Michael Keaton: his 10 great screen characters

From Batman to Birdman and everything in between, we take a look at Michael Keaton's top 10 most memorable roles...

In honor of Michael Keaton hosting Saturday Night Live, we’ve dusted off this article that originally ran on February 25th…

Sometimes, the Oscars have a tendency of giving out awards to actors who are seen to have paid their dues, perhaps not for the best performance of that year or even for the particular actor’s own best performance, but to recognise past work. Michael Keaton is not the most likely of these, but this could be why some speculated that he was an early favourite for this year’s Best Actor award, for his performance in Birdman.

The later frontrunner Eddie Redmayne rightfully and very graciously wound up taking it home for his work as Stephen Hawking in The Theory Of Everything, though Birdman went on to take home the main prize for Best Picture and a number of other major awards.

It would hardly have been a major upset if Keaton had won- he’s great in Birdman and has also built a solid reputation as a character actor in the years since he became an unlikely movie star with the worldwide success of Tim Burton’s Batman.

Ad – content continues below

Many have called his recent success a comeback, but even to call it a resurgence feels like an overstatement. He’s been there all along, just not always in a Bat-suit. Within the last twelve months, before Birdman came along, he had supporting roles as a charismatic podcaster-cum-commentator in Need For Speed and as an unscrupulous CEO in the remake of RoboCop.

Neither of these were his finest hour, but both showed his ability to elevate a film just by bringing some unconventional charisma and intensity to the table. He’s never seemed interested in staying in the A-list and if you must call Birdman a comeback, he’s done some damn fine work in between superhero-related movies. Seeing as how he didn’t get that Oscar, here are ten of his best characters.

10. Captain Gene Mauch – The Other Guys

A minor role, maybe, but one that makes the list by virtue of being very, very funny. Back before the Jump Street movies perfected the post-modern buddy cop comedy, Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg had a good go at it, backed by an ensemble that included Dwayne Johnson, Steve Coogan, Rob Riggle, Damon Wayans Jr and, as their TLC quoting captain, Michael Keaton.

Captain Mauch seemingly has no idea that all of the tough-talking phrases he thinks he’s coining are actually lyrics by the R&B girl group. It’s a very silly gag, the kind that are a dime a dozen in director Adam McKay’s films, but it keeps getting laughs.

The character only gets more absurd when it turns out he’s working a second job at Bed, Bath & Beyond, where Ferrell and Wahlberg go and visit him ahead of a third act showdown with the bad guys, to support his bi-sexual son’s dream of becoming a DJ. It really fills out what should be a minor character and gives Keaton ample opportunity for some random character development.

9. Henry Hackett – The Paper

Back in 1982, Keaton broke out in a big way in Night Shift, a Ron Howard comedy starring Henry Winkler and Tom Hanks, playing Bill Blazejowski, a morgue attendant who manages to convert his workplace into a successful brothel with nothing more than irrational enthusiasm and a tenacity for bullshit. Keaton was a stand-out in the film and he went on to more comedic work from there.

Ad – content continues below

He reunited with Howard in 1994 for The Paper, a film which covers a tumultuous day at the office of a fictional tabloid newspaper, the New York Sun. Keaton plays it somewhere between Malcolm Tucker and J. Jonah Jameson as the editor who tries to balance his family life with financial pressures while following a double homicide story.

Keaton is on urgent, fast-talking form as Hackett, a workaday journalist in a film that aims to neither glamorise nor crucify the profession as many other films about journalism do. If you haven’t ever taken Media Studies and gone through the obligatory screening, or if you just haven’t seen it yet, it’s worth seeking out.

8. Ken – Toy Story 3

On taking the role of Barbie’s plastic paramour in Toy Story 3, Keaton told The Mirror: “I was at home when Pixar called. I love working for Pixar so I was up for it, whatever it was. When they said Ken, the phone literally fell out of my hand. I thought it was really, really funny.”

Woody, Buzz and the gang meet a bunch of new characters when they’re plunged into the daycare domain of Lotso Huggin’ Bear and his cronies, but Ken is one of the stand-outs. We don’t know him from G.I. Joe, but Keaton makes short work of any notion that he’s not the most obvious choice for that particular role.

He clearly had a ball with his vocal performance, camping it up as Barbie’s metrosexual “walking accessory” and he’s since reprised the role in a Toy Story Toon short feature, 2011’s Hawaiian Vacation, and hopefully he’ll be back for more in the upcoming fourth instalment.

