Movies

A Comprehensive Look Back At Michael Keaton’s 1980s Cinematic Mastery

As an ’80s baby, Michael Keaton was a big star when cycling through films on Betamax or rented VHS from the neighborhood West Coast Video. Sure Batman and Beetlejuice were staples in the movie watching diet, but so were some of Keaton’s more enjoyable ’80s films like Mr. Mom and Gung Ho.

Keaton’s cinematic accession to Best Actor nominee began in the early ’70s with appearances on Mister Rodger’s Neighborhood. After giving stand-up comedy a try, he decided that it would behoove him to try his hand at acting. Following a string of comedy hits throughout the ’80s, he became a major cinematic star when he teamed up with Tim Burton at the end of the decade to create two iconic films: Beetlejuice and Batman.

The brilliant Keaton is a heavy favorite to snag Best Actor at the Oscars this year. Let’s take a cinematic journey through the former Bruce Wayne’s ’80s playbook in reverence of his storied career…

Night Shift (1982)

Michael Keaton started off the decade as a parole officer in the failed TV series Report to Murphy. His next gig, however, would be his first feature film role in Ron Howard’s Night Shift. Keaton garnered attention for his performance, and the film was a launching pad for his soon to be successful career.

Critic: “Reality would catch up a lot sooner were it not for the antics of Mr. Keaton, who is making his memorable screen debut. Mr. Keaton is former improvisatory comedian whose timing is as good as his gags and who doesn’t miss a beat when he is sparring with Mr. (Henry) Winkler.” Janet Maslin, New York Times

Keaton Quote: “The character I invented was a combination of some people I knew and some things I made up, and afterward there [were other projects and offers] that would have meant trying to repeat that over and over, to be the ‘glib young man,’ whatever that is, but that held no interest for me.” Los Angeles Times

Mr. Mom (1983)

Keaton eased into his leading man potential with this 1983 film that made it okay to be on fun-employment. His character, Jack, takes over the household duties when he gets laid off from his job. Christopher Lloyd and Jeffrey Tambor also pop up in this John Hughes-scripted comedy.

Critic: “It’s clear immediately that Mr. Mom benefits substantially from Keaton’s almost unreasonably charismatic turn as the title character, and there’s little doubt that Keaton’s top-notch work goes a long way towards initially drawing the viewer into the admittedly familiar proceedings.” David Nusair, Reel Film

Keaton Quote: “I read that John Hughes script for Mr. Mom and I thought, This guy is a funny writer. I went: You ought to stick around and direct this thing. But he didn’t, he left, and look what he became. A really legendary comedy director.” Esquire

Johnny Dangerously (1984)

Keaton kept the comedy ball rolling in 1984 with this farcical send-up of gangster films. Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) directed while Joe Piscopo, Peter Boyle, Dom DeLuise, and Danny DeVito appeared in supporting roles. The film was hit-or-miss with many critics.

Critic: “The opening scenes of “Johnny Dangerously” are so funny you just don’t see how they can keep it up. And you’re right: They can’t. But they make a real try. The movie wants to do for gangster films what Airplane! did for Airport, and Top Secret! did for spy movies.” Roger Ebert

Keaton Quote: (As Johnny Dangerously) “The years hadn’t softened Moronie. He continued to murder the English Language, and anyone who got in his way.”

Gung Ho (1986)

Howard teamed up with Keaton again in 1986 for this workplace dramedy about a man who must negotiate the rough waters of his gig when a Japanese company buys out his car manufacturing factory. As a child, I watched this over and over just to see Keaton’s performance. He’s a whirlwind of comedic talent.

Critic: “Watanabe and Keaton conspire to outsmart the owners and the workers and save the plant, and they also conspire to almost save the movie, by adding unexpected twists and turns to the dialog. They’re good.” Roger Ebert

Keaton Quote: (On filming in native Pittsburgh) “Eventually I said to Ron (Howard), ‘You know, we could do that in Pittsburgh.’ He said, ‘I know. I’ve been thinking about that, but I didn’t want to get your hopes up.’ One hour after they saw the city they said, ‘This is it.’” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 

Touch and Go (1986)

In this romantic comedy, Keaton plays a pro hockey player whose attempted mugging by a child turns into a potential love interest with the boy’s mother. Due to problems with the film’s quality (script, pacing, everything), TriStar held onto the cut until it could get it right, but the film suffered in audience’s and critic’s minds.

