Special Feature: Batman to Birdman

F. Scott Fitzgerald once claimed that “there are no second acts in American lives.” Though dismissive of the phoenix-like revival of his fellow countrymen, it’s proved largely unfounded when it comes to the Hollywood leading man. Amongst the showbiz second acts, eighties relics such as John Travolta and Mickey Rourke have both managed to pick themselves up and brushed off a whole slew of bad career choices to forge another path to respectability, however lacking in quality or as fleeting a reappearance that may have been. Michael Keaton has never quite been the box office non-entity of those 1980s counterparts, but his sharp comedic presence and edgy performances have been largely sidelined for some time now.

Instead he’s largely cropped up in smaller comedic supporting roles – like in The Other Guys (2010) or Toy Story 3 (2010) – and has even managed to squeeze out his directorial debut with 2008’s The Merry Gentleman, a film which was meet by zero press attention or audience interest. His stock in Tinseltown seemed to plateau with his two widely popular Batman pictures before making a quiet descent in the latter part of the nineties where, arguably, he was more recognised for cropping up twice as the same character in two separate projects by different directors (Jackie Brown (1997) and the following year’s Out of Sight) than his work in, or outside, of them. Now he’s back with a vengeance, dominating the screen in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s dizzying and audacious Birdman (2014). It’s a role which has already seen him up pick up a Best Actor Award at the Golden Globes and has received both Bafta and Oscar nominations. As a performance, it trades on the jittery energy he carried with him in his earlier comedic roles, combined with a simmering desperation, buried under the kind of hardened weariness that a veteran, seen-it-all actor such as Keaton might possess.

This type of multifarious turn implicitly begs the question, why has he been away from leading man status for so long? Historically, Keaton hasn’t been the kind of actor associated with gossip circles, or as being labelled professionally with the ‘difficult’ tag. His Birdman co-star Edward Norton, by comparison, seems to have been steadily employed for almost two decades now despite his well-publicised creative clashes, particularly a notorious tussle with his American History X (1998) director Tony Kaye. Like his fictitious superhero persona from Birdman, were the seeds of Keaton’s slow career decline sown after playing such an iconic character? It’s easy to forget that comic book adaptations were a rare big screen treat when Keaton first donned the cowl back in 1989.

Far from the current Hollywood landscape with seemingly every A-lister lining up to slip on a mask. The actor’s recent, splendidly-stated admission about that role (“I’m Batman, I’m very secure in that.”) would suggest he doesn’t nurse any lasting resentment if that were the case. Perhaps there’s a simpler explanation for Keaton’s pre-Birdman standing. Having successfully shown range in the past, with more than a couple of meaty, dramatic parts under his belt (check out his impressive performance in Clean and Sober (1988), made the same year as the first Batman) it’s a common reality that sometimes an actor, however well-regarded, is only as strong as the material he or she is working with (Brad Pitt is certainly illustrative of this). Looking at some of the films Keaton has appeared in over the past twenty years, many of which are of the disposable, family fluff kind (creepy Christmas reanimation comedy Jack Frost, Katie Holmes-headlining presidential rom-com First Daughter) there certainly seems to be some truth in this.

Keaton seems to really respond to those roles which offer personality and scope, whether it’s Barbie’s joyfully camp soul mate or the straight- laced police captain, who is given to inadvertently listing the song titles of 90’s female soul band TLC when addressing his team. Coming off the strong critical and audience reception for Birdman, Keaton has a very real chance of waltzing off stage with that golden statuette in March, and on the strength of his work in this film alone, he’ll probably have first dibs on the kind of quality scripts which eluded him in the creative wilderness. He’s always been the kind of actor afforded a fair amount of goodwill from older fans, precisely because they knew he was capable of much more. With any luck, he can step away from playing career snakes and ladders like some of his contemporaries.

Adam Lowes | @adlow76

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