Michael Keaton, who celebrates his 66th birthday on September 5, got his start as a production assistant for a fellow Pittsburgh native, PBS kid-show host Fred Rogers. His film career took off in the 1980s in a series of era-defining popular comedies such as “Mr. Mom” before hitting the jackpot when Tim Burton recruited him as his Caped Crusader in 1989’s“Batman.” Keaton would lose some of his fast-talker mojo when he got mired in family fluff such as “Herbie: Fully Loaded,” “Jack Frost” and “First Daughter.”
But in the past decade or so, he has become quite the esteemed actor. Keaton soared to Academy-Award-nominated anxiety-riddled heights in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Birdman” in 2014. He also stood out as the editor in charge of the Pulitzer-winning journalism team that exposed the Catholic Church’s child sex-abuse scandal in 2015’s Best Picture Oscar victor, “Spotlight.” This unique performer continues to be in demand. In 2019 alone, he will appear in Burton’s live-action “Dumbo,” reprise his voice role as Barbie’s boy-toy Ken in “Toy Story 4” and return as the villainous Vulture in “Spider-Man: Far From Home.” As a salute to Keaton’s staying power, tour our photo gallery above of his 16 greatest movies, ranked worst to best.
16. MULTIPLICITY (1996)
The slapstick comedy that answers the question, “How many Michael Keatons are too many?” Four is definitely a crowd in this high-concept, low-execution romp about a workaholic named Doug who doesn’t have enough hours in a day to oversee his business and be there for his wife (Andie McDowell). He thinks his problems are solved when a doctor suggests that he clone himself. Doug One soon has a Doug Two, and much of the film is spent making sure they are never seen together. But then Doug the copy decides he, too, needs a clone, and the latest version also decides to get a double, too. Too much is made about keeping the faux Dougs from sleeping with the original’s missus. While Keaton obviously is having a ball while assuming four different personalities, not one is funny enough to save this movie.
15. PACIFIC HEIGHTS (1990)
Thrillers that featured human monsters came into vogue in the early ’90s, following the success of Glenn Close as the pick-up from hell in 1987’s “Fatal Attraction.” In 1992, Ray Liotta was the sadistic cop from hell in “Unlawful Entry” and Jennifer Jason Leigh was the warped roommate from hell in “Single White Female.” But Keaton came first as the twisted tenant from hell who torments his yuppie landlords Melanie Griffith and Matthew Modine by not paying the rent and unleashing hordes of cockroaches with hopes of forcing them into foreclosure and buying the place himself. Keaton is suspicious from the get-go, but when Griffith tries to beat him at his own game by blocking his cash flow, the revenge is quite sweet.
14. JOHNNY DANGEROUSLY (1984)
At one point in this stiff of a ‘30s gangster flick spoof, Keaton’s title character introduces himself to Marilu Henner’s showgirl: “The name’s Dangerously. Johnny Dangerously.” She replies, “Did you know your last name is an adverb?” There’s a whiff of desperation about this comedy that fails to take advantage of the likes of Maureen Stapleton and Griffin Dunne. As for Keaton, he jiggles like James Cagney and sneers like Edward G. Robinson but can’t overcome a sophomoric script loaded with bad puns, lame sight gags and dumb humor. Little wonder “The Washington Post” in its review called it “Johnny Two-Note.”
13. CLEAN AND SOBER (1988)
Keaton got serious after a string of successful comedies with this sobering tale of addiction. It’s an all-too-familiar story: A hotshot real-estate guy picks up a lady in a bar, they go on a cocaine binge and he finds her dead in the morning. Soon his life becomes unraveled both personally and professionally, and he decides to go to rehab. Nothing is as simple as that, especially when he falls for a fellow patient (Kathy Baker) who has even worse issues, and he butts heads with Freeman, the guy in charge of the recovery program. The drama follows a well-worn path, but Roger Ebert praised Keaton’s “wild, tumultuous energy, which makes his character seem less like a victim than like an accident causing itself to happen.”
