Michael Keaton on How He Came to Play Batman

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2011 when this screening took place.

One of the double features shown during American Cinematheque’s tribute to Michael Keaton was “Batman” and “Batman Returns.” When the actor was originally cast as Bruce Wayne/Batman, fans objected to it as he was primarily known for his comedic performances in “Mr. Mom,” “Night Shift,” and “Beetlejuice” among others, and they could not see him playing such a traumatized character. Of course, many forgot about his powerhouse performance in “Clean & Sober” which won him a Best Actor award from the National Board of Review. In retrospect, his portrayal of Batman is still the best in the movie franchise, and Christian Bale’s portrayal is a very close second.

While talking with Geoff Boucher at the Aero Theatre, Keaton said it was “Beetlejuice” director Tim Burton who wanted him to play Bruce Wayne and his alter ego of Batman. At that point, Keaton said he did not fully understand the comic book super world. It was through his introduction to Frank Miller’s books that he got some ideas as to how Burton’s vision would reflect Gotham City in a darker way than ever before. Keaton said Bruce Wayne turned out to be the key to getting into the character.

Michael Keaton: The coolest thing from the get-go is that he doesn’t have superpowers, there are no magical things. He is a hero of intuition and inventiveness and discipline. I always knew the way in was Bruce Wayne. It wasn’t Batman. It was never Batman. That was the key. The only reason to do it, really, was to come at all of this from this guy’s point of view.

When Keaton and Burton made “Batman” back in 1988-89, Keaton said there was nothing else like it before, and that there was no example for either of them to follow. Unlike the television series from the 1960’s, this was not going to be full of campy humor. The fact that “Batman” became such a landmark film in Hollywood history is something Keaton owes to Burton.

Michael Keaton: What Tim accomplished changed everything. It was hard. It was harder on Tim than anyone and he changed the way people look at those movies. That really is the case and the reason for that is the originality of Tim and the people Tim put together. Anton Furst was off the chart, Danny Elfman was perfect, bringing in Prince and Nicholson, all of it was just so right and so huge. The promotion of the movie was genius too. The look of the movie was a turning point too; you still see that around in different versions.

When it came time to start making “Batman Forever,” Warner Brothers wanted to take the franchise in a different direction. The executives wondered if everything really had to be so depressing, and Keaton said when he realized they were going to lighten things up, he dropped out along with Tim Burton. We all know what happened after they left, and no real explanation is needed here.

Keaton said he never really got around to seeing “Batman Forever” and “Batman & Robin,” but he said he did see most of “the one that starred Heath Ledger” (“The Dark Knight“). In describing Ledger’s performance as The Joker, he called it “crazy great,” and that the tone of the film is what he wanted the third one to be like. But by then the whole thing had become a big machine which was going to go on with or without him. Had he been in “Batman Forever,” Keaton is convinced he would have been horrible because he would not have been able to give the studio what they wanted. The sad thing is, he is probably right.

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