What the Hell Happened to Michael Keaton?

Michael Keaton 2013

Michael Keaton started out as a manic comic and grew into an unlikely leading man and an even more unlikely super hero.  As the first big-screen Batman, Keaton was able to make deals that secured him A-list work.  But when he walked away from the Bat-franchise, Keaton’s opportunities dried up.  Eventually, he all but disappeared from the spotlight.

What the hell happened?

keaton - mr rogers

After failing to break into stand-up comedy, Michael Keaton worked as a cameraman at a public television station in Pittsburg.  He started appearing onscreen in TV shows like Where the Heart Is and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood where he played one of the Flying Zucchini Brothers.  Keaton was a production assistant on Mr. Rogers and hosted a tribute show on PBS following Fred Rogers’ death in 2004.

I kind of blew past that stand-up comedy career, didn’t I?  Wanna see a clip?  Of course you do.  Here’s an early Michael Keaton stand-up routine.

Keaton left public television to start a career as an actor.  He appeared on TV shows like Maude and The Mary Tyler Moore Hour.  Here’s a clip of Keaton doing a song and dance number with a pre-fame David Letterman and Mary Tyler Moore.

Man, I do not miss variety shows.  But that was pretty awesome.

As Keaton was entering this phase of his career, he was asked to change his professional name.  Keaton’s real name is Michael Douglas.  In fact, it is still his legal name.  But there was already a famous actor named Michael Douglas and Mike Douglas was a famous TV host.

Ironically, Michael Douglas’ father, Kirk Douglas, was born Issur Danielovitch.  If he hadn’t changed his name to Douglas when he came to Hollywood, the name Michael Douglas would have been available for Keaton to use.  If that had happened, Michael Douglas would have been Michael Danielovitch and Michael Keaton would have been Michael Douglas.

The internet insists that Keaton chose his stage name after reading an article about Diane Keaton on a plane.  However, this is not true.  It’s funny how the internet feeds off of itself some times.  Someone posted the original story without citation and soon it became cited all over the place including Wikipedia.  But Keaton has publicly denied the story.  Keaton picked the name without giving it much thought.  But he has said Buster Keaton was an influence.

rabbit test

In 1978, Keaton had a cameo role in his first movie, Rabbit Test.  Rabbit Test starred Billy Crystal as the world’s first pregnant man.  There was nowhere to go from here but up.

keaton working stiffs

In 1979, Keaton starred opposite Jim Belushi in the short-lived sitcom, Working Stiffs.  Keaton and Belushi played brothers who lived together and worked as janitors.  Nine episodes of the show were produced, but only four episodes were aired.

I’m not sure which is worse.  A pregnant-man film directed by Joan Rivers or a sit-com co-starring the lesser Belushi.  Fortunately for Keaton, one of the writer’s on Working Stiffs was also working on a screenplay for Ron Howard and introduced them.

That screenplay was Night Shift.

Night Shift was released in 1982 and starred Henry Winkler as an accountant-turned-pimp  and a pre-Cheers Shelley Long as a hooker with a heart of gold (a novel concept if ever there was one).  Ron Howard directed his former Happy Days co-star in what was intended to be a career change for both of them.  Howard was a novice director and Winkler was trying to get away from his Fonzie persona.

Keaton absolutely stole the show.  His motormouth idea man, Billy “Blaze” Blazejowski never stopped rattling off one crazy idea after another to the point where even the Fonz lost his cool and told him to shut up.

But Keaton’s over-the-top performance made the studio nervous.  According to Keaton,

“They saw the dailies and they were telling Ronnie I had to stop chewing gum, I had to get my hair cut. Eventually they were, like, ‘We have to fire him! What the fuck is he doing?’ They didn’t get it. To Ronnie’s credit, he told ‘em to wait and see until it was all cut together.”

Night Shift got mostly favorable reviews and performed reasonably well at the box office.  It set off a string of prostitution-themed comedies in the 80’s that included Risky Business and Doctor Detroit.