Ad – content continues below

7. Doug Kinney(s) – Multiplicity

Last year, Tom Hardy starred in Locke, a film about a construction manager whose life falls apart because he can’t be everywhere at once. Back in 1996, Keaton played a character with the opposite problem and his life still fell apart, in the film Multiplicity.

Written and directed by the late, great Harold Ramis, the film finds Doug Kinney at the end of his tether with work and family commitments. He barely ever sees his wife and kids because he’s so busy at his construction job and he’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Courtesy of a chance meeting with Harris Yulin’s eccentric scientist, Doug gets the chance to clone himself, with the second copy of him, named Two, going around and doing all of his busy work. This leaves the original Doug exclusively keeping things going at home as his wife goes back to work, forcing him to create another clone, Three, out of boredom.

Keaton has a lot of screen time in this one, playing multiple different versions of his character. As the original Doug, he’s actually the straight man to himself, with two odd-couple characters coming in the form of the gruff, workaholic Two and the more sensitive homebody Three. There’s also a version of Dough that looks a bit problematic in retrospect, when Two copies himself and the subsequent clone-of-a-clone Four proves to be not all there.

It looks exhausting, but there are some decent laughs to be had from Keaton’s comic range, which the film is unabashedly showing off- watch it in a double bill with Locke and try not to get whiplash in between films.

6. “Carter Hayes” – Pacific Heights

1990’s Pacific Heights is an under-appreciated film, but an odd one from today’s perspective. Matthew Modine and Melanie Griffiths play a couple who have sunk all of their savings into renovating a property at the eponymous address and eagerly close a deal with a client called Carter Hayes.

Ad – content continues below

When “Hayes”’ rent cheque bounces and he locks himself in his apartment, a battle of wits take place between the desperate landlords and their tenant. This was Keaton’s first role after Batman hit big at the box office and he steals the show. In the context of a horror/thriller movie about a sociopath who pantomimes as an affluent white guy to hoodwink other affluent white people, it’s often said that he’s more sympathetic than the lead characters.

For better or worse, Modine’s tendency to go entirely over-the-top actually accentuates how perfectly Keaton hits the mark. As the film progresses and you get a full picture of his sociopathic M.O and his fearsome sense of entitlement, he makes a terrific and charismatic portrayal of banal evil that elevates the movie he’s in.

5. Blaine Sternin – Frasier

We didn’t necessarily say they were all film roles now, did we? Since hanging up the Bat-suit, Keaton has had a healthy number of TV guest appearances alongside his impressive body of work as a character actor in cinema. These include a voice role as the unhinged artist and convict Jack on The Simpsons and a memorable turn as a janitor in the 100th episode of 30 Rock.

Of his TV work, the role that stands amongst the best characters he’s ever played came in Wheels Of Fortune, a season 9 episode of Frasier, in which the long-suffering radio shrink’s former brother-in-law Blaine comes rolling back into his life. Frasier is certain it’s a long con, and all that Blaine’s purported disability really means is that someone, somewhere is missing a wheelchair.

It’s a little like watching a riff on Pacific Heights, except that Blaine’s story of redemption seems absolutely airtight, flummoxing Frasier. Playing a character that comes from ex-wife Lilith’s side of the family, Keaton effortlessly affects some of that moneyed, trans-atlantic pomp that characterises the series’ other socialites to hilarious effect, including an absolutely batty delivery of “pass the po-tah-toes, please?”

But it’s the charm that Keaton brings to the role (which is described by the hapless Dr. Crane as “the viscous oil he uses to grease his flim flam machine”) that makes him one of the best guest stars ever to appear on the show.

Ad – content continues below

4. Agent Ray Nicolette – Jackie Brown and Out Of Sight

This is one of those roles that really cements Keaton as a character actor, particularly in regard to the way he disappears into an ensemble. Quentin Tarantino cast him in his 1997 Elmore Leonard adaptation Jackie Brown as Ray Nicolette, the slimy ATF jobsworth who blackmails our protagonists into helping him catch out gun merchant Ordell Robbie.

Again, Keaton stands out in each of his scenes with that slightly unconventional intensity. It’s not an especially big role, but it makes an impression, playing the relatively good cop to Michael Bowen’s bad/asshole cop in interrogations, or stressing details of his movements for the tape recording of their operation.

Yet more remarkable, long before the current age of cinematic continuity, Steven Soderbergh drafted in Keaton for his own, unrelated Leonard adaptation, Out Of Sight, released the following year. Keaton didn’t take a credit or a salary for his one scene cameo as Nicolette, but again, he makes a strong impression as Dennis Farina’s Marshall Sisco takes him to task.

