Michael Keaton is one of the finest comedic and dramatic actors of his generation. While he’s often dismissed as a character actor or forgotten as we’re discussing the titans of the screen, I’m willing to die on this hill. Like most people I first became aware of him through his comedic roles in movies like Mr. Mom and Johnny Dangerously and raised my eyebrows when he was announced as the star of Tim Burton’s Batman. Over the years, though, that skepticism is not only something I’m chagrined to admit to but which has been proven over and over again to be unfounded.
Keaton built his initial reputation on movies like those named above but the late 90s threw a bit of monkeywrench in the career he had. A few box-office underperformers upset the momentum, though I’ll go to bat for Multiplicity, The Paper and other roles from this era. While he was a consistent presence, he wasn’t given great roles in the 2000s, with moments like his two turns as Ray Nicolette in both Out of Sight and Jackie Brown being rare exceptions. It wasn’t until the one-two-punch of Birdman and Spotlight that the general public remembered how great Keaton was, had been and could be.
With so many well-known roles to his name, I’m going to take the occasion of the actor’s 66th birthday to highlight five of his movies I’ve enjoyed but which may not have the high profile of some of his other films.
Here Keaton plays Harry Berg, a largely-unsuccessful inventor who reluctantly agrees to do his ex-wife a favor and pick up a package from her apartment. Almost as soon as he does so he’s under fire from various parties who want the package. As he tries to figure out why everyone’s after him he’s just trying to stay alive, eventually with the help of a P.I. played by Rae Dawn Chong. The trailer explains some of this, selling the movie as a straight-up comedy, though I remember it being slightly darker than what’s shown here. But it’s trying to position the movie another opportunity for his broad talents.
Clean and Sober
This was the moment I stopped being worried about Keaton taking on the role of Batman. Keaton’s first real dramatic role has him playing Daryl Poynter, a real estate broker and junkie on the run from both a murder charge and financial embezzlement. He decides the best place to hide is in a drug rehab clinic. His scams and angles don’t fly with the guy who runs the place (Morgan Freeman) and despite his reasons for doing so, Daryl winds up getting something out of the program. We get a sense of the stakes of the story in the trailer and see the romance and problems he has in the clinic but also the changes he eventually makes in his life.
The Dream Team
Keaton was back in broad comedic territory here, playing Billy Caufield, a man with serious anger issues who’s been committed and is part of a group therapy program with other patients. When they all are taken to a ball game their therapist disappears and Caufield, along with the rest of the group, uses their unexpected freedom to visit the people they’ve left behind. All that is on display in the trailer, which sells the movie as a very broad comedy featuring an all-star cast including Christopher Lloyd and Peter Boyle, though it’s clear Keaton’s Caufield is the central focus.
Keaton’s follow-up to Batman has him going about as far against type as he’s done in his career. He plays Carter Hayes, a seemingly nice guy who rents an apartment from Patty (Melanie Griffith) and her boyfriend Drake (Matthew Modine). Once Carter moves in, though, things start happening that hint at darker motives. He doesn’t pay rent, does construction at all hours of the night and drives the other tenants of the building out. Everything starts out idyllic in the trailer as Patty and Drake work on their investment property and eventually meet Carter. We soon see, though, that he’s not who he says he is and is up to no good, showing the audience that Keaton is taking a very dark turn that’s unlike Mr. Mom or Beetlejuice.
The Merry Gentleman
Keaton’s first and so far only directorial effort has him playing Frank Logan, a longtime hitman who’s at the end of his rope and contemplating suicide. He meets Kate (Kelly Macdonald), a woman who’s just left an abusive relationship and the two form an unlikely friendship. Some of that is on display in the trailer, which sells not only a complex story but a performance by Keaton that’s full of stoic darkness, one that plays the cards as close to the vest as possible.
What did I miss? Leave your favorite Keaton role in the comments below.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.