Keaton - mr mom

Following Night Shift, Keaton was offered the John Candy role in Ron Howard’s Splash.  But he turned it down fearing that the role was too similar to the side-kick he played in Night Shift.

Instead, Keaton opted for a starring role in Mr. Mom in 1983.  John Hughes’ script for the high concept domestic comedy appealed to Keaton as did the fact it allowed him to grow as a leading man.

Reviews at the time were mixed to positive.  Many noted that the film felt a little like a TV sitcom.  But Keaton elevated the material.  Mr. Mom was a hit at the box office.

Next: Johnny Dangerously and Gung Ho

Posted on March 16, 2011, in Movies, What the Hell Happened?, WTHH Actor and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 487 Comments.

  1. I’ve never been a big fan of bill murray. I guess you could say i like tommy lee jones. I’ve enjoyed his work in several movies. I definitely think edward norton is underrated. Did you see american history x? Because i haven’t and ed’s performance garnered so much acclaim

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  2. watch lost in translation his best work tommy leee jones was amazing no country for old men. I saw American history x amazing edward norton is perfect go rent it now lol

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  3. ed harris is also good actor.

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  4. if u want some light edward norton movies watch keeping the faith hes charming in it and shows a funny side

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  5. I’ve seen keeping the faith, he was very charming in it and seemed to have a touch for comedy. Ed harris is a good actor, i’ve always liked him. What are some movies with him you like?

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  6. apollo 13 truman show pollock hours right stuff places in heart. He is a good actor rarely the lead but good u also good watch norton in primal fear good movie.u like denzel

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  7. peyton i like your taste in movie give me your facebook

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  8. I do like denzel. Did you see flight? Powerful acting. I’m sorry, i don’t have a facebook page. I still need to see primal fear. I’m kinda disappointed in myself for not seeing it sooner.

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  9. u can watch primal fear on youtube whole movie flight ws amazing inside man training day malcol x hurrican he has too many good movies to name hes a great actor hes my 4th fav actor right after hanks costner and hackamn i cant really a movie of his i hatted hes awesome

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  10. I didn’t know primal fear was on youtube, thanks for that. Did you see american gangster? Denzel was great in that too. I loved him in training day, especially that character.

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  11. him and crowe always deliver pelican brief and Philadelphia more good actors are gibson and sean penn

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  12. u have an email we can chat at

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  13. Yeah, i have email. Do you?

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  14. yes tell me your i can sned u pics of the tiff and actors there when i go there

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  15. What celebs do you hope to meet?

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  16. lol too many to name gosling so he can sign notebook underatted actor then costner so he can sign upside of anger tobey so he can sign cider house rules then michael keaton

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  17. I’m a huge fan of gosling, do you like him?

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  18. yes he was amazing at notebook crazy stupid love lars real girl so many to name underrated actor i was pissed when i found out he turned down batman he was dumb for doing it

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  19. I loved him in lars and the real girl and of course the notebook. Did you see blue valentine? Amazing performance. Can’t believe the academy nominated michelle and not him.

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  20. yes that half nelson good Oscar snubbed so many times. him michelle good chemistry i liked like how in last ten years he proved he was more then heartthrob played really good roles

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  21. Half Nelson was a good one, incredible performance. Did you see drive?

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  22. yup he barely talks in it but he expresses alot with facial expressions

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    • I have “Lars and the Real Girl” on disc (my kind of film right there; offbeat), “Blue Valentine” (viewed it on Showtime, liked the film’s tone and performances) and “The Notebook” (read it on a plane once after my future ex-wife loaned it to me, and I think the book’s translation to screen was done well. I always liked the casting of the main character for both time periods).

      Like

  23. That’s the best kind of acting. Let me know how it goes if you get a chance to meet him.

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  24. gluestry u have good taste in movies u too peyton and if i do meet him ill tell u say hi it is good actitng its hard too do. harrison ford(who i usually don’t care for ) did it amazing in witness he was not even monotone in that he projected his voice amazingly in it they showed it in my drama class as a example of good acting

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  25. Pierce Brosnan Nearly Played Batman:

    http://www.denofgeek.us/movies/batman/238459/pierce-brosnan-nearly-played-batman

    Before Michael Keaton, Tim Burton asked Pierce Brosnan to play Batman. No, really.