Critic: “Touch and Go is a dismally ineffective, would-be sentimental movie about a professional hockey star (Michael Keaton) who befriends a tough little street urchin (Ajay Naidu), after the urchin tries to mug him, then falls in love with the boy’s unwed mom (Maria Conchita Alonso).” Vincent Canby, New York Times

Keaton Quote: “I’m pretty happy with it. There are always things on the screen that make you say ‘Oh boy, I don’t know about that.’ But it’s OK. A pretty good movie.” The Miami News

The Squeeze (1987)

Keaton continued a low point in the decade with this action comedy that didn’t seem to resonate with anyone. While a good hand in any film, The Squeeze‘s script didn’t allow for a world-class Keaton performance on a scale that was broken from the start.

Critic: “It’s a plot-poor first script from Daniel Taplitz, directed by Roger Young, an Emmy winner for his television farm drama “Bitter Harvest.” His last feature credit was “Lassiter,” a flat spy thriller with Tom Selleck. Neither director nor writer shows much imagination — Taplitz lifts his running “Bonanza” jokes from “Diner.” And Young’s a car-crashing bore.” Rita Kempley, Washington Post

Keaton Quote: (on the worst movie he thinks he’s been in) “A movie called The Squeeze with Rae Dawn Chong. It was dreadful. The worst thing was, it had the potential to be interesting. But it wasn’t.” Empire

Beetlejuice (1988)

Films with their own unique properties that have since created a mythos and brand (Beetlejuice merchandise is still a thing almost 20 years later) don’t get much better than this. Tim Burton’s vision combined with Keaton’s out-of-this-world rendition of a ghoulish entity made for one of the decade’s best films, as well as jumpstart both he and Burton’s careers. Hurry up with the sequel, already!

Critic: “As played with saturnine relish by Michael Keaton, who has the most fun with a male role since Jack Nicholson’s devil in “The Witches of Eastwick,” he’s one of many wonderfully disgusting inhabitants you’ll meet in “Beetlejuice,” Tim Burton’s hilarious, sardonic comedy about the afterlife of two honeymooners.” Desson Howe, Washington Post

Keaton Quote: “From an art perspective, I don’t know how you get better than ‘Beetlejuice.’ In terms of originality and a look, it’s 100% unique. If you consider the process of taking something from someone’s mind — meaning Tim — and putting it on the screen, I think that movie is incomparable.” Los Angeles Times

Clean and Sober (1988)

Following the mega success of Beetlejuice, Keaton began flourishing as a dramatic actor in his turn as a real estate hustler and addict. With some help from Morgan Freeman, his performance as an unhinged man trying to get sober is haunting, effective, and shows flashes of his brilliance.

Critic: “One of the strengths Michael Keaton brings to “Clean and Sober” is his wild, tumultuous energy, which makes his character seem less like a victim than like an accident causing itself to happen.” Roger Ebert

Keaton Quote: “I was going to say [I didn’t relate to my character in] Clean And Sober, but to some degree everybody’s probably got some sort of addiction. For a long time I had an addiction to going running.” Short List

The Dream Team (1989)

The wild-eyed, explosive Keaton persona is on full display in The Dream Team, which follows a gang of sanitarium patients as they strike out on their own when their chaperone becomes unavailable. The actor has come into full bloom, with his manic qualities and tics becoming as sharp as ever, but it’s those eyes — seemingly hiding something seething underneath — that gets him his next role…

Critic: “High expectations and Howard Zieff don’t exactly go together like kibbles and bits, but here the director of such inoffensive mediocrities as “Private Benjamin” actually gives us good buddy value for our moviegoing dollar.” Rita Kempley, Washington Post

Keaton Quote: (as Billy Caufield) “Restaurant security. Just a minor utensil violation. Go ahead, enjoy your dinner.”

Batman (1989)

We end the decade on a high note as Burton and Keaton team up once again, this time for Warner Bros. Batman. Keaton tones down his eccentric flailing — except for one scene with a fireplace poker — and still manages to steal the show as a brooding Bruce Wayne. Generally considered one of the best films and representations of the DC Comics character, Keaton proved that he could be a leading man and set the table for his Oscar-nominated performance in Birdman.

Critic: “For Batman purists, Michael Keaton was an upsetting choice, but it’s a choice brilliantly redeemed in realization. What Keaton brings to his characterization of both Batman and his millionaire-playboy alter ego, Bruce Wayne, is a quality of coiled concentration, a wary vigilance. In his Batsuit, Keaton’s movements are stylized, almost robotic, and the stiffness of movement carries Arthurian associations, as if he were indeed a dark knight, armored for battle.” Hal Hinson, Washington Post

Keaton Quote: “Really talented people do a version of what Tim did with our Batman. Watching him I started to remember all those things. And we had to adjust all the time. Because we never saw the thing until the day we were shooting. And we didn’t know if the suit would work, and it kind of didn’t, and we had to keep fixing it.” IGN

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