The Top Ten Michael Keaton Performances

P.t. Philben ‘16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

10. Ray Nicolette – Jackie Brown (1997)

Michael Bowen and Michael Keaton in Jackie Brown. Photo Credit: Miramax Films.
Michael Bowen and Michael Keaton in Jackie Brown. Photo Credit: Miramax Films.

“I sure hope you didn’t do anything stupid Jackie”

Quentin Tarantino has had a history of casting forgotten stars in amazing roles. In this adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel Rum Punch Keaton (who had not been in a real hit since 1992’s Batman Returns) is that comeback player. He portrays ATF agent Ray Nicolette. Simultaneously a good cop and a bad cop in the interrogation room, he matches the headliner Pam Grier beat for beat. Keaton makes the most of his limited screen time in this Tarantino film and leaves a lasting impression. He reprised the character briefly in the Steven Soderbergh film Out of Sight, which is also based on an Elmore Leonard novel.

9. Bill “Blaze” Blazejowski – Night Shift (1982)

night shift

“I’m an idea man Chuck, I get ideas all day long. I can’t control them. I can’t even fight ‘em”

In this Ron Howard comedy (that is very much of 80s) Happy Days’ Henry Winkler plays a formerly successful stockbroker who goes to work at the morgue. This job goes downhill when he is made to take the night shift, and gets worse when he meets Bill “Blaze” Blazejowski (Keaton). Blaze is energetic and irrationally enthusiastic and, through a series of odd events, the pair wind up turning the basically inanimate night time morgue into a successful brothel. Keaton steals every scene he is in and makes the more popular Winkler, who was still playing Fonzie at the time, look like the supporting character to Keaton’s lead.

8. Daryl Poynter – Clean and Sober (1988)


“Thank you. And thanks for my chip. And thanks for not smoking.”

This very heavy dramatic role was considered very out of left field for Keaton, who was known almost exclusively for his comedic work at the time. It is always easy to give actors credit for playing against type, but even though the film itself is not great Keaton definitely earned it in this case. Daryl is a drug addict who decides to go into rehab. He primarily does so however to avoid legal consequences. While in the clinic he engages in a variety of underhanded activities. He cons people out of their money and puts the moves in on his fellow patients. There is also a heart breaking phone call to his parents in which he begs for his inheritance. It takes a long time for this character to become overtly sympathetic, but Keaton’s performance always reminds us that Daryl is a human being with faults. He of course ultimately discovers that being in rehab is exactly what he needed to get his act together. The movie is formulaic and only worth watching for the acting. Keaton gives a performance that is a must see for any fan of his since it was a turning point in his career; when he made it clear that he was not what Hollywood perceived him to be.

7. Henry Hacket – The Paper (1994)


New York Sentinel: “Well, I hope you’re satisfied, asshole! You just blew your chance to cover the world!”
Henry:  “Really? Well guess f**king what? I don’t really f**king care. You wanna know f**king why? Because I don’t fucking live in the f**king world! I live in f**king New York City! So go f**k yourself!”

This role is especially Keaton-y. Henry Hacket is the loud and foul mouthed editor of a fictional New York tabloid. He is a workaholic who loves his job but the stress and unsatisfactory pay are starting to wear him down. The tabloid discovers a police cover up which results in chaos for the professional and personal lives of everyone involved. Ron Howard has had many collaborations with Keaton, and this is perhaps the best of their collaborations. Henry is full of witty quips, moments of New Yawk rants, and plays off the rest of the ensemble very well. One of the better examples of Keaton’s genius with straight comedies.

6. Carter Hayes – Pacific Heights (1990)


“You’re a brave and stupid man.”

In this 90s thriller, Keaton portrays a psychopathic con man who tortures a young couple that rent out a spare rooms to him. It’s hard to believe after the horror parody of Beetlejuice and his long winded legacy as a comedic actor that this man is capable of being genuinely scary. In this film he plays a tenant from Hell and he has a ball with it. It has some cheesy 80s moments, but Keaton keeps the film exciting. He ranges from slyly sinister to outrageously monstrous. Its almost hard to believe after watching it that he wasn’t afterwards typecast as a psychopath since he is perfect for this role. He uses his appearance as an everyman to sell himself as harmless only to turn to emphasis his more distinct features to bring character to this San Francisco maniac. The tension is extreme enough to cut with a butter knife whenever he is on screen.

5. Robert Wiener – Live From Bagdad (2002)


“F**k Berlin. The wall’s down. Baghdad is me, Eason.”

This HBO film takes place in Baghdad, Iraq during the height of the Persian Gulf War . The  story is adapted from the book of the same name by Robert Wiener, who recounted his experiences of covering the events as an on-location CNN reporter. Keaton portrays Wiener in one of his best performances, one that yielded him his first Golden Globe nomination. He plays Wiener as a brave and resourceful reporter who is determined to fulfill his journalistic duties to great effect. The passion for journalism is largely what makes the movie so good. The film has action packed excitement, political intrigue, great humor, tear jerking moments and a little bit of romantic chemistry with co-star Helena Bonham Carter. Keaton’s work helps this film deliver in the heavier moments and give what could have been a preachy HBO movie its much needed humanity. He is carries the character with compelling believability in the most insane moments of the film. A lot of the “facts” portrayed in the film are considered to be in dispute, but what is not in dispute is that Keaton’s performance as the respected journalist delivered in every way.

4. Bruce Wayne/Batman – Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992)

Michael Keaton in Batman. Photo Credit: Warner Bros.
Michael Keaton in Batman. Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

“I’m Batman.”