    Against all odds, Michael Keaton’s turn as Bruce Wayne/Batman in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie has become a generational icon. If you’re old enough to remember, his casting wasn’t exactly met with universal acclaim…even in the pre-internet age. Nevertheless, Keaton delivered a haunted, intense performance, but he wasn’t Tim Burton’s first choice for the role. One of those was future James Bond, Pierce Brosnan.

    Keep in mind, Brosnan had yet to play Bond in 1989 despite long being eyed for the role, as his Remington Steele commitments prevented him from replacing Roger Moore. In a Reddit AMA, Brosnan revealed that Tim Burton came to him about stepping into the cowl. He turned it down.

    "I went and met with Tim Burton for the role of Batman. But I just couldn't really take it seriously, any man who wears his underpants outside his pants just cannot be taken seriously. That was my foolish take on it. It was a joke, I thought. But how wrong was I? Don't get me wrong, because I love Batman, and I grew up on Batman. As a kid in Ireland, we used to get our raincoats and tie them round our neck and swing through the bicycle shed..."
    

    For a bit of perspective, this meeting probably took place in 1987 or 1988. We were only about a year out from The Dark Knight Returns, and the prevailing vision of Batman in the non comic book reading segment of popular culture was still Adam West’s brightly-colored comedy do-gooder. Hard to believe, considering that now the general impression of Batman is now that of an armored, utterly humorless semi-fascist who misses his parents. I kid because I love.

    Now, how’s this for symmetry? Adam West also claims that he was offered the role of James Bond in his post-Batman days. Dude, that’s some spooky stuff. It’s like if you put on Wizard of Oz and Dark Side of the Moon at the same time. Actually, it’s nothing like that. In fact, never do that. Please don’t be that person.

    In all seriousness, though, Mr. Brosnan certainly would have looked like he stepped right out of a Neal Adams Batman panel, wouldn’t he?

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  26. pierce would have been a better batman he can play the bruce wayne charm and batmans intensity hes good at action roles he can do it.the batman movie would helped him land better roles to be a list but james bond gave him the chance he didnt reall capitalize on it hes a good actor but he hasnt had a hit 08 mamma mia in that movie he kind of got lost with the huge cast.november man looks like crap matador proved he can act he needs a serious roles i look at clooneys roles its unfair clooneys gets them pierce would be so good at those roles better too

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  27. any chance u will add paltrow on the list. her career died since Shakespeare in love. Another my friend and i had a debate he think pierce is an list cause of sucesss of bond films altohught pierce is good the bond films were not success because of him he just happen to get a role in an already estbalhed role. it did give him roles that would help bring him to a list but it failed

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  28. I think she’s a giant snob, but Gwyneth was in three iron man movies, which were hugely successful. Downey may have been the star, but she had an important role. It’s just like you said with diane lane in man of steel.

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  29. i forget about iron man but besides those she had lots of flops i think she is a snob too she seems arrogant her mom is sweeter and down to earth i thought she owes her oscar to dench or cate blanchett

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  30. i guess paltrow dosent need to be on the site as much i thought i only watch first iron man its been forget she was in it . her and diane lane are still doing better then richard gere who i wouldnt say is a huge box office he has a couple of hits but never been consistent he makes 1 hit then makes crap for the 8 years

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  31. birdman getting good reviews i see it resurrect his career maybe going the michael caine route strong supporting roles as he gets older with a few successful leading roles

