The 10 Best Michael Keaton Movie Performances

5. Clean And Sober (Glenn Gordon, 1988)

Clean and Sober (1988)

“He’s a hotshot Philadelphia real-estate salesman, but by the time the movie opens, there is nothing in his life of any importance, really, but cocaine.” So wrote Roger Ebert summarising Michael Keaton´s lead as Daryl Poynter, an everyday seller suffering from addictions far worse than the sales business. Praising his “wild, tumultous energy”, Ebert tapped into what made Keaton´s performance so riveting, yet so humane.

Years before Ewen McGregor and Leonardo DiCaprio attempted similar performances, Keaton showed a three -dimensional portrayal of a man struggling with his greatest enemy: himself. Maintaining an everyday job with his ever growing dependence to substances, Keaton´s displays the every -day struggles with nuanced gestures a la nervous laughter, fickle eye movement and genuine occasional erratic screaming. It may not be a crowd-pleasing performance, for sure, but it is certainly a memorable one.

“The subject matter was so difficult, but oddly everyone really had fun on the shoot,”Keaton admitted in a 2011 retrospective. “That’s one of the great joys and bonuses of it. You’re forced to ask certain questions.”


4. Beetlejuice (Tim Burton, 1988)


Sublety isn´t necessarily the adjective a person would use to describe Keaton´s powerhouse performance here, but neither is it an adjective much desired either. As the eponymous character, Keaton throws every crazy motion into his set, including a penchant for gloriously dark, sardonic humour; “I´ve seen the exorcist 167 times and it keeps getting funnier each time I see it”. His first collaboration with stylist Tim Burton, Keaton completely changes his image, immersing himself in the style of a vagabond.

He´s seen it all, lived through it all and displays the world with such ironic throwaways Beckett himself would give two thumbs up to. “I’m a graduate of the Harvard business school. I travel quite extensively. I lived through the Black Plague and had a pretty good time during that. I’ve seen the EXORCIST ABOUT A HUNDRED AND SIXTY-SEVEN TIMES, AND IT KEEPS GETTING FUNNIER EVERY SINGLE TIME I SEE IT… NOT TO MENTION THE FACT THAT YOU’RE TALKING TO A DEAD GUY… NOW WHAT DO YOU THINK? You think I’m qualified?”

One of the more iconic performances of the eighties, Keaton´s manic portrayal cast doubt whether he could convincingly play Batman afterwards. It is to Keaton´s credit that his next performance would be the very opposite of what Betelgeuse was.


3. Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015)

spotlight film

This performance may be a little too recent to judge objectively (who knows what people in twenty years will think of it), but it´s certainly a very strong one. If ´Birdman´ restored Keaton´s gravitas as a serious contender, ´Spotlight´ displays how much depth he manages to bring to an ensemble performance. Mark Ruffalo may have been courtesied with an Oscar nomination, but Keaton has the meatier role.

The effusive Walter V.Robinson is given a spark of light in this drama, as his colleagues and society come to accept the comotosal situation they find themselves in, Robinson iterates “I wanna keep digging.”, before echoing one of the most powerful retorts in film history; “We got two stories here: a story about degenerate clergy, and a story about a bunch of lawyers turning child abuse into a cottage industry. Which story do you want us to write? Because we’re writing one of them.”

Keaton´s methodological approach is a testament to the ongoing work and pressure journalists face on a daily basis, knowledgeable enough as an actor to allow Ruffalo and Stanley Tucci take some of the showier and eloquent moments in the film.

But subtlety has its benefits, Keaton´s presence is strong enough to be felt, and he gives the film an anchor to centre one of the sparkier Academy Award winning films of recent times.


2. Batman (Tim Burton, 1989)


Fans constantly argue over who is better: Michael Keaton or Christian Bale (neither Val Kilmer nor George Clooney seemed to make much of an impact). Bale´s Bruce Wayne persona may be the more psychologically complete, but his Batman simply lacked the menace and staunchness that Keaton brought to the character; ultimately, the antics of the Caped Crusader is what places bums on seats, not the dealings of a Playboy millionaire (though to Bale´s credit, ´The Dark Knight´(2008) still remains the strongest Batman film to date).

While director Tim Burton foolishly under-used his star in his sub-par sequel, ´Batman´(1989) showed the veracity of its stars´ qualities. Staunch, almost silent, his outward appearance is a perfect foil to Jack Nicholson´s loquacious Joker. A killer smile attached to his suit, Keaton´s Batman seems subdued,stoic even.

The first actor to give Batman a different voice from his alter ego, Keaton´s Batman voice sticks to grit and depth, avoiding the hilarity Bale unintentionally provided to millions of computer geeks. Neither does he fail as the everyday playboy Bruce Wayne, foppish to the public, serene to Vick Vale (Kim Basinger), moribund only in his darkest moments.

A testament to Keaton`s performance as an actor comes when he places a red rose down the alley where his parents were killed is subtly and wordlessly displayed.

His silence gives the so called dark knight the credence to continue his actions, making for one of the more alarming incarnations of the caped crusader, paving the way for all four of his successors. Perhaps Ben Affleck will prove otherwise, but for now Keaton remains the most enthralling Batman.


1. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014)

Edward Norton - Birdman

Has there ever been a comeback performance as strong as this? It´s hard to think of any comeback performance, save perhaps Marlon Brando´s turn in ´The Godfather´, that showed half the humility, placidity, versatility or egocentricity in one of their later performances, one that could easily define their entire career. Eddie Redmayne may have won the Oscar, but its hard not to side with Keaton on this; not only was his performance more original than Redmayne´s , it was also arguably the more cerebral.

Echoing insanity, profanity, inner solemnity and jealousy at a job only seconds away from disaster, Keaton plays the de rigeur thespian with a certain poise; whether he´s insane, sane or mundane is never entirely clear. Whatever props should be awarded to Alejandro González Iñárritu and his penchant for intricate camerawork, the film is ultimately Keaton´s.

Younger actors Edward Norton and Emma Stone may have glossier, showier performances, but Keaton´s subdued, stoney -eyed portrayal outshines either. Whether it´s too close to the bone, parodic or artistic brilliance is unsure; Keaton himself thought Iñarritu was openly mocking him on first reading, luckily for the film viewer he quickly recovered to show a performance most actors would never have the courage to deliver.

Keaton´s booming alter ego also waves an affectionate hand at the genre he helped propagate; his subdued ´squak´ another sign of his aged, ragged, forgotten by time. An incredibly courageous performance (chances are Val Kilmer would never dream of undergoing such a self -depreciating performance) , Riggan Thompson is Keaton at his best.

Author Bio: Eoghan Lyng is an Irish man, who studied English and Gaeilge at University College Cork. Currently a TEFL teacher, Lyng spends his spare time thinking and writing about movies when he´s not teaching the Three Conditionals. He can be found on Twitter @eoghanlyng.