Michael Keaton hasn't won an Oscar – he’s never even been nominated – and his days as a big box office draw are two decades in the Gotham City wind. But he stands undefeated as a pivotal figure in modern movie history.
His classic turn as Batman a quarter-century ago kicked off the cinematic superhero craze that's taken over movie theaters and is threatening to subsume TV, whose latest offerings include Fox’s Caped Crusader backstory drama “Gotham.” Even more gripping than Keaton’s gravelly voiced, butt-kicking Batman was his take on Bruce Wayne, the soft-spoken, but tormented rich guy behind the mask. The film, under Tim Burton’s direction, helped create a thirst for character-driven antihero-superhero fare rendered in lines far grayer than splashy comic book colors.
Keaton makes a semi-return to the genre this week – not as the Dark Knight, but as the living dark side of actors who get typecast as superheroes. "Birdman," which opens Friday, features Keaton as a Hollywood has-been who embarks on a challenging Broadway show as he's haunted by his seemingly inescapable past success as a big screen avian hero.
The film – whose full title is "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" – is generating buzz, sending hopes soaring that Keaton might capture overdue recognition for an acting career that deserves to be defined by more than a bat suit.
Embracing the meta premise of "Birdman" marks a bold move for the 63-year-old performer, who has long shown a gutsy streak akin to Batman’s. From the start, Keaton tackled a range of roles, scoring early success in disparate flicks like the amiable domestic comedy “Mr. Mom,” the emotional drama “Clean and Sober” and the horror-comedy “Beetlejuice.” The first Batman movie marked his biggest departure, and his casting initially infuriated fan boys who bemoaned Keaton’s perceived inability to infuse the character with the necessary brooding macho. His performance proved naysayers wrong.
His only braver move than taking the part was giving it up after 1992’s “Batman Returns,” turning down a reported $15 million to star in a third installment.
Keaton never disappeared, but his box office pull waned as he tackled a new range of roles, running from the compelling small film “Game 6” to the Disney family comedy “Herbie: Fully Loaded.” He’s morphed into a strong character actor unafraid to look less than his best, as he proved most recently by playing a moronic, disheveled yokel in Larry David's 2013 HBO comedy movie “Clear History.”
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Judging from the stunning (and NSFW) "Birdman" trailer, any remnants of movie star ego disappear with Keaton's less-than-buff Riggan Thomson character running through Times Square in his underwear to the cheers of Birdman fans.
Part of us – and part of him – want to see him back in the costume, whether we’re talking about Keaton or his new alter ego, Thomson. Keaton, who may be forever associated with Batman’s cowl, clearly isn’t afraid to expose himself. “Birdman” won't be his next “Batman,” but hopefully rather a Phoenix that carries him up to where he belongs.
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multimedia NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.