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  32. to the person above who said freeman caine r not a listers driving miss daisy miss made a lot of money so did kiss the girls dolphin tale those movies sold on his name had his name in above title so morgan freeman is an a Lister he had movies sell on his name and made money before he just chooses mostly to take supporting roles nothing wrong with it but he is still a lister he can carry a successful movie as from michael caine Alfie ital in job educating rita all were hits he was the lead in. to be honest he was the top leading man from 60s to 80s then his career died in mid 80s took supporting roles in hits but once in a while he leads in hits like quit American. my point both those guy are a listers had success in leading roles before but rather do supporting roles now.Michael was a successful leading man in his prime like tom hanks and leonardo dicaprio but as he got older not a lot of lead roles for someone his age so he rejevantd himself as a successful actor plus like i mentioned before he made poor choice in mid 80s that forced him into being a successful character actor but once in a while he has success in lead roles like quiet American Morgan freeman was a late bloomer he had his breakthrough role at 50 with supporting role in street smart he had sucess in lead roles before as i stated above so he is an a lister but unlike caine at freemans prime he wasnt mostly leading man he mostly supporting roles with a few successful lead roles but still a lister since he was hit his big break at 50 there werent many roles with guys his age but still a lister

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  33. along came a spider grossed over100 million with budget of 60 million morgan freeman was the lead so a Lister to me i would say michael caine and morgan freeman are more a listers then keaton they had more sucess in leading roles. batman cant count cause people didnt go to see the film for him mr mom and birdman are the only ones i can think of

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  34. birdman has oscar buzz comeback

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    • The 50 Worst Movies Ever Made:

      http://flavorwire.com/477608/the-50-worst-movies-ever-made/19

      1. Jack Frost

      If you can make a strong family-targeted Christmas movie, it’s the gift that keeps on giving: you get an audience starved for holiday entertainment, and fresh revenues every damn year. But if you make a terrible family-targeted Christmas movie, well, you end up with Jack Frost. It’s the story of a rock star (Michael Keaton) who puts career over family and dies in a Christmas car wreck. (Happy Holidays!) A year later, he comes back to life — in the form of a CGI snowman that’s, inconveniently enough, more terrifying than the villain of the cheapo horror movie that shares Jack Frost’s title. Frost was an expensive flop that contributed to Keaton’s infrequent film appearances over the last decade and a half; when you hear Birdman described as his “comeback” movie, this is part of what he’s coming back from.

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  35. birdman its life imitating art kind of like hollywoodland with ben affleck

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    • The Real Comeback of the Fake Michael Keaton: Scenes From the Birdman Set

      http://www.vulture.com/2014/10/scenes-from-the-birdman-set.html

      For all the technical wizardry deployed in Alejandro González ­Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The ­Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), the movie’s most impressive trick might have been getting Michael Keaton to say yes. Though he played Bruce Wayne twice in Tim ­Burton’s Batman movies, Keaton is probably more famous for being the guy who says no: He declined his parts in Beetlejuice and Jackie Brown the first three times they were offered. He quit the sequel to Batman Returns because he didn’t like the kid-friendly direction the studio was pushing it in. He’s said to have turned down starring roles in Splash, The Fly, JFK, Philadelphia, Kingpin, and TV’s Lost, all of which became iconic for the actors who eventually played them. Keaton has been so absent from the screen lately that when he met Barack Obama a few years ago, the president greeted him by asking, “Why don’t you make more movies?”

      But it took only one meeting with Iñárritu for Keaton to sign up for Birdman, the Oscar-contending tragicomedy that closes the New York Film Festival on October 11 (in wide release on October 17). “I always think that I’m not going to be right for a movie, or that there’s someone else who can do it better,” says the actor over a crackling cell-phone connection. He was uniquely qualified for this one, though. Birdman is a magical-realist showbiz satire about an actor, Riggan Thomson, who once ­portrayed a movie superhero but is now, after years out of the spotlight, angling for a comeback as the writer-director-star of a Broadway play. “I got the meta aspect of it, and there were probably nine seconds where I was like, Do I need this? How do I know it’s going to work?” says Keaton. “But then I thought, It would be very cowardly not to do it. I may not be great all the time, that’s for sure, but the one thing I’m not is cowardly.”

