From Batman to Birdman, Michael Keaton has experienced the highs and lows of Hollywood

Film editor Andrew Collins reflects on the career of the comeback king

Michael Keaton (Getty, EH)

Why don’t we let the subject of this week’s column introduce himself?

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“My name’s Michael John Douglas, I’m from Forest Grove, Pennsylvania, I’m the seventh child of George and Leona Douglas, and I don’t ever remember a time when my father didn’t work two jobs, when my mother wasn’t saying the rosary, going to mass, taking care of seven kids in a rundown farmhouse and volunteering at the hospital where I was born – in a hallway.”

He changed his surname to Keaton when he moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career in the mid-1970s, finding roles on TV shows such as The Mary Tyler Moore Hour and sitcom Working Stiffs. But it would be 30 years before he got to make the above acceptance speech at the 2015 Golden Globe award ceremony.

Keaton’s first speaking part was in Night Shift, an unlikely Ron Howard comedy about morgue workers who turn their workplace into a brothel. His first lead came with Mr Mom, a comedy based on the unthinkable notion of a stay-at-home dad, written by John Hughes.

But his big break came in the form of Beetle Juice, the smash hit, Oscar-winning madcap Gothic comedy made by Tim Burton on a shoestring, in which Keaton played the titular ghost, summoned to scare off the corporeal new occupants of a Connecticut house possessed by its recently deceased owners. This rasping, all-cylinders showcase role (“Whaddya think of this?”) would cement Keaton’s relationship with the director and lead to the defining role of his early career: Batman.

Michael Keaton on the set of Batman (Getty, EH)
Michael Keaton on the set of Batman (Getty)

Essentially the film that kick-started the superhero cycle that now dominates cinema, Batman allowed him to shed his comedic reputation and go dark. He was not the comic-book community’s number one choice, but he won them over with a finely tuned approach, applying a lower register to his voice when he appeared as the caped crusader than the one he used for Bruce Wayne. (Christian Bale would take it even lower in Christopher Nolan’s reboot, but it was Keaton’s invention.)

He walked away from a third Batman film when Burton was not retained, at which point Val Kilmer took over with less than Midas-like results. The role had made Keaton rich, but he could have been even richer had he succumbed to the studio’s overtures.

This tells us something about his artistic principles, and a humility that goes back to being born in that hospital corridor.

Michelle Pfeiffer and Michael Keaton on the set of Batman Returns (Getty, EH)
Michelle Pfeiffer and Michael Keaton on the set of Batman Returns (Getty)

He survived the 90s by diversifying into thrillers (Pacific Heights), Shakespeare (Much Ado about Nothing), popular drama (The Paper) and more comedy (Multiplicity), but it was Quentin Tarantino who allowed him to broaden his reach and play it cool in Jackie Brown.

Come the new millennium, however, the 49-year-old Keaton found himself surplus to Hollywood’s requirements, and he muddled on in cop dramas, dad roles and voice work. Then, just as a superhero had minted his early career, a film about an actor whose career had been minted by a superhero put Keaton right back on top.

It was 2014’s Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), co-written and directed by Alejandro G Iñárritu. Keaton called it a “gutsy unapologetic look at human nature”. But it was more than that. Conceived as a chamber piece set in a theatre, and filmed as though in a single shot, it required a cast with supreme timing. Few would have thought Keaton as capable of the self-mocking role of Riggan Thomson, a man still most famous for a superhero film trilogy betting the farm on a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. The part also requires him to walk through Times Square in his underpants, not to mention levitate and take flight.

The film won the best picture Oscar, though Keaton lost to Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything, but the Golden Globe was a deserved cherry on the cake of his career. It proves that some American lives do have second acts. And you’ll believe a birdman can fly.

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Birdman is on Saturday 27th January at 10.30pm on BBC2