Michael Keaton is well-loved. A man who has done genres from salacious comedy to psycho-thriller, he’s scored admiration from co-stars and directors alike in his career, which began in 1968 when he operated “Picture, Picture” for Mister Rogers. But the fact that Keaton is well-loved was perhaps never as overwhelmingly apparent as it was last Saturday, Jan. 31 during his Maltin Modern Master tribute ceremony for his work in “Birdman.” Between Jeff Bridges’ video message, Danny Devito’s surprise entrance and SBIFF Executive Director Roger Durling’s tearful speech, the love was overwhelming.
It started off with a speech from film critic Leonard Maltin, who moderated the evening. Instead of the proverbial praising of Keaton for all that he has done, Maltin opted for a flashback. “I remember sitting in the theater in Manhattan on Broadway with my wife in 1982 … and watching a movie called ‘Night Shift,’” he said. “Onto the screen burst this extraordinary comedic performer.”
Maltin continued by focusing not on the Birdman-Batman dichotomy that so many film critics have fallen for, but instead insisting that “Birdman is just a reaffirmation of Michael Keaton’s enormous talent.”
“Birdman as a reaffirmation of his talent” was a theme that continued throughout the night, a direct response to all the press Keaton is getting for his absence in Hollywood. “Birdman” stars Keaton as a washed-up actor famous for being a superhero, who attempts to restore his craft through theater. So it’s pretty easy to compare Keaton’s own life to that of his character — actor famous for being a superhero disappears until this movie. Perhaps Keaton’s personal life was part of director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s impetus for placing him as Riggan Thomson.
More likely though is that Keaton’s reputation as a versatile actor contributed to him getting this role, one that has landed him the Golden Globe for Best Actor in Motion Picture Musical or Comedy, as well as a contender for the Oscar. Whatever the reason, the fact that Keaton is a man of many roles was spelled out time and time again during his tribute at the Arlington.
“Hi Michael, it’s your old friend Noni … I think this [award is] kind of great because it is for your body of work,” said Winona Ryder, in her video message that kicked off “Beetlejuice” clips. She stood in the snow at Sundance, clearly freezing in a hooded coat as she voiced her excitement for Keaton. “The thing about you is that I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen people cannot decide what their favorite Michael Keaton movie is … because you create such extraordinary characters.”
Judging from his expressiveness when talking about his career, it seemed like one of Keaton’s favorites to work on was definitely “Beetlejuice.” The actor lit up while talking about Tim Burton. “Tim. He’s unique,” he said, as the crowd laughed. “It’s not a word you can apply to many people … He had this thing, but he couldn’t quite [describe it yet]. He wasn’t there yet.” Keaton mentioned that he almost didn’t do the movie because the visionary eccentric Burton wasn’t describing anything he could understand.
But a great thing about working with Burton [apart from directors like, say, Tarantino] was that he did not monopolize his directing status, and allowed Keaton to be part of the creative process. “[Tim told me that] maybe [Betelgeuse] lives under rocks — so I got the idea of mold. That’s where the mold came from.”
In 1989, Keaton got to work with Burton again for “Batman” and he developed the rough voice that the superhero became so iconic for. He was, in fact, the very first Batman that gave Bruce Wayne a different voice in the suit.
“I’d move from Bruce Wayne to Batman, [and thought] he had to transcend. I worked out this whole bullshit actor-y thing. I thought, ‘I gotta have something that makes me believe I don’t walk out on the street in this big rubbery suit and people think — hey Bruce Wayne is out again.’ So I did the voice. And we just used it. Every time I was Batman I altered my voice.”
That bullshit actor-y thing became the basis for Keaton’s Birdman voice. “[For “Birdman”], the voice got crazier, with more incarnations of it. And then it grew from that.”
The voice is just one of the aesthetic elements of “Birdman,” a drums-steered movie where the camera never stops rolling. “It was a risky gig, for all of us. But what are we here for? We are here for a millisecond,” said Keaton. “For me courage is the ultimate. That’s it. You gotta have guts.”
Michael Keaton’s guts were displayed well and true in “Birdman,” but the thing that made this particular evening so special was the enormous affection showered onto him by colleagues. And no video message, not even Robert Duval or Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s, could top the emotion of SBIFF Artistic Director Roger Durling.
“In 2001, Michael would show up to a coffee shop in Summerland and order a double nonfat latte from a barista,” he began. “[He’d] show up on Sundays to my little café to talk to me about movies … On the red carpet when you just drove in on your limo, you turned to people and said ‘Where is mi amigo Roger’ and it just so shows who you are,” Durling’s voice started cracking.
“[You’re] not just one of the greatest actors working today, but you’re full of integrity. You are such a real man, an hombre. I feel crystallized that the 12 years I’ve been working at the film festival, it was all meant for me to be able to honor you tonight. And I mean that from the bottom of my heart.”
Michael Keaton is well-loved. Yes, indeed.