      Neither, certainly, is Iñárritu, the Mexican director of bleak, despairing dramas like Amores Perros and Babel, for whom the challenge of making his first comedy was evidently not daunting enough — he also insisted on shooting Birdman’s onstage portions in a real Broadway theater, during Tony season, when few are available. By chance, one was. “It was such a lucky strike, because normally these theaters are booked for years,” says Iñárritu, who managed to get his cast — which includes Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Amy Ryan, Andrea Riseborough, and Zach Galifianakis — into the St. James Theatre on 44th Street for two weeks last spring, in between Barry Manilow on Broadway and Let It Be, the short-lived Beatles musical. (Brigitte Lacombe shot these photos for New York on May 10, 2013.)

      While there, Iñárritu’s actors were constrained not just by time but also by the movie’s demanding visual approach. Virtuoso cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, The Tree of Life) filmed Birdman with a single camera in pieces that were edited together to resemble an unbroken two-hour ­tracking shot, which meant that each scene had to be captured in one take. “If it were judged like an athletic event, the difficulty of this movie would probably be record-setting, like extremely high,” says Keaton. “Everyone who lit the scene, acted in the scene, or handed you a prop had to be perfect.”

      It was like doing real theater — almost, says Norton, who plays one of the stars of Riggan’s show. “In the movie, you never see the totality of the play” — which is based loosely on Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” — “so none of us knew what it was actually about. It was like Rashomon; we all had our own ideas. It’s always a little meta when you have actors playing actors, but this was really funny because nobody, on either level, understood the play we were doing.”

      Norton doesn’t think he was satirizing any of his own persona with his performance as the brilliant but erratic Mike Shiner, but he admits that Iñárritu might have had hidden motives in casting him among other refugees from superhero franchises. “I did The Hulk, Michael did Batman, and Emma did Spider-Man,” he says. “You have a movie starring people who are complicit in the very thing they’re sticking a fork in. I think that was totally by design on Alejandro’s part.” (Actually, Iñárritu would like to stick more than a fork in the superhero genre: “Sometimes these films are just guys in nylon suits picking their asses, which is fine,” he says. “But the ones that pretend to be profound can have a fascist, right-wing point of view. The good guys are always right, and they use their powers to defeat the guys who aren’t on their side. If I made a superhero movie, the hero would die at the end, for being so full of certainty without having learned anything. That would be his lesson, to be dead.”)

      Keaton, who presciently ditched his own superhero series before the Bat-suit got nipples, says he doesn’t identify much with the depressive Riggan, who is tortured by regrets over hanging up his cape. “I related less to him than almost every other character I’ve played, in terms of the desperation,” he says. “There were times in my life when I felt desperate, but it was never about this. It’s a fear-based industry, and if you buy into it, you’re pretty fucked.” But when I press him further on the similarities between his career and Riggan’s, Keaton, apparently in the middle of a photo shoot, ends our call: “Now they’re yanking me for one more picture, and I hate to be rude, but he’s been looking at me like I’m a jerk, so … [click].”

      Like Riggan, though, Keaton — already the subject of Best Actor buzz following Birdman’s ecstatic reception at the Venice Film Festival in August — seems ready for a resurgence. “If you look at my age and how long I’ve been acting, I’m way behind in terms of the amount of films compared to my peers,” he said before getting off the line. “But I’m in the mood to work these days.” Next, he’ll star in Thomas McCarthy’s Spotlight as a Boston Globe editor investigating a Catholic sex-abuse scandal. “It’s a really good cast and a really good script. You might think they’re around all the time, but they’re just not, so I grabbed it. It’s hard to say no.”

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  36. Michael Keaton’s film Birdman is releasing this weekend. The film has been gatheriing some awards buzz building up to its release. Keaton even made the cover of this weeks’ Entertainment Weekly, along with a terrific interview, I highly recommend you pick up a copy to read. Depending on how well the film does at the box office and later on during awards season, later down the line you may have to re-adjust the final page of Keaton’s article. Which would be a nice thing! That would mean the film did well and it either gave him a comeback or possibly some awards or box office success again. I myself am intrigued by the movie, I might very well go see it. This is a fine example that almost any WTTH actor, with the right opportunity, can make a comeback of some sorts.

    Like

    • I am also intrigued. But I read an absolutely terrible review of the movie over at The Dissolve. Here is the first line of Scott Tobias’ review:

      Alejandro González Iñárritu is a pretentious fraud, but it’s taken some time to understand the precise nature of his fraudulence.

