It doesn’t matter how successful an actor is, at some point they’re bound to have a slump. It may seem as if Tom Hanks has been on an upward trajectory ever since he made a big splash in Splash way back in 1984. It’s easy to forget that he suffered a brief dry spell with The Burbs, The Bonfire of the Vanities and Joe Versus the Volcano before he got back on track with A League of Their Own. It seems as if Julia Roberts has been “Americas Sweetheart” for as long as some people can remember, but she hit a rough patch between The Pelican Brief and My Best Friends Wedding with films like I Love Trouble and Mary Reilly. Denzel Washington hit a snag in between Training Day and Inside Man and even Harrison Ford had a lukewarm period between Air Force One and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
These actors were blessed to have relatively brief lulls in their otherwise sterling careers and never wanted for employment. Some actors have gone through long stretches of lousy roles mixed with inactivity. Following a disastrous 1962 remake of Mutiny on the Bounty Marlon Brando suffered a ten-year slump before landing his career-defining role as Vito Corleone in The Godfather. All through the eighties and into the early nineties John Travolta was thought to be as obsolete as an 8-track player (an occasional Look Who’s Talking gig not withstanding) until Quentin Tarintino cast him as Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction. Robert Downy, Jr. looked like he was finished by the mid-nineties due as much for his substance abuse and police blotter as his lack of good roles. Alas, he seems to have gotten clean and between Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes his prospects look just fine, at least for the immediate future.
One actor who is currently basking in the glow of a major career comeback is Michael Keaton. Born Michael Douglas and raised in the greater Pittsburg area, he got his start working behind the scenes (and occasionally on camera) at Mister Rogers Neighborhood, which was filmed in Pittsburg. He later headed out west to Hollywood. By the time he arrived in Tensile Town that other Michael Douglas (Kirks son) was already appearing on Streets of San Francisco and the eponymous host of The Mike Douglas Show already taken the name “Mike”. And so he chose Keaton as his new surname. After appearing on episodes of Maud and The Mary Tyler Moore Hour (a variety show, not the sitcom), he landed his first starring gig a sitcom called Working Stiffs. Co-starring James Belushi, the show only ran for nine episodes.
Keaton’s big break came when Ron Howard cast him opposite Henry Winkler in the movie Night Shift. Keaton then got his first big break in the film Mr. Mom, before reuniting with Howard in the comedy Gung Ho. He then received rave reviews for his role as a recovering drug addict in Clean and Sober and enjoyed success as a mental patient in the underappreciated comedy The Dream Team.
In 1988 Tim Burton had cast Keaton as the title character in the offbeat supernatural comedy Beetlejuice. Warner Brothers executives waited until that film was in the can before offering Mr. Burton the big budget event movie Batman. Burton accepted, then raised quite a few eyebrows when he cast Keaton as the title character. While his co-star Jack Nicholson seemed born to play the Joker, Keaton, a man of average height and build and who’s sex appeal was more of the Mick Jagger variety then Robert Redford, hardly seemed like the ideal choice to play Bruce Wayne/Batman. The Internet might have only been in its gestation period at the time but there were no shortage of batfans writing in to Warner Bros. and various fan magazines to voice their displeasure at Keaton’s casting. Yet as Burton saw it, this unconventional casting choice made sense. Why, Burton reasoned, would a guy like Mel Gibson or Harrison Ford (both of whom were considered for the role) have to dress up like a bat? They could just kick someone’s ass. John Peters, the films co-producer, pointed out that after seeing Keaton in Clean and Sober he knew that he was not the kind of guy you want to face in a street fight. Like James Cagney or Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, he was a guy with enough pent-up rage to take on ten men twice his size.
