Enough talk about up-and-coming actors and spotlight celebrities. I'd like to throw a little love to some great actors who are older than me, still working, and turning in consistent quality performances, starting with Michael Keaton. My dream of Keaton making a splash comeback with his directorial debut The Merry Gentleman (7 screens) seems to have been all but dashed. The film only earned mixed-to-positive reviews and has so far pulled in less than half a million in tickets. But at the very least it was a chance to see this amazing actor in action once again.
I'm told Keaton avoids publicity, and he seems to be a bit of clotheshorse and perhaps a bit difficult to work with. But so was Marlon Brando. Who cares? He's a brilliant actor, and worth every bit of trouble. He's one of the few comedians able to tap into his own personal reservoirs of pain, the same reservoirs of pain that makes people become comedians in the first place. After a career in television, he was thrust into the mainstream as the star of a series of ho-hum mainstream comedies, but some of them, like the hit Mr. Mom (1983) or the cult classic Johnny Dangerously (1984), stood out. A break came with Tim Burton's Beetlejuice (1988), which gave him an opportunity to reach some manically hilarious heights in an artistically interesting film. The same year, he appeared in his first dramatic lead, truthfully tormented as a recovering addict in Clean and Sober. The combination of the two performances earned him the National Society of Film Critics award for Best Actor, though an Oscar nomination never followed.
His collaboration with Burton of course led to Batman (1989); it was an unusual choice to cast a 5'9" comedian rather than a chiseled action hero in the role (it would never happen again), but Keaton found reservoirs of torment and shone it all out through his eyes, so that it was visible even through the bat mask. That monster hit gave him a certain amount of freedom, and so he chose to play psychopaths (Pacific Heights), Shakespeare (Much Ado About Nothing), romances (Speechless) and other items, but too many of his choices fell flat or flopped. Even a terrifically measured character role in Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown (1997) failed to lead to anything.
Aside from voice work in animated films (Porco Rosso, Cars, etc.) has been criminally underused over the past decade or so, even if there are glimmers of genius among things like Game 6 (2005), White Noise (2005) and Herbie Fully Loaded (2005). The thing that's apparent in these new films as well as The Merry Gentleman is a kind of sadness -- or even wariness -- that replaces the old cockiness. I'm not sure he could find it within himself to play another Beetlejuice, but he still has one of the widest ranges of any actor in film today, hitting euphoric, comic highs and dipping all the way down to aching loneliness. I used to walk out of his films wanting to be him, but now I just want to watch him. If you're the next Tarantino looking to resurrect a great actor's sagging career, please consider Keaton.