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Quendrith Johnson

Quendrith Johnson is Los Angeles Correspondent covering everything happening in film in Hollywood... Well, the most interesting things, anyway.
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How Michael Keaton Went From Merchant of Menace to “Soaring Above Them” in Birdman

by Quendrith Johnson, Los Angeles Correspondent


Some actors find themselves between jobs, Michael Keaton found himself between careers. 

Now Oscar-nominated for Birdman (Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), the veteran actor had some “This Is Your Life” moments last night when he received the Modern Master Award from the 30th International Film Festival in Santa Barbara (SBIFF). 

“Let’s call it a Renaissance,” intoned Leonard Maltin, who played host at the tribute. Maltin being Maestro of All Things Movies meant it in the French sense of the word, a rebirth.

Because 63-year-old Keaton has not made a cliche “comeback” or a big screen “return,” he has literally been reborn. The transformation has been phoenix-like, to use a bird metaphor, out of the ashes of a dozen different careers in the movies from literally four decades.

Maltin recalls “when you burst through the door” in Night Shift, which confirmed the young actor as a comedic virtuoso. “Birdman is just a reaffirmation of Michael Keaton’s enormous talent.”

Andie MacDowell, who starred with him in Multiplicity, written by Animal House screenwriter Chris Miller and directed by the late great Harold Ramis, introduces Michael as “not like his character” in Birdman. “Ironically he is a loving father, who has raised his son.”

So how did this 80’s icon go from Clean and Sober to what he calls “the man in the rubber suit” in the first Batman reboot from Tim Burton to the scene-stealer in The Other Guys to a raw, naked, soul-dive in Birdman?


“Employment was the goal,” Keaton jokes. “I just wanted to go out of the world saying I didn’t waste it. I didn’t leave it on the field.”

Zach Galifianakis, who plays Jake in Birdman, was first up on a round of tributes on screen from co-stars.

“When I tell people I’m doing a movie with Michael Keaton,” Galifianakis said, “the reaction is ‘Oh I love that guy.’ And then they can’t decide which is their favorite Michael Keaton movie.”

The Pennsylvania native admits to being “tortured by my brothers,” but that they proved a “built-in audience.”

Later it will come up that his real name is Michael (John)(David) Douglas, but SAG restrictions had already granted the then-more-known Michael Douglas with that name. “Which isn’t his real name,” Keaton laughs, "Kirk’s name is something Russian, which I can’t pronounce.”

Out of the blue, actually out of an iPhone, long-time pal Jeff Bridges appears by handheld to say “Greetings from one of your admirers.”

Bridges is filming in New York. “You are so damn splendid in Birdman,” he gushes across the digital interface.

“I know you’re gonna win this one,” Bridges hints, meaning the Best Actor Oscar race.

“I love Jeff,” Keaton shoots back after the iPhone footage fades. He is one of those actors “who are genetically designed not to be bad” in a film.

Naomi Watts, also checking in from another location, will say “I think every actor standing around him and with him is impressed that he goes there.”

Also from Birdman, the very gifted Andrea Riseborough will reveal “He almost allows himself to become unhinged at times.”

The general sentiment from most actors will match Leonard Maltin’s assessment: “He navigates through drama and comedy in a way I have never seen.”

Consider Beetlejuice, the beloved 1988 Tim Burton ghost-themed quirky classic which starred Geena Davis and launched a 17-year-old named Winona Ryder, where Michael’s character is a merchant of menace from the afterlife.

“Hi Michael, it’s your old friend Noni,” Ryder says, using her insider nickname. “I’m in Sundance. I wanted to say congratulations on this award… every award (and nomination), so richly deserved. Every Michael Keaton movie is a gift to us.”

As for the movie they made together, Keaton snaps back to Beetlejuice energy for a sec, in an eerie actor trick that gives you chills.

“Tim said ‘Hey, go over there. I’m going to make your head spin, literally!”

“At home, by myself, I just said ‘I want to go nuts.” Beetlejuice is “not like kind of where you go ‘My character  won’t do this.’ He is actually kind of dangerous.”

Amy Ryan from Birdman points to his softer side. “Michael is such an incredible transformative actor.”

Not long after her bid for Softer, Gentler Michael, clips from his turns in One Good Cop where he goes ballistic in an elevator with three guys, and Pacific Heights, where he lives and breathes as a tenant/psycho who tortures Melanie Griffith show the dark scary side.

Maltin takes a polite breath and segues into, “you can check that box, Psycho.”

Keaton, ever the fallback guy to his days as a stand-up comedian, doesn’t miss a beat. 

He refers to the clip from Pacific Heights where he chases Melanie Griffith, tackles her, then pins her with a nail gun to her forehead.

“Melanie, as far as that scene goes, she deserved it.”

Which segues to Keaton’s comedic resurgence in Adam McKay’s The Other Guys from 2010, with Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg, where he showed the current generation’s best in the business of laughs how it is done.

“I hadn’t done comedy for a while, and these guys were throwing 98 mile an hour fastballs,” Keaton admits. “I think Will makes me laugh more than anyone else.”

Next Robert Duvall appears via video tribute. An elder statesman of Hollywood, he is also Oscar-nominated for The Judge. Luckily for Keaton, they are not head-to-head, as Duvall is in the Supporting category.

“You’re a special guy,” Duvall begins, “a special talent.”

“You and I listened and talked and talked and listened. Which I think is the essence of acting, to bring ink to behavior.”

“He’s something,” Keaton says afterward. Working with Duvall “is like going to school.”

Ed Norton, Emma Stone also give their heartfelt congratulations, in what looks like a shoo-in acknowledgment of the Best Actor Oscar he has yet to win on Feb. 22.

Finally, the man responsible, a kind of modern master himself, director Alejandro González Iñárritu weighs in with “Mr. Michael, you thought you got rid of me, you were wrong.”

The next three minutes sounds like the ravings of a mad man as Iñárritu builds to a volcanic pitch of praise tinged with “you have to know very well how to touch people’s souls” to “soaring above them in Birdman” with crescendo, “I Love You.”

Just as the emotional exhaustion visibly sets in for a very moved Keaton, Roger Durling, Festival Director who personifies cinema chic, will reveal that the Modern Master Award is renamed “The Maltin Modern Master Award,” for “our good friend Leonard Maltin.”

The glances go back and forth, Maltin, Keaton, Durling, Keaton, Durling… DeVito? Yes, that is Danny DeVito who skulks out of the shadows like he is not sure he should go on stage even though he is Surprise Presenter of “the First Maltin Modern Master Award,” as he will soon half-shout to the room.

Keaton does a Beetlejuice double-take, “Danny?!”

“Yeah,” DeVito says, then runs over to shake Leonard’s hand.

This is almost too good to be true, a spontaneous and authentic Hollywood lovefest.

As Michael Keaton hoists the newly named Maltin award, there’s a glint off the burnished gilt finish…

That flash of gold looks like a definite Oscar foreshadow.

Either way, nobody cares almost, this lovefest recognizing 33 years of screen time will roll on past February.

Whether he shows up next in Kong reboot Skull Island or any other project, Michael John David Douglas, a/k/a, Michael Keaton on the SAG card and in our moviegoer DNA, has just had one of the nights of his life.


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