Michael Keaton is Batman. Michael Keaton will probably always be Batman. After collaborating with Keaton once Tim Burton knew who he wanted to headline his long awaited Batman adaptation. Burton’s take on the story owed much more to the darker incarnations of the narrative than previous screen installments and the casting of this film was very specific and utterly perfect, from Nicholson’s Joker to Keaton’s Bruce Wayne. One of the most significant differences between this version of the caped crusaders story and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is that Burton’s film takes much less interest in Batman’s origins. We see the well known shooting of Wayne’s parents, but that’s about it. After that we are thrown into the action featuring an already experienced crime fighter. We don’t get to see everything that has shaped this Bruce Wayne, and Keaton has to carry the burden of a mysterious backstory. Keaton’s understated and riveting portrayal of Wayne gave the audience everything they need to know about the man behind the mask. Through two of the finest films in the superhero genre Batman is a man shrouded in mystery, and complexity on top of a troubled past. Keaton brings this this character from what could’ve been a merely symbolic figure into the realm of sympathetic and relatable despite seeing very little of how he became who he is. Many actors have portrayed the character and many have done it well. However, to many, there is a one and only Batman.

3. Frank Logan – The Merry Gentleman (2008)

Michael Keaton in The Merry Gentleman. Photo Credit: Samuel Goldwyn Films.
Michael Keaton in The Merry Gentleman. Photo Credit: Samuel Goldwyn Films.

“I found a girl under a christmas tree.”

Keaton took the reigns from director Ron Lazzeretti after Lazzeretti fell ill, and so The Merry Gentlemen became Keaton’s directorial debut. In the film he play Frank Logan, a semi-retired hitman with a lingering illness who seems to suffer from severe depression. Before you start to imagine the film in your head, you should know that it is a romantic drama. He stars alongside Kelly MacDonald who portrays Kate; a young woman who has recently fled an abusive husband. He finds her under a large christmas tree she was trying to carry. They start to develop romantic feelings toward one another that is complicated by the secretive behavior on both sides, Logan’s backstory obviously obviously being more complicating. The film has an unusually complicated plot for a romantic film but ultimately it is the relationship between our emotionally bewildered leads who teach us that true affection comes not from similarity, but understanding. Keaton’s performance as the jaded assassin is realistic, reserved and intelligent to its core. It is clear in the films direction and his performance that this was a character he cared about and the spirit shines through.

2. Beetlejuice – Beetlejuice (1988)

Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice. Photo Credit: Tribeca Film Festival.

“It’s showtime!!”

Perhaps his most identifiable role besides maybe Batman and easily his most distinct, many would consider Keaton’s role as mischievous freelance “bio-exorcist” ghost Beetlejuice to be career-defining. In a time before Tim Burton’s movies became self parody, he cast Keaton as in this classic horror-comedy. The film follows a dead couple who, as ghosts, attempt to scare a family away from buying their house so that they can occupy it in piece. They fail to do so. In desperation and against the advice of ghosts they know; they hire Beetlejuice; a professional in freaking people out with his haunting. Beetlejuice is egotistical, morbid, eccentric, extremely foul mouthed, excessively raunchy and about as rude and offensive as they come. It is hard to define Beetlejuice since most comparisons that can be made is “this character is like Beetlejuice”. Beetlejuice has a bit of a sleazy comedian demeanor but he is so much more than that as a character. Keaton brings over the top to a whole new level with this performance, and somehow it works. This film is considered a classic, but it is certainly not for ensemble. When you get right down to it people love to watch this movie almost exclusively for what Keaton brings to the table. The fact that an actor almost singlehandedly carried a film to achieve classic status is worthy of praise and appreciation that Keaton did not get for this film until years later. It is arguably one of the funniest performances ever put to the screen, which is a legacy that is safe to say will last since it has lasted this long.

1. Riggan Thomson – Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

Michael Keaton and Emma Stone in Birdman. Photo Credit: Alison Rosa/Twentieth Century Fox.
Michael Keaton and Emma Stone in Birdman. Photo Credit: Alison Rosa/Twentieth Century Fox.

“Let’s make a comeback!”

Playing yourself has never felt so good. This film is a masterpiece in every capacity of filmmaking and stands out in a big way as an artistic work. This is aided very heavily by Keaton’s performance. He portrays Riggan Thomson, a washed up actor famous for once playing an iconic superhero in the midst of a comeback attempt to tai respect as an actor instead of an icon. It’s pretty clear that Keaton is the most appropriate man on the planet to play this role, and regardless of how much he identifies with Riggan personally he nails the role. Riggan is ambitiously writing directing and starring in his first Broadway play, and in the midst of the chaos that is going on during the production he has to deal with a young actor in the cast trying to run the show and personal problems with both his ex-wife and daughter, the latter of which works for him. This movie is extremely surreal in the way the story is told but Keaton and the other actors keep it founded by some miracle and Keaton personally gives the best performance of the whole cast. Riggan’s personal journey is a potent, layered odyssey toward a much desired gratification of his place in the world. He wants to be given recognition as an artist and not be seen just as a celebrity. The film covers a large array of subjects and is told in a way that feels like the improvised drum score that accompanies it; perfectly done and off the cuff. The film is very demanding of his actors and everyone delivers. Riggan in a very surprising way does redefine his image and once again proving to be a Keaton biography, Keaton too has shown himself to be something more than the image that he has carried with him all these years. In a comeback for the ages both on screen and off; Riggan Thomson is a fully realized man and the very epitome of a magnum opus.

Show More


  1. This is a really interesting article and us pretty much spot-on in its assessment of Keaton’s career (with the possible exception of the Batman films which time hasn’t been kind to) but overall it’s typical of slap-dash unedited click-thru credit journalism seen online nowadays. A shame. Media is turning into bloggerverse garbage. Typos abound, but who cares as long as you’re getting hits, right..?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button