12. GUNG HO (1986)
Keaton is the foreman of a shuttered auto plant in Pennsylvania who convinces the Japanese owners to re-open the factory. They agree, but on one condition: the workers must follow their rules, including no unions and strict efficiency and quality control standards. The Japanese exec in charge (Gedde Wantanabe) must succeed or lose his job. Both men join forces and inspire their employees to meet their quota of cars. Vincent Canby of “The New York Times” had this to say: “It’s more cheerful than funny, and so insistently ungrudging about Americans and Japanese alike that its satire cuts like a wet sponge.” But he had kinder words for the film’s star: “Mr. Keaton can be a most winning con artist. The self-confidence expressed in his springy walk is as comically bogus as the humor in the bad jokes he tells.”
11. SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017)
The comic-book crowd is a picky lot when it comes to casting. That is especially true of Spider-Man supporters, now that Tom Holland has taken over as hero Peter Parker in the second reboot since 2002. Therefore, it says something that many fans feel that Keaton’s Spidey foe Adrian Toomes aka Vulture is among the best villains ever. Part of his allure is that, unlike many baddies who cackle over world domination, he is a blue-collar guy who turns to committing dirty deeds with the aid of a mechanical flying suit to make a living. Keaton says of his character, “Some people see themselves as victims. He sees himself like that. … A lot of ‘Why not me?’, ‘Where’s mine?’’ “Echoes of the star’s “Birdman” role inject a cool meta vibe into the proceedings that provides his Vulture with extra emotional lift-off.
10. THE FOUNDER (2016)
In this intriguing account of how McDonald’s grew into a fast-food chain, Keaton is Ray Kroc, a struggling salesman with big ambition who convinces the affable McDonald brothers (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) to expand their thriving local business into a franchise. He figures out a way to make it profitable and soon buys out his partners. Keaton avoids being simply a McBurglar who co-opts someone else’s bright idea. Instead, he is sharp-eyed opportunist who has the chutzpah to chase someone else’s American Dream.
9. JACKIE BROWN (1997)
Quintin Tarantino’s affectionate tribute to blaxploitation films of the early ’70s, based on Elmore Leonard’s “Rum Punch,” centers on a flight attendant (Pam Grier) for a low-level Mexican airline who makes ends meet by smuggling money for an illegal arms dealer (Samuel L. Jackson). Keaton is fine as Ray Nicolette, an ATF agent on her tail, but he is overshadowed by his showier cast mates. The actor ended up as the same character in one scene of 1998’s “Out of Sight,” starring George Clooney and based on another Leonard book.
8. THE PAPER (1994)
Keaton is Henry Hackett, a dedicated metro editor for a scrappy New York tabloid who is being wooed by a more upscale newspaper. He is under the gun to cut costs by Glenn Close’s penny-pinching managing editor while his reporter wife (Marisa Tomei) is about to have a baby at any minute. Then unconfirmed news breaks and the clock is ticking while the paper attempts to verify the facts. There’s a snap to the dialogue and Keaton nails the rhythms of seasoned journos on a tight deadline such as when he observes,” It’s a Marx Brothers movie every time I step in my office.”
7. TOY STORY 3 (2010)
My theory about Keaton’s role as Ken, the plastic swain of the world’s most famous fashion doll, in Disney’s animated blockbuster sequel? It actually proved to be a career booster for him. There’s something freeing about relying only on your voice to define and a character’s personality, especially one who wears light blue short-shorts, sock-free moccasins, a jaunty ascot and an animal-print shirt open down to there. Little wonder Ken, smug and self-adoring, proved to be a scene stealer and even upstaged his gal pal, Barbie (Jodi Benson). It doesn’t matter if he is vain, craves cheesy disco tunes and likes to hang out in the closet of his Dream House. He is, after all, a living doll.
6. SPOTLIGHT (2015)
Keaton does well in ensembles and had already gained his press credentials by starring in “The Paper.” But it is difficult to deal with the topic of child sexual abuse by the Catholic Church and its ensuing cover-up while turning it into entertainment without feeling exploitative. But Keaton and his co-stars exude sensitivity to the topic at hand as they exemplify “The Boston Globe’s” investigative team’s dedication to the truth – especially when it involved the community where they lived and worshiped.
5. NIGHT SHIFT (1982)
Henry Winkler’s timid Chuck and Keaton’s manic Bill Blazejowski oversee the late shift at a morgue. They decide to turn it into a brothel for extra cash. Naughty comedy ensues as Winkler snags a big-screen hit thanks to his “Happy Days” pal. As a bonus, he also gets the girl (Shelley Long). Keaton’s kinetic energy put him on the path to stardom, thanks to such lines as “I wash my hands and feet of you!” Then there are his crazy ideas that he captures on his tape recorder: ‘What if you mix the mayonnaise in the can, WITH the tunafish? Or… hold it! Chuck! I got it! Take LIVE tuna fish, and FEED ’em mayonnaise! Oh this is great.”
4. MR. MOM (1983)
“My brain is like oatmeal. I yelled at Kenny today for coloring outside the lines! Megan and I are starting to watch the same TV shows, and I’m liking them! I’m losing it.” Ah, the stereotypical power-suited ‘80s, when it was unusual for the man of the house to do laundry while looking after the kids and for the woman of said manor to head out the door for work. That said, both Teri Garr and Keaton are at the top of their comedy game as he loses his job, she gets one and their life goes topsy-turvy. Sexist clichés aside, this is one of Hughes’ smarter scripts. I especially admire the invention of grocery-store coupon poker complete with beer and flirting that Keaton plays with the stay-at-home neighborhood ladies.
3. BATMAN (1989)
You could feel the weight of what was at stake with the launch of this still on-going franchise – there was tie-in merchandise everywhere that summer. But some DC comic-book fans were puzzled by the hiring of a funny guy like Keaton as the disturbed billionaire Bruce Wayne and his brooding superhero alter ego. But somewhere between Jack Nicholson’s campy posing as the leering Joker, Tim Burton’s gothic leanings and Prince’s funked-up pop songs, the actor managed to reach into the depths of this rich man’s soul and give a real performance. He had me when he first spits out these words to a confused Gotham citizen: “I’m Batman.” Keaton reprised his role in 1992’s“Batman Returns,” an even darker rendering with Michelle Pfeiffer as a slinky Catwoman and Danny DeVito as the deformed Penguin.
2. BEETLEJUICE (1988)
Lewd, crude and wonderfully rude. Hiding behind a thick wall of ghoulish makeup and finger-in-light-socket hair, Keaton’s fiendish frantic-ness as the titular otherworldly ghost exorcist cuts through the Caribbean kitsch of Harry Belafonte tunes (the possessed dinner-party pantomime set to “The Banana Boat” is a demented delight) and Halloween theatrics. The plot, such as it is, has deceased newlyweds Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis haunting their old house that has been taken over by a yuppie couple (Catherine O’Hara and Jeffrey Jones) and their goth-girl daughter (Winona Ryder), who summons Beetlegeuse to assist the former occupants.
1. BIRDMAN (2014)
Keaton was nominated for his one and only Oscar for this moving tragi-comedy tour de force, made to look as if it were shot in one movie-length take, as an actor forever burdened by the superhero he played in a movie trilogy. His Riggan Thompson reflects upon life while preparing for a stage production and interacts with lovers, friends and family past and present while being mocked by Birdman as he envisions himself having superpowers. Keaton bravely allows his own Batman past to resonate on screen as his character tumbles into an existential crisis. The downward spiral, including his panic when he is locked out of the theater and must race around Times Square only in his underwear, is enthrallingly sad to witness and utterly human, and more than worthy enough to win a Best Picture Oscar.