In the end, people liked Keaton’s Batman. The film was a colossal box office hit. He and Burton reunited three years later for Batman Returns. The studio inevitably wanted a third installment but Burton decided he had enough of the Dark Knight. Without his director Keaton also decided to pass, even when Warner’s offered him a staggering $15 million to star in Batman III. It takes a lot of will power to turn down that kind of dough, but Keaton did. One has to wonder if he didn’t come to regret passing up that paycheck since the next two decades were not exactly fruitful. He made a few good films like Kenneth Branaugh’s version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and Quentin Tarintio’s Jackie Brown, and he pretty much ran away with Toy Story 3, providing the voice of a metro sexual Ken doll. He also had to make some absolute dreck to pay the bills, including Multiplicity, Herbie: Fully Loaded and Jack Frost. In the latter film he plays a man who dies and comes back to life as a CGI snowman to help comfort his grieving son. That’s the price of fame in Hollywood.
Some might blame Keaton’s drought on the notion that people who play superheroes are somehow “cursed” to always be identified with them. George Reeves who played Superman on television never got another roll. He later was found dead from a shotgun wound in his Los Angeles home. The death was ruled to be a suicide though many unanswered questions remain (see the movie Hollywoodland with the franchises current Bruce Wayne, Ben Affleck). Christopher Reeve was unforgettable in the Superman movie series. As Richard Donner who directed the first film said, “All we did was give (Reeves) the suit.” Alas, he never was able to shake the image of him as the man of steel, even when he became a real life superhero following his spinal injury after being thrown from a horse. Lynda Carter will always be Wonder Woman and Lou Farigno will always be the Hulk and we’re still waiting for Toby McGuire to find a plum role that doesn’t require a Spider-Man costume. Then again, Hugh Jackman has found roles beyond Wolverine, Christian Bale has done plenty beyond the Dark Knight and we’ve already mentioned that Robert Downy, Jr. has another franchise going.
Typecasting is something that all successful actors have to contend with and frankly there are hundreds of thousands of other out-of-work actors who would kill to be so “cursed”. Another reason for Keaton’s dry spell might have been the very reason why he became so famous in the first place and why he made an effective Batman, his uniqueness. Like it or not, it’s usually the more handsome leading men, like Tom Cruise, or the everyman, like Bruce Willis, that get the most work. A fireball of energy like Keaton can at times seem like a square peg to the guys at Central Casting. Woody Allen originally cast Keaton in The Purple Rose of Cairo as the matinée idol who becomes Mia Farrow’s love interest. Alas, Allen realized early on that Keaton could never pass for a romantic leading man in the 1930’s. He was let go and replaced by Jeff Daniels.
And then in 2012 his twenty-years of typecasting worked to his advantage when he landed the lead role in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), playing an actor who has never been able to find a role that could equal his turn as the eponymous superhero. The film was a hit, won the Oscar for Best Picture and many people think that Keaton should have gotten an Oscar as well. Either way, he immediately landed another plum role in the following years Best Picture winner, Spotlight. Last year Keaton gave one of the best performances of his career playing Ray Kroc in The Founder. Just this week Keaton has been getting high marks for playing the villain in Spider-Man: Homecoming. He’s also slated to play the ringmaster in Disney’s umpteenth live-action re-embalming of one of their animated classics, Dumbo, which will also re-unite him with Tim Burton.
I mentioned that Keaton gave one of his best performances in The Founder. Prior to that a friend of mine asked me what I thought Keaton’s best performance was? Batman obviously came to mind and he was really good in Clean and Sober. I must confess that I was never a big fan of Beetlejuice, though he was quite amusing. I also always found Mr. Mom to be icky. But one early Michael Keaton film that wasn’t a big hit but has a real big place in my heart is the 1984 cult favorite Johnny Dangerously, a spoof on the gangster films of the 1930’s and 40’s.
The film begins in 1935. Well, sort of. The whole film is one big living cartoon filled with anachronistic jokes. When we first meet Keaton as the title character he’s working as the proprietor of a pet shop. A typical 1930’s street urchin comes in and tries to steal a puppy. Alas, an alarm goes off. Turns out Johnny attached an anti-theft tag to the dog’s tail, which set off the alarm. Such things were relatively new in 1984 and they sure as hell didn’t exist in 1935. “Go ahead, call the cops,” the kid yells in a typical Brooklyn accent of the period. “You think you’re pretty tough, eh kid?” Soon Johnny begins to tell the kid where a life of crime will get him. When the screen starts to get blurry and some harp music plays the kid asks what’s going on. “Eh, don’t worry, it’ll end in a couple of minutes,” Johnny assures the boy. “It always does this when I talk about the past.” Yup, it’s that kind of movie.