3. Bruce Wayne/Batman – Batman and Batman Returns

When Christian Bale expressed jealousy of Ben Affleck’s casting in the new DC cinematic universe, an interviewer asked Keaton if he felt the same. He gave the greatest possible answer: “No. Do you know why? Because I’m Batman. I’m very secure in that.”

His casting is one of those infamous stories of an initial backlash turning out to be entirely unfounded. At the time, Keaton was chiefly known for comedies like 1983’s Mr. Mom and comic book fans didn’t feel he matched the long-awaited serious take on the character they’d been promised. The internet was not what it is now, so Keaton probably didn’t have to endure anything near the scorn poured upon Affleck, but he silenced the naysayers all the same.

One of the reasons why Keaton was so great in his two outings as the Dark Knight was his portrayal of Bruce Wayne. We would later see Bale pantomime Wayne’s ignorant playboy facade in the Christopher Nolan movies, but somehow it was never as convincing as Keaton’s mask of cluelessness.

Ad – content continues below

Benefiting from a storytelling approach that would sink the 1990s Batman sequels, in holding back information about our hero to maintain the mystery, Keaton makes for a particularly mercurial version of the character. He’s capable of the playboy act, but also of romping fits of madness, (see Bruce’s “You wanna get nuts?! Let’s get nuts!”)

He’s a rare live-action Bruce Wayne that you can believe would be able to hide the fact that he’s Batman – why would you ever suspect this guy? Although we can all have a good laugh at the line from Christopher Walken’s Max Schreck at the end of Batman Returns, (“Bruce Wayne? Why are you dressed as Batman?”) they really pull off that incredulity.

The newer films have played more with the idea that Bruce Wayne is merely the mask that Batman puts on when he’s not following his true cause. The Bat-suits were a little more restrictive back in the 1990s, so that wouldn’t have been too comfortable, but Val Kilmer and George Clooney, Keaton’s successors in this iteration of the franchise, never quite matched his volatile presence in the role.

2. Beetlejuice – Beetlejuice

Hm, we’ve only done the header and we’re two thirds of the way to summoning him. This was Keaton’s first collaboration with Burton, and if you were to guess back in 1988 that one of the stars of this movie would next play Batman, you’d probably have guessed it would be Alec Baldwin.

But you can tell Burton made the right choice with the way Keaton steals the show as the title character, despite only showing up 45 minutes into his own movie. He’s heavily foreshadowed up until then, but the film begins with dearly departed couple Adam (Baldwin) and Barbara (Geena Davis) trying to “bio-exorcise” the new owners of their former dream home, so they can get back to haunting it in peace.

Despite the advice of every ghoulie they consult, they summon Beetlejuice (bugger, now we’ve done it) and soon realise the error of their ways. Keaton plays the character as a manic and morbid arsehole with a perverted sense of humour. The film unquestionably belongs to him from the moment he finally shows up, to the end credits.

Ad – content continues below

Warner Bros has been angling for a sequel to the much-loved film since its initial box office success (according to Kevin Smith, Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian was floated as an assignment for him during the 1990s) and fresh rumours have abounded in the wake of his comeback. At the moment, Burton and Keaton both seem to be aboard, with Seth Grahame-Smith penning a new script, and it could be that the star’s recent awards success finally buoys the long-gestating sequel into existence.

1. Riggan Thomson – Birdman (Or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance)

Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity at this year’s Oscars was not seating Will Arnett, decked out in Val Kilmer’s Batman costume for a Lego Movie-related performance, behind Keaton in much the same way as Riggan is stalked by his big screen alter-ego in Birdman.

Keaton was the early frontrunner in the Best Actor category, maybe because people would like to see him win, after being so solid for so long, but it’s handy that Riggan also represents his best ever role. In a film where the cast is routinely excellent and the technical side of things is so perfectly executed, he is the centre around which everything revolves, and he’s bloody marvellous.

All in-jokes about superhero roles aside, Keaton isn’t playing himself as Riggan. This list alone should go to show that he has stayed in the public eye (if not always in the spotlight) since turning down Batman Forever.

On his worst day, it’s hard to imagine Keaton being so depressively egotistical. Even having openly admitted that he’s never played a less relatable character, he utterly inhabits the role and seems to relish the chance to grapple with such craziness.

Redmayne deserved the Oscar this year, but it’s hard to resist crediting Birdman‘s overall success to its leading man, finally given another chance to soar.