If I asked you to name one of the greatest actors working today, who would you pick? A choice that may not immediately spring to mind is Michael Keaton, despite him being one of the few actors who never turns in dud performances, and whose range – both acting and film choice – is vast and almost unparalleled. Here’s a look at Keaton’s Hollywood career, in order to get into why he is so underrated.
For this he received further critical acclaim and was propelled into the Hollywood A-list
Keaton’s career started off in comedy, first appearing on TV in popular shows like Maude (1972) and The Mary Tyler Moore Hour (1979). He scored a co-starring TV role alongside Jim Belushi in Working Stiffs (1979), which led to his first co-starring role in a film, Night Shift (1982). His performance as a fast-talking ideas man led to further comedic performances in Mr. Mum (1983) and Johnny Dangerously (1984) before Tim Burton recruited him for his first iconic role in Beetlejuice (1988). Keaton played the eponymous title character, a demonic bio-exorcist hired by some ghosts to scare away the living family that has moved into their house. For this he received further critical acclaim and was propelled into the Hollywood A-list.
Burton gave Keaton’s career another boost when he cast him as the title role in Batman (1989), believing that only Keaton could portray someone with Bruce Wayne’s darkly obsessive personality – though Keaton first thought the film would be in the style of the camp 60s TV series! Fans were not happy at all until they saw the finished result – Keaton blew audiences and critics away, holding his own against screen legend Jack Nicholson (as the Joker) and marking himself as the definitive screen Batman who struck the balance between Batman and Bruce Wayne perfectly. He would return to the role in Batman Returns (1992), pitted against the Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer).
Keaton worked throughout the 90s, putting in strong performances in a wide range of films, from dramas (My Life ) and Tarantino productions (Jackie Brown ) to Shakespearian productions (Much Ado About Nothing ) and comedies (The Paper , which is essentially an amusing forebear to his later Spotlight). His appearances in the 2000s saw mixed success, with roles in Live from Baghdad (2002) and Herbie Fully Loaded (2005) being some of the highlights. Where he really found a niche was in voice work – first appearing as the slimy Chick Hicks in Pixar’s Cars (2006) before returning to the studio as Ken in Toy Story 3 (2010). Even in his worse films, Keaton still attracted critical praise for his performances.
His powerhouse performance wowed critics
Another day in the limelight beckoned when Keaton was cast in Birdman (2014). He played Riggan Thomson, a faded actor famous for playing the superhero Birdman in a film trilogy 20 years prior. Struggling with his mental health (which manifests in the form of Birdman and perceived feats of levitation and telekinesis), he tries to gain recognition as a serious actor by writing, directing and starring in a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. His powerhouse performance wowed critics, and the film took that year’s Best Picture Oscar.
There are several things that set Keaton apart from fellow actors. He’s blessed with an incredible screen presence and a raw energy that means he is always believable and very watchable. This is something that is even more impressive when you look at the amazing range of genres he has tackled and the characters he has played. It’s hard to think of another actor who could transition between the eponymous comedic monster Beetlejuice, the psychotic tenant in Pacific Heights (1990), Birdman’s Riggan or the two faces of the caped crusader in Batman and Batman Returns, and still be so compelling and at ease.
That Keaton hasn’t received more recognition is a cinematic crime – he’s someone you can always count on to deliver a mesmerising performance, and yet he’s rarely picked up acting nods in award ceremonies. After a 1988 Film Critic Award win for Beetlejuice and Clean and Sober (in which he played a drug-addicted realtor), Keaton’s only subsequent awards have been for Birdman and Spotlight – he picked up his only Oscar nom for the former, losing to a fairly run-of-the-mill showing by Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything.
He’s picked up some career achievement awards in 2009 and 2014, but he’s still turning out strong performances now. As well as the aforementioned Spotlight and Birdman (he’s phenomenal in this – if you haven’t watched it, you’re missing out), he also captivated as the driven Ray Kroc in The Founder (2016), the story of the creation of McDonalds. He entered the Marvel Universe as the Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), offering the most nuanced villain in the franchise – the scene in which he figures out Peter is Spider-Man is nerve-wracking stuff. Next year, he’ll reprise the role in Spider-Man: Far From Home and appear in Tim Burton’s live-action recreation of Dumbo. There’s also the much-talked-about sequel to Beetlejuice in the works.
If you see Keaton’s name in a cast list, regardless of how big or how small his role is, you’re guaranteed a captivating and memorable performance. I’m struggling to think of any other actor you can say that about – he never seems to have an off day. We should consider Keaton up there with the greats and we’re lucky that he’s still gracing our screens – I look forward to seeing what he’ll star in in the future.