Michael Keaton’s Golden Globe win on Monday, three days before the Australian release of his acclaimed film Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), heralded the return of a Hollywood legend.
Keaton, 63, who is widely tipped to receive his first Oscar nod when the nominations are released on Thursday, has been catapulted back into mainstream Hollywood, over a decade after he withdrew from the limelight completely.
Read the Birdman review here
Keaton was a major star in the 1980s and 1990s in films like Night Shift, Mr. Mom, Beetlejuice, The Paper and, most famously, Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns, before retreating from the spotlight with minor and supporting roles for the past 15 years.
His fast-talking style of comedy first saw him find stardom at age 31 as the manic morgue worker Bill Blazejowski in Ron Howard’s 1982 hit Night Shift.
In 1988, Keaton’s Beetlejuice performance earned him cult status and he followed it up the next year with the first of his two dark, lauded Batman films.
What makes his return to fame so interesting is that in the black comedy Birdman he plays Riggan Thompson, a washed-up movie star who attempts to revive his career by mounting an ambitious Broadway production.
Like Keaton, Thompson has also played a superhero, the big-winged ‘Birdman’ who haunts Thompson’s crumbling mind as the play hurtles towards its opening night.
As well as managing the taunting and menacing inner monologue from his fame-hungry alter ego, Thompson must control his chaotic personal life and his unwieldy cast, which includes excellent performances from Emma Stone, Edward Norton and Naomi Watts.
Much of the publicity surrounding Birdman has focused on the parallels between Keaton and the character of a washed-up superhero star.
Indeed, the casting of Keaton is seemingly an inspired marketing strategy that brings an extra layer of meaning to a film that explores our society’s obsession with fame and the desperation to achieve it.
For Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, Keaton was chosen for the full whole kit and caboodle.
Iñárritu, who also directed Amores Perros, Babel and 21 Grams, tells Variety, Keaton “was the right man for all the reasons: he can do comedy, he can do drama, and he has worn a cape”.
However, for Keaton, the Batman/Birdman connection is where the similarities end.
Keaton maintains he hasn’t really been anywhere and he opted out of show business to keep a life of normality.
“I figured early on – maybe I was lucky or it’s just the way I’m built – that this is a fear-based industry, and you’re pretty f***ed if you buy into it,” Keaton says.
Opines Norton: “His life is much bigger than his career.”
In Birdman’s most ambitious sequence, the 63-year old star grandly, gloriously, struts through New York’s Times Square wearing only his underpants.
In moments such as these it’s difficult not to lament his absence from the screen. Even US President Barrack Obama, who is apparently a Beetlejuice fan, asked Keaton “why he didn’t make more movies?”
In an ironic twist of fate, Birdman has launched Keaton back onto the A-list, having just completed the Catholic Church abuse drama Spotlight and with talks of a Beetlejuice sequel in the offing, it seems the mainstream is ready to embrace Keaton’s comeback, whether he likes it or not.
Birdman opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday, January 15.