      Holy crap!

      I guess the praise won’t be unanimous after all. Having said that, it currently hold a 92% approval rating at RT.com. As a Keaton fan (and a Norton fan as well) I definitely want to see it. Since they are both WTHH subjects and this is bound to be an important film for both of their careers I feel compelled to go see it.

      Like

    • Give Michael Keaton the Oscar:

      http://www.hitfix.com/in-contention/give-michael-keaton-the-oscar

      The conversation around “Birdman” has shifted a little bit since early raves out of the Venice and Telluride film festivals. Maybe as expected, a number of writers are taking umbrage with a certain critic depiction in the film. Some reviews go so far as to read like performance art based on that depiction. Nevertheless, there was always going to be a bend in that road, and I’m fine with that. But I want to talk about something else. I want to talk about how Michael Keaton deserves the Oscar for Best Actor walking away.

      No, I haven’t seen performances from guys like David Oyelowo, Oscar Isaac, Bradley Cooper and Jack O’Connell, which lurk on the season’s horizon. So the statement is what it is, one made without all the requisite info. But if you’re asking me, I’m telling you: no one is likely to own a role or the screen with more authority this year.

      I’ve been sort of mortified to watch the narrative around the film bog down so heavily in the meta angle of Keaton playing an actor who owes his fame to a former role as a superhero. It was there in the lead-up to the film’s festival premieres and it’s there now, because it’s an easy, and admittedly interesting, way into talking about the project. As Norton put it to me in an interview, “There’s an understandable and maybe necessary kind of reductivism that comes into the way the media covers something like this.” But at some point you have to let that go and see this performance for what it really is: an absolute showcase and reminder of the range Keaton is capable of exhibiting, all in one place, all in one role.

      Thankfully, the idea is starting to swing around. Scott Foundas’ profile of Keaton at Variety digs in on that point, and this quote from Ron Howard (who directed Keaton in “Night Shift,” “Gung Ho” and “The Paper”) could not say it any better: “Whatever tone he’s operating in, whatever genre, there’s a kind of emotional logic at play, which is why it’s been so easy for him to shift over into tragedy or seriocomic roles. Whatever gear you need, it always comes from a place of character, and it’s never exactly what you’d expect.”

      Andrea Riseborough put it to me a different way when we spoke recently. “The man has a big pendulum swing,” she said. “He has a big palette to draw from and he has so many unusual and interesting responses. To me, the way that Michael responds is just very human. Humans are inconsistent. We are erratic. We have unusual responses and inappropriate responses to things. I always admired him for just being unafraid of showing that. And I think that’s what makes his comedy so funny and so brilliant. Because we all identify with him. We all identify with a crisis.”

      And in “Birdman,” he’s not just putting that range out there in a single film, but sometimes in single scenes. The emotional spectrum of this character, Riggan Thompson — who all actors will identify with at the end of the day, whether they’ll admit it or not — is like a fireworks display. But it’s never graceless or baroque. It comes from such an internal place, like a fed furnace of insecurity and creative desperation. There surely won’t be a portrait more representative of the artist’s plight this year. And that plight is captured with brilliant strokes of humanism and even expressionism by Keaton and director Alejandro González Iñárritu.

      Add to that the physical demands of the performance, so dependent on blocking for the elaborate camera moves, to say nothing of maintaining that tightrope walk for extended 10-minute takes and never, not for an instant, faltering — you have a performance that is simply unlike anything else in the race.
      Related

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  37. every critically acclaimed movie just has at least one bad review believe it or gladiator was critically acclaimed ebert hated it and iam sre back then there was at least one critic that hated godfather people have different taste in movies just cause one movie is loved dosent there is isnt one person who dislikes it

    Like

    • I’m obviously going to hold off forming an opinion until I see the movie. I was just shocked by the extremely negative tone of Tobias’ review given the movie’s positive buzz.

      Incidentally, Ebert may have been right about Gladiator.

      Like

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