematic highs and a considerable period of stagnant lows. Something of a cult actor during the 1980s and ’90s, Keaton traversed a significant period of muffled success during the early 21st century before marketing himself in an altogether new light in the modern era. 

His early career flourished on television, appearing in programmes, Where the Heart Is and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, where he would play one of the “Flying Zookeeni Brothers” in the iconic children’s show. Leaving his early hometown of Pittsburgh, Keaton moved to Los Angeles to explore the potential of a TV career and was forced to adopt a stage name to adhere to SAG rules, changing from Michael John Douglas to the Keaton we now all know and love. 

Enjoying a career that has spanned almost fifty years, Keaton’s career in the industry is certainly an interesting one. Let’s take a closer look at the six definitive films that have defined his life…

Michael Keaton’s six definitive films:

Night Shift (Ron Howard, 1983)

The lesser-known 1982 film Night Shift, directed by Ron Howard, was far from Michael Keaton’s first film or television role, though it was certainly his first cinematic role that would have a considerable impact on his international fame. 

After enjoying a long stint in television and moving to Los Angeles, Keaton’s film debut came in 1978 alongside Joan Rivers in Rabbit Test, though this role was minor and non-speaking. It wasn’t until his big break working with Jim Belushi in the short-lived comedy series Working Stiffs that Michael Keaton began to get noticed for his comedic talents, soon appearing in a co-starring role in Night Shift

Earning the actor some critical acclaim, Night Shift still holds up a simple comedy romp, following a morgue attendant who is talked into running a brothel at his workplace. 

Beetlejuice (Tim Burton, 1988)

Night Shift gave Keaton an excellent platform on which to catapult himself to industry acclaim, even if he found himself pigeonholed as a comedy lead along the way. Appearing in films such as Johnny Dangerously, Gung Ho, The Squeeze, and The Dream Team, Keaton was failing to find much critical success. 

Gothic director Tim Burton was integral in ushering Michael Keaton into the limelight of Hollywood, casting Michael Keaton as the eccentric titular character of 1988s wild Beetlejuice, a playful horror tale about a mischievous, malicious spirit (Keaton). Beetlejuice turned into an instant success, earning the actor widespread acclaim and instant Hollywood prominence. 1988 would become quite the significant year for the actor too, as Glenn Gordon Caron’s Clean and Sober would hand the actor his illusive dramatic role. 

Batman (Tim Burton, 1989)

For many, Michael Keaton was the finest actor ever to don the identity of Batman, with his role in the caped crusader’s first major feature film going down in cinematic history as a major component in contemporary cinema’s superhero obsession. 

Bringing the iconic character to life with a sharp, smart persona, Keaton’s fame would skyrocket in this blockbuster movie, particularly as he starred alongside the legendary Jack Nicholson. Tim Burton recently discussed Michael Keaton’s suitability for the role with The Hollywood Reporter, stating, “They’re somebody who’s intelligent and kind of screwed up. And Michael has such an intensity that it’s like, ‘Yeah, I could see that guy wanting to dress up as a bat’. It’s all rooted in psychology, Jekyll and Hyde and two sides of a personality, light and dark, and he understood that.”

The Other Guys (Adam McKay, 2010)

Despite Michael Keaton’s cultural popularity at the dawn of the 1990s, following the release of the Batman sequel, Batman Forever in 1995, Keaton’s stake in acquiring Hollywood’s largest roles considerably diminished. 

This isn’t to say that he didn’t enjoy the odd success during the transition into the 21st century, starring in scattered cinematic greats including, Much Ado About Nothing in 1993 and My Life alongside Nicole Kidman the same year. This was followed by a memorable appearance in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown in 1997 and then a decade of relative silence. 

Aside from peppered success throughout the early noughties, it wouldn’t be until the new decade that Keaton would find his feet once more, lending his voice to Pixar’s Toy Story 3 before giving a comedic mastermind in Adam McKay’s understated The Other Guys. Playing the police chief of an inept department, Keaton manages to keep up with both Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell. It was in this Hollywood comedy that Keaton would loudly announce his reappearance. 

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2015)

Perhaps Michael Keaton’s most important film role, certainly in the contemporary era, Birdman brought the actor’s career full circle, eliciting the same wild vibrancy as his Beetlejuice character whilst drawing neat parallels to Tim Burton’s original Batman

Riffing off his time as DC’s caped crusader, Keaton fuels the story as a mainstream superhero actor-turned-arthouse performer who tries to embody his new image by writing, directing and featuring in his own Broadway play. Deeply ashamed of ‘selling out’ in his previous career by taking the role of the titular ‘Birdman’, Keaton’s Riggan is searching for artistic redemption by tackling a more serious Broadway play. His blockbuster persona is difficult to shake off, haunting the actor in the form of a disembodied voice, and at one point a graphic hallucination, with each one highlighting how his new project will fail.

In a troubled Best-Picture-winning film, Michael Keaton is a shining light, earning the actor his first and only Oscar nomination for a deserved tour-de-force performance. 

Spider-Man: Homecoming (Jon Watts, 2017)

It must be a mix of Michael Keaton’s theatrical dramatic performance in Beetlejuice and Birdman, along with his self-evident comedic chops that keep bringing him back to the Superhero genre despite having appeared in multiple dramatic roles. 

In Spider-Man: Homecoming he’s certainly an impressive fit, bringing some much-needed menace to the colourful world of Jon Watts Spider-Man trilogy, inextricably linked to the box-office goliath of Marvel studios. Playing a cynical mix of his Birdman and Batman persona, Keaton’s Vulture is a spiteful anti-hero that perfectly elicits the frenetic qualities that Keaton can bring to the table at his very best. 

Flitting between the Marvel and DC superhero universes, Keaton seems to simply enjoy the freedom of such comic roles, allowing him to snarl his theatrical teeth all with a wry smile. Due to appear in both Marvel’s Morbius and DC’s The Flash, Keaton has not however abandoned the world of factual drama, enjoying previous roles in Worth and The Trial of the Chicago Seven.

Having taken a rocky road to his cinematic success, Keaton is simply enjoying his time at the top.

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