“Immigrants poured into America from all over the world, looking for a better life for their children,” says Johnny. “And over 97% of them settled in a two block area of New York City.” We meet young Johnny (Byron Thames), who was then called Johnny Kelly, a resourceful youngster making a living by selling papers on the street. Unfortunately he has a rival named Danny Vermin (Greg Olden), a nasty fellow who cuts the leash of a seeing-eye-dog, causing his blind owner to walk right out into traffic. He and Johnny get into a scuffle. It catches the eye of a gangster named Jocko Dundee (the late, great Peter Boyle). Seeing that Johnny has plenty of moxie, he tells him that if he’d like to make a fifty he should stop by the Club Maronie that evening. The offer suddenly seems enticing when he goes home and catches the doctor paying his mother a house call. She’s gonna need an operation, $49.95 (this week only).
We meet his mother (Maureen Stapleton, who just a couple of years earlier won an Oscar for the film Reds), a stereotypically loving Irish mother. It happens to be her birthday. “How does it feel to be twenty-nine?” he asks. “It’ll be a miracle if I see thirty,” she answers. We also see his younger brother Tommy, a wide-eyed little scamp who reads law books and colors in pictures of Oliver Wendell Holmes. “You’re father always did want you to be a lawyer,” Ma says, looking at a picture of her late husband dressed in prison stripes and strapped into an electric chair. “God knows he could have used one.” With a sick mom and a kid brother with a future. Johnny has no other choice. He decides to take Mr. Dundee up on his offer.
Jocko Dundee arrives at the nightclub/casino, run by Dundee’s archrival, Roman Maronie (Richard Dimitri), a hot-tempered Italian immigrant with a horrendous grasp on the English language (“You fugging iceholes!” “You cork suckars!”) Johnny arrives soon after, smuggling a pistol in a newspaper for Dundee. What ensues is a crazy slapstick fight where Johnny manages to take on Maronie’s henchmen and save Dundee’s life. “From now on you’re my boy.” When Dundee asks his name he answers “Johnny. Johnny Dangerously.” Flashing back to the present, the adult Johnny tells his young friend “Boy, I should never have picked that name.”
The story progresses and Johnny grows up “you’re typical poverty-stricken teenager.” We then see Johnny entertaining a young girl by doing the Charleston. But this being a mid-1980’s comedy, Johnny starts to breakdance, culminating in a wicked windmill. Another great Reagan era gag has a black guy walking down the street carrying a cathedral radio on his shoulder like a boom box.
Alas, Ma Kelly continues to need pricey medical care, and so Johnny joins the Dundee gang full-time. Back in the old neighborhood Johnny becomes a hero. Everyone in the neighborhood knows him as a gangster. Everyone that is except for Ma and Tommy.
And things aren’t great between them either. Tommy announces that he’s going to drop out of law school to get married. Why can’t Tommy wait until after he graduates?
Tommy: I can’t say it in front of Ma.
Ma: I know why. You want to get laid.
Oh yes, it’s that type of movie.
Later Tommy shows up at Johnny’s penthouse where he has a bevy of scantily clad molls hanging around him. Ah, but Johnny’s here to set Tommy straight. He takes him into the bedroom and shows him…a film. Not a stag film but rather a medical film appropriately titled Your Testicles and You. If you ever wondered what it would have been like if Max Fleischer made an animated sex-ed film then here’s your chance.
