Friday, May 20, 2011

The 5 Best: Michael Keaton

"Let's turn on the juice and see what shakes loose."
-Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice

The fine folks over at Man, I Love Films wrote a piece on the five best works of Michael Keaton. I can't say I entirely agree with their choices, though I did admire his performances in every title on that list. Keaton really is marvelous in everything he does, even when he's doing crappy movies (The Merry Gentleman, Speechless come to mind). I absolutely loved him as Ken in Toy Story 3, he's the best of all Batmans, and he has certainly proved his dramatic chops with Clean and Sober. He's effortlessly charming in Multiplicity, anchors a great cast in The Paper and more recently, he stole his every scene as the Captain in The Other Guys.

All fine work, but those aren't his best. I know my choices will rattle some readers but, in my eyes, listed below in chronological order are the five roles that truly define the career of Michael Keaton.

Hunt Stevenson in Gung Ho (1986)
This is my favorite early Keaton movie. He appeared in some goofy classics (Mr. Mom, Night Shift, Johnny Dangerously) but this one saw a lot of replay action in my youth. Gedde Watanabe (whatever happened to him, eh?) co-stars in this hilarious Ron Howard comedy of manners in which a Japanese car company buys out an American plant. Keaton's Hunt Stevenson attempts to mediate the culture clash between his hard-working blue collar colleagues and the strict, labor-intensive, numbers-crunching Japanese owners. George Wendt, Mimi Rogers and John Turturro round out the likable supporting cast. It's moving, it's funny, and a highly underrated comedy of the 80's.

Beetlejuice in Beetlejuice (1988)
Despite playing the title character, Beetlejuice is not really a Michael Keaton movie. With only 17 minutes of screen time, what he does with this small role is remarkable. The heart of this movie belongs to Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis (a well-matched pairing) as deceased newlyweds who just want to be left alone in their new house. They enlist the aid of a wise-cracking con artist who is more than willing to cut a deal with our exasperated couple. Keaton is clearly having a ball, and you can't possibly imagine another actor in the role. It's an irreverent, inspired performance in one of Tim Burton's most memorable films.

Carter Hayes in Pacific Heights (1990)
I don't know, but I really liked seeing Keaton play a bad guy here. It's a straight role, nothing too showy. But what he does with it makes him a pleasure to watch. Matthew Modine and Melanie Griffith are a young couple who rent out their dream house in order to help pay for it. Keaton is a tenant who is hellbent on making their lives miserable. It's not a great film by any means, but I remember seeing it after Batman came out and being rather impressed with Keaton's dark, maniacal performance. It was a nice stretch for him. Pacific Heights was also very pleasing to the eyes; John Schlesinger directed this beautifully shot thriller on location in glorious San Francisco.

Bob Jones in My Life (1993)
Yes, it's saccharine. It's weepy. It's pure melodrama. But dammit, I fell for it, hook line and sinker. I was a sobbing mess by the end of this drama about a dying man (Keaton) trying to make the most of his last days on earth. Nicole Kidman, in a remarkable early-career performance, is in fine form, but take another look at Keaton here. He doesn't push it. He plays a well-read, intelligent man who simply does not know how to comprehend his feelings. It's an understated performance in an underrated film.

Ray Nicolette in Jackie Brown (2007)
Like Beetlejuice, this isn't a full blown Keaton film. He doesn't steal the film, but he does stand out nicely in a smallish, delicious role (which he reprised oh-so-briefly in Out of Sight) as a Fed named Ray Nicolette. He wants his hands on a notorious arms dealer (of which he knows nothing about), so he focuses his energy on a flight attendant who may or may not be playing him. This is Tarantino's most underrated film which features career-best work by Pam Grier and Robert Forster, and one of Robert DeNiro's strongest performances in the last 20 years. It's a busy, bustling masterpiece, and Keaton, amid all of the greatness that is Jackie Brown, fits right in.


hanes132 said...

This post just makes me want to watch "The Dream Team" again. Can't believe you didn't even mention that flick. Shame on you!

Dave said...

Jenn, you are absolutely right. How thoughtless of me! You know where I forgot to mention "The Dream Team?" First paragraph where I mentioned "The Merry Gentleman" and "Speechless!" :-)

I *hated* this movie. I remember finding it obnoxious and grating. Of course, this was 20 years ago. Think it aged well?

hanes132 said...

I actually remember ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about this movie other than Peter Boyle saying "Wah wah wah wah" from the elevator. I "think" I liked it back in the day... but I actually just want to watch it again to jog my deteriorating memory.

Andrew Green said...

Michael Keaton is, by far, one of Hollywood's most underrated actors.....
Frankly, I miss him.


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