Things continue to hurdle forward. Johnny meets a singer named Lil Sheridan, played by the radiant redhead Merilu Henner from Taxi (much as I loved that show I must say that if a woman that beautiful were driving a taxi cab overnight in New York in the seventies she’s de a statistic before the end of her first shift). At first they engage in a bit of Howard Hawksian banter, with Lil pretending she doesn’t like Johnny. Needless to say, they become an item.
Johnny also find himself with a rival when a Danny Vermin, the kid he used to knock heads with in the old neighborhood.
Danny: I’ve fulfilled a lot of people’s predictions about me. I’ve become a real scumbag.
Johnny: Good for you Danny. A lot of people go their whole lives without finding out what they want to be.
The grown up Danny is played by Joe Piscopo, the New Jersey native who joined the cast of Saturday Night Live during the 1980-1981 season, generally considered to be the franchises nadir. He was one of only two cast members to return the following fall. The other was Eddie Murphy. Essentially, from 1981 to 1984 SNL was The Eddie Murphy Show, yet Piscopo gained a fair amount of attention for his impersonations of Andy Rooney, Ted Koppel and especially Frank Sinatra. As one writer put it, “Eddie’s success went to Joe’s head.” Sadly he would never cross the Rubicon that many SNL alumni have and achieve movie stardom. Still, he’s damned funny in this film. One of the films best running gags involves Danny’s fairly idle threats. When Johnny hangs him on a hook Danny tells him “you shouldn’t hang me on a hook. My father hung me on a hook once. Once!”
When Tommy finally graduates from law school he informs his big brother that instead of starting up a law practice he’s decided to join the D.A.’s office and fight crime. Fortunately the D.A. (Danny DeVito, another Taxi alum) is on the payroll. One of the cleverest scenes has Tommy showing up at the D.A.’s mansion with evidence to put Johnny Dangerously (who he doesn’t suspect is actually his brother) behind bars. That’s when the D.A. makes a proposition to Tommy. His dinning room suddenly becomes the set of a game show with tons of fabulous prizes! “And all of this can be yours if you’re willing to Play Ball!”
I guess by now you know that Johnny Dangerously is basically one big Helzapoppin’ style gagfest. Indeed, it could earn the title of being the best movie Mel Brooks never made. Director Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, National Lampoon’s European Vacation, Clueless) must have studied every gangster film that Warner Brothers ever put out. Michael Keaton’s model for the title character was clearly James Cagney, one of my personal favorite actors of all time. Lots of people have done impressions of Cagney over the years. Before playing The Riddler on the Batman TV series Frank Gorshin was best known as a Rich Little-like impressionist, Cagney being his specialty. Yet Keaton doesn’t imitate Cagney. He instead captures the actors swagger while creating a personality all his own.
Two people who must get a special shout-out are the film’s production designer, Joseph R. Jenning’s. He creates a sort of exaggerated art deco that seems like it would be right at home in a film of the era but at the same time is just funny to look at. Another is “Weird Al” Yankovick. Best known for his parodies of Top 40 hits, Yankovick has written his share of original songs and for this film he wrote a delightful gem called “This is the Life” (see the music video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N1n5XqwUkYw). For legal reasons it was not available on the original VHS release but thankfully it’s been re-instated for the DVD.
Once when I described Johnny Dangerously to someone they said that they didn’t think this movie would fly today (it barely took off in 1984, commercially speaking) because while people know The Godfather, Goodfellas and The Sopranos no one under a certain age has ever seen a gangster film with Cagney or Edward G. Robinson. Perhaps though when I first saw the movie I was not yet all that familiar with the depression era cops and robbers films. I was also unfamiliar with the “disaster” epics of the seventies (which I’m still not that big a fan of) yet I thought Airplane! was a riot. And of course what makes some people laugh isn’t going to work on everyone. I thought The Hangover was just okay, I hated Bridesmaids and Bad Moms and I think both the British and American versions of The Office are unwatchable, even though I like many of the actors from both versions (also, Amy Heckerling has directed some episodes of the American version). Still, Johnny Dangerously is my kind of comedy and if you like your jokes to be post modern and flying at you like bullets from a tommy gun then